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David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Tuesday, December 9, 2014  
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By Malcolm Gladwell

Reviewed by Donna Lamberti, UMS-Wright Preparatory School
{Headlines} October 2013

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the world is turned upside down. Weaving together history, psychology, sociology, and economics, Gladwell posits that obstacles are not always disadvantageous and our greatest strengths do not always give us the beneficial results we assume they will. Understanding this, for Gladwell, is the first step towards success, for through that understanding comes the ability to make wiser choices in our personal and professional lives.


Starting with the biblical story of David and Goliath, Gladwell explains that we too often read a situation in our lives wrong to our own and others’ detriment. We assume that the story of the shepherd boy David defeating the giant Philistine Goliath is about overcoming obstacles, and we assume that David was the one at a distinct disadvantage in this fight. According to Gladwell, however, our assumptions are all wrong. David was actually the one who came down to the Valley of Elah with all the advantages on his side, and while we take it for granted that Goliath should have won the battle, Gladwell argues it would have been more of an upset if David had lost. Why? Because David had the upper hand in terms of his faith, his weaponry, his physical health, and his willingness to fight as a projectile warrior rather than as an infantryman in hand-to-hand combat. David’s strategy was totally unexpected, and in his surprise, Goliath was overwhelmed and defeated. 

Gladwell wants us to see the story of David and Goliath, as well as the stories all around us with new eyes, eyes that look for the liabilities among our assets and the assets among what we assume are our liabilities. Can a group of twelve-year-old girls with little talent for the game of basketball and a coach with no knowledge of the game find a way to play to their strengths and actually win games against far superior opponents? Does going to a second-tier university rather than a tier one university actually hold greater advantages for a young female who wants to enter the sciences? Could coping with dyslexia sharpen certain skill sets for people that allow them to flourish in ways they might not have otherwise? The author explores all these issues among others, and you can probably guess by now that the answers are not what you might assume at first glance.

While much of what Gladwell writes is useful for educators, one chapter in particular touches home, especially for teachers and administrators in independent schools. One of the key statistics that independent schools like to cite in their promotional materials is their student-to-teacher ratio. It is not uncommon to find independent schools proudly broadcasting that they have a student to teacher ratio of 15:1, 12:1, or even smaller, knowing that most parents believe small class sizes are the ideal. Unfortunately, as Gladwell points out, the research we have on the effect of class size on student achievement does not bear this out. Study after study indicates that there is no clear evidence that smaller class sizes (within a medium range) increase student achievement in statistically meaningful ways. In fact, Gladwell goes on to argue that, just as you can have too large of a class, you can have too small of a class as well. Here, Gladwell relies more on anecdotes than statistics, but he finds evidence in interviews with teachers that small class sizes can inhibit discussion, limit interaction between students with similar ability levels, and generally change the class energy levels and culture for the worse. So should independent schools and public schools alike stop worrying about class size? Not quite.

First, Gladwell does admit that smaller classrooms can translate to better outcomes “if teachers change their teaching style when given a lower workload,” i.e. fewer students. If a teacher uses the same instructional methods with a class of 28 students that he or she does with a class of 15, then student outcomes will likely remain similar in both classes. Yet if a teacher is willing to reshape his or her instruction for the smaller class, great gains may be made in student outcomes as a result of both smaller class size and the kind of instruction that a smaller class size enables. This then becomes the salient point for teachers and administrators of independent schools reading Gladwell’s book: Do not assume that smaller class sizes alone will increase student achievement, but do use your small class sizes to the advantage of your students and school by reshaping the teaching and learning process.

Second, Gladwell does not make allowances for advances in technology when it comes to education and class sizes. Small classes do not have to operate completely autonomously in a brick and mortar structure anymore. With technology, a teacher with only 12 students physically sitting in a classroom can connect with another 10 students in a classroom halfway across the world. The discussions and diversity of such a classroom become enhanced rather than inhibited by such a small class size. It is difficult to complete such learning activities with two classrooms of 25 or more students each. The relationship between technology, class size, and student outcomes is not an avenue addressed in the book, but it is one worth exploring.

As with other recent books like Daniel H. Pink’s Drive or Carol Dweck’s Mindset, Gladwell succeeds in getting readers to think twice about assumptions they make and the lens through which they view the world around them. All people must navigate their way through adversity, but Gladwell illustrates that adversity itself may bring with it its own set of advantages if we know how to look for them. This is a useful lesson for all - whether parent or child, teacher or student, employer or employee. 

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