David and Goliath Applied to Education
by Jill Jenkins
My stepson, Braden fills my I POD with books that he thinks I will enjoy listening to or that the two of us might enjoy discussing. One book that he strongly recommends is David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcom Gladwell which discusses how a weakness can be used as a strength and a strength can be used against a person. Gladwell uses examples from biblical times to modern times to support his premise. For example, David uses Goliath's mammoth size and cumbersome armor to defeat the giant, Goliath. Goliath's armor restricts his movement. His size is likely due to Gigantism which has many related health problems including problems with vision even double vision. Since David uses a sling-shot instead of arm-to arm combat, the giant is caught off guard. His inability to move quickly coupled with his visual disorder meant he neither saw nor expected the rock flying at 90 mph towards his unprotected face; as a result, he was defeated.
One of the modern examples the book explores is class size. The book claims that even though many prestigious preparatory schools claim to be superior because they offer small class size, class size does not effect learning. At that, I shut off the tape grumbling expletives and complaining to my husband that I was not going to listen to such nonsense, but I did. It turns out Gladwell was comparing class sizes of ten students to those of 15-20 students. There is no difference. I am not surprised. If he had taught in any urban school in the country, he would have known that 20 pupils is not a large class; its a dream. Most urban class sizes have forty or more students and can only dream of classes of 10-20 students. Furthermore, it not just the class size, it's the diversity. Finland and South Korea, nations he compared his data with have homogenous groups of students attending their public schools. Schools in the United States accept all students mainstreaming intellectually handicapped students, N.E.P. and L.E.P. (No English Proficiency and Limited English Proficiency), emotionally handicapped students, advanced learners, and the ordinary students. Meaning most teachers face classes from 35-45 students packed with every kind of need imaginable. Does class size effect the teacher's ability to meet the individual needs of each student? Yes, it does. Mr. Gladwell claims that teachers with smaller class sixe simply don't work as hard. I was off in a tirade yelling expletives at my poor husband again. In my 39 years of teaching, I have seen a few lazy teachers, but most teachers arrive an hour before the students and stay hours after the students leave taking boxes of papers home to correct late into the night, over weekend and I remember correcting research papers as my husband lay unconscious in the ICU after a massive heart attack. Finally, the book admits that even though small class size from 10-20 had no significant difference, class sizes above 30 did and class sizes over 40 had devastating results. Now, he was talking my language. However, his first remarks were not seated in reality when one considers the number of students in each class.
Mr. Gladwell's next examples were three college students who according to him made the mistake of attending an ivy league college and changed their majors from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) after each received a "B" in a course. Personally, I would call that lack of grit. Something that Gladwell may be unaware of is the difference in how public school students are graded from how students are graded in college. Students in public schools are graded against a set standard so that any student who earns 94% of the available points earns an "A." The teachers are encouraged to assist with each student's success and are chastised for any student who fails by earning less than 60% of the available points. Parents negotiate with teachers and administrators to change grades or enhance them with extra credit to improve their child's GPA. In my last teaching assignment 700+ students of the 1500 students enrolled earned a GPA of 3.75 or higher. Which means teachers are making classes easier to relieve pressure from pushy parents. The students expect continual success and have no experience competing for high grades. Ivy league schools accept only the best students and provide them with a challenging curriculum. The faculty grades on a curve meaning only the top students earn the top grades. No one coddles the students like the public schools. However, the student who are selected to go to ivy league schools not only have high grades but high test scores. Perhaps the ivy league schools should take a lesson from public schools and change their grading? Better yet, perhaps students should be challenged. Rather than getting perfect grades, learning difficult material should be the goal.
Next the book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcom Gladwell discusses the value of struggling. To exemplify this, it uses examples of students who overcame dyslexia or poverty to become successful C.E.O.s and doctors. As an educator I have witnessed this. If an individual has grit and the support of a positive adult, whether that is a parent of a teacher that child can turn that disadvantage into a strength and perform some amazing feats. For example I had a student, Dante, whose dyslexia was so severe that reading was impossible. His parents and friends would read him the material aloud and he would memorize it in one reading. The book describes people with similar skills of adaption. However, few students with this type of handicap have either the ability to compensate as Dante did or the support system to help them continue their education. The reality is most students need a great deal of help to overcome obstacles. There are exceptions, but their numbers are negligible. The book analyzes the connection between a child losing a parent during childhood and becoming successful. It seems that 2/3 of those incarcerated have suffered the loss of one parent in childhood and 67% of all of the Prime Ministers of Great Britain during its world domination also lost a parent as a child. The old adage "that which doesn't destroy you, makes you stronger," seems to be true. Gladwell's book compares this to the blitz in London during World War II. Although Britain feared that German's attack of London would demoralize citizens, instead it made them stronger. Those that were hit directly died; those who witnessed their loved ones killed or maimed were emotionally crippled; nonetheless, the majority of the population witnessed the explosions of a near miss and felt emboldened and stronger. Perhaps when Native Americans made young boys face their fear by hunting and killing a bear alone, they were preparing them for a future by arming them with courage.
Finally the book discusses what gives one the authority to rule. Anyone who is being ruled expect the rules to be fair, that the rules be consistently applied and that those ruled be treated with dignity. Those are my words interpreting his ideas. I couldn't agree more. As a supervising teacher, I have heard more than once a novice explain, "I could not believe those students turned on me when I was being evaluated!" Students protect teachers who create a warm environment where they feel safe and feel when they make a mistake they will be treated fairly. Brut force backfired when the English tried contain the IRA during the 1970's according to the book and neither will brut force help a teacher control a classroom of seventh graders. Teachers must have reasonable rules that are clearly communicated, consistently enforced and enforced without malice. Teachers have to help students understand the importance of behaving within the norm.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcom Gladwell may not be a book that I agree with completely, but it opens many avenues for interesting dialogue so it is worth the read. As an educator, it pitched me into a rage, but many of the ideas are sound and well supported. After my tirade, I would recommend it. Maybe schools need to help students overcome with fear to face their bear alone and defeat it. Courage is the key to greatness.