Saturday, October 12, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell, the inverted-U, and a pond of your own choosing



I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's new book, David and Goliath. I heard him interviewed by Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace and knew I had to read it.


The overarching thesis of "David and Goliath" is that for the strong, "the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness," whereas for the weak, "the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty."

It’s about the advantages of disadvantages — and the disadvantages of seeming advantages. Or, as Gladwell puts it: “We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is — and the definition isn’t right. And what happens as a result? It means that we make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage.” 

It's an awesome book. Teachers and administrators should read it... especially for what it says about education. We have an idea in our heads of what an advantage looks like in education - and the definition may not be right. 

My favorite bit on education is the Inverted-U curve and how it relates to class size:


"Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic. There's the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better. There's the flat middle, where doing more doesn't make much of a difference. And there's the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse."

My favorite quote, and I have many, about education is:
"It is a strange thing, isn't it, to have an educational philosophy that thinks of the other students in the classroom with your child as competitors for the attention of the teacher and not allies in the adventure of learning."


And, finally... the part on the Impressionists of 1860's Paris will stick with me for quite some time: did Renoir, Manet, C├ęzanne, Monet, Pissarro, and Degas want to be little fish in a big pond, or big fish in a little pond of their own choosing?


"The inverted-U curve reminds us that there is a point at which money and resources stop making our lives better and start making them worse. The story of the Impressionists suggests a second, parallel problem. We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can. But rarely do we stop and consider - as the Impressionists did - whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest."


You should read this book because Malcolm Gladwell is a magnificent story teller. Within the pages of David and Goliath, you will find ample food for thought on advantages vs disadvantages, on strength vs weakness, on our assumed perceptions, and on the innate beauty of an inverted-U curve.


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