Friday, January 10, 2014

Book Review: David and Goliath

You may think this is strange, but one of my favorite Christmas gifts was David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.  While this book is not necessarily an education book, there are quite a few things that educators can glean from its pages.  So, I'm going to attempt my first book review on this blog and hope it goes well.

Main Idea: What appears to be an advantage is often times really a disadvantage. Conversely, what is viewed to be a disadvantage can be used as an advantage.  

More Detail:
1. Readers of the biblical account of David and Goliath may be surprised to know there are is historical and scientific data that could point to David's victory being not as miraculous as we once thought. 
2.  Too much of a good thing is really a bad thing.
3.  It's better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.  
4.  There are such things as desirable difficulties. 
5.  Leadership must be viewed as legitimate to have any success.

My Recommendation:
Read it! Gladwell does an amazing job of challenging conventional thinking. Many of his examples come directly from the world of education, which is a bonus.

---end of short version---

Spoilers: (Seriously. Don't read this section if you intend to read the book one day.)
1.  Goliath was infantry -- a foot soldier. He expected hand-to-hand combat with another infantryman. David was a projectile warrior -- an ancient version of our artillery. The goal of projectile warriors was to defeat infantrymen. David encountered Goliath in a totally relevant but unexpected way.  To make matters worse, there is evidence to point to Goliath having a medical malady called acromegaly, which causes gigantism and vision problems. Goliath in all of his massive glory was wholly unprepared to do battle with a wiry little teen with a slingshot and some rocks.
2.  Gladwell spoke quite a bit about an inverted U curve. Did you ever consider that you could have too much money? How do you raise your kids to value money like you did if your hard work made you a billionaire? Likewise, is it possible to have a class that's too small? More on this later.
3.  If given the chance, would you prefer to go to an Ivy League college or a state university?  The perception is that the more prestigious the school, the better your education.  Nope. We tend to compare ourselves to people around us, not to the population at large. Once you start to struggle at a top notch school, the tendency is to drop out (or transfer to an easier major).  The best road is to go to a mediocre school and excel there.
4.  We would all agree that dyslexia and the death of a parent at a young age are tough things to overcome. We wouldn't wish these problems on anyone. Our prisons are full of people who have suffered one of these problems.  However, many successful people in today's world can be linked to one of these problems. When we encounter difficulties in our lives, we have a choice: cope and be stronger or let it weaken you. Those who have learned to cope with it can achieve great things.
5.  There is a time and a place for rules and discipline.  However, a leader also must legitimize himself through fairness and caring. This applies to the classroom, police, and a military dealing with an uprising.

Still a spoiler... What would you consider to be the ultimate class size?  I've taught classes as small as four and as big as 26.  I figured the perfect class size to be 13-15.  Gladwell interviewed numerous teachers, and the overwhelming answer was 18 (and second place was 24).  We all know that with a very large class, there is too much activity, too much discipline, too much everything (including papers to grade).  When the class gets too small, students feel less compelled to speak up.  They have less connections in the classroom.  Just about every researcher agrees that the teacher makes all the difference. It's better to have a great teacher in a big class than a bad teacher in a small class. Solution? Fire the bad teachers and let the great ones do their thing.

Personal Reflections:
1. Gladwell certainly pointed out some major scientific and historic data to explain David and Goliath, making it seem less miraculous. However, I cannot discount the supernatural in the story. David attributed his skill to God and had great faith in the outcome. Maybe the rock wasn't supernaturally guided into Goliath's forehead (or maybe it was...), but God still enabled David to be David. Read the introduction of the book and the story in 1 Samuel and see what you think.
2.  There was a comment in the class size section about how a teacher teaches the smaller classes. If a teacher can adapt and adjust his teaching style with the smaller classes, they can be more effective. Do I adjust? Am I great, or at least good?
3. I teach at a private school.  The kids come from families that have much more money that my family does. They have nicer toys than me. Many of my colleagues are wives with husbands that make more money than me.  They do nicer things than me. My salary is nothing to get excited about, and my wife is a stay-at-home mom.  We both have part time jobs to pay the bills. It's easy to compare myself to those around me and feel poor.  The truth is that I am much more wealthy than a large percentage of the world's population.  It's all about perspective, my friends.
4. Desirable difficulties. I've been through some nasty junk in my life, and you may have been too. I'm  not happy about them, but James 1 talks about how these things make us stronger.  I recognize that I'm a better person for some of the journeys I've endured...but I don't know if I'd put the word "desirable" in front of them. Would you?
5.  I'm from Philadelphia originally.  I once was the Head Counselor of a camp in Oregon.  You can imagine that trucking in some dude from the other side of the country to lead the counselors didn't go over well. I flubbed it up by flexing my muscles on Day 1 and had some major push back from my counselors.  About a week later, I got into a pickup basketball game, and I had some supernatural skills that night. I'm normally a nominal (I'm being generous here) ballplayer but somehow that night I ruled the court. Most of my troubles went away that night and it was a great summer.  Why? I took time to become one of the guys, not some loudmouth from Philly who was only interested in abusing my power.

Applications for Education:
This book is laden with applications for educators.  You'll have to read it to get your own application.  However, here's what jumped out at me. 

I teach at a mid-sized private school.  From PreK through 12th grade, we have roughly 350 students. Last summer my daughter took swim lessons at our local public high school.  They had a big sign up about summer camp at the Academies of Innovation and Technology, and I drooled.  I immediately asked myself, "How can we do that at MVCA?"  The answer... We can't!

In some ways, comparing ourselves to the big public schools is akin to the small fish in a big pond syndrome.  There are some things those bigger schools can do because they have the personnel and the money and the talent pool.

Instead, we need to be like David.  We need to find ways to be innovative and different and still make a difference.

Update (January 13, 2014):
As a Christian who believes the Bible to be God's Word to us, I was interested in this book for more than the cool stories and applications for education.  I wanted to see what a non-Christian writer would do a classic Bible story that all church kids know from a very young age.  One thing I realized immediately was that Gladwell never called the story a myth or discounted the veracity of it. However, I was extremely excited to read this account in Relevant Magazine last night about how writing this book rekindled Gladwell's faith.  It's a great testimony to how people of faith living life (as difficult as it may be) in full view of the world can help spread the Word.  You can see open the article at the link below. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I'd love to hear what you thought of the book! Drop a comment and let me know. 

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