Which is better: Big or small?

A good book leaves a lasting impression.  It makes you think. The author may even change your mind about long held thoughts and opinions.

Malcolm Gladwell has accomplished this and more in his thought provoking book David and Goliath.

Do not be misled by the title. I thought the entire book was going to be about David and Goliath. It isn’t.

Gladwell writes intriguing stories. The theme throughout David and Goliath is what initially appears to be an advantage is not always an advantage. What appears to be a disadvantage may really be a positive. He shows that what you initially see or think may not be reality. Gladwell’s research and writing covers a wide range of topics, including education, the impact of wealth on parenting, overcoming obstacles (especially childhood adversity), how to coach a group of unskilled basketball players and how David defeated Goliath.

A major takeaway from this book is that we should challenge conventionally held thoughts, to see if they are actually supported by facts.  Gladwell shows that counter-intuitive thinking is worthwhile. I will highlight a few of the topics that Gladwell wrote about.

Would you like your child or grandchild to be in a class with 10, 15, 20, or 30 students?  What is the optimal class size for learning? Why?

Most people would think smaller is better. A class size of 10 or 15 students should be better than 20 or 25 students, right? Many private schools appeal to parents with the benefits of very small class sizes. But Gladwell presents statistical and anecdotal evidence that around 20 students in a class is actually better than much smaller classes, especially those with less than 15 students.

Gladwell shows that class discussions are the key to academic success.  Class discussions are the life source of learning. Particularly at the middle school and high school levels, you need a “critical mass” of students to get vibrant, diverse and energetic participation. As one teacher stated, 18 is “enough bodies in the room that no one needs to feel vulnerable, but everyone can feel important.”  When the number of students falls below 18, the quality of the discussions drop.  Getting class participation gets more difficult. Shy students participate less. Teaching actually becomes harder, not easier. So while we think really small class sizes are beneficial, they may not produce statistically better educated students.

Gladwell challenges the conventional thinking of going to the very best college you can get into.  He tells the story of a high school student who wants to go to a top Ivy League college to pursue her love of science.  The young woman goes to Brown University, an elite institution, rather than go to a large public university that does not have such a top reputation.  Up against all these other top students, she does not get top grades. She thinks she is not succeeding. Though she was still quite smart, she struggles, at least based on the grades she was receiving.

This woman would have been a star student at the University of Maryland, but changed her career choice after “not succeeding” at Brown. Gladwell wants the reader to consider that an elite institution versus a public college is really “a choice between two very different options, each with its own strengths and drawbacks.”  The advantages of a selective and prestigious institution can also make it problematic. Better may not really be the best place to be.

Gladwell writes about the impact that wealth has on parenting.  After a certain point, having too much money can make parenting more difficult. Teaching “down home values,” a strong work ethic and the value of money can be harder for wealthy families than for families of more modest means. He shows that in many circumstances, too much of something is not always a good thing (an advantage can become a disadvantage).

He conveys a simple, yet powerful point about many family discussions. If a family has limited resources, children realize their family limitations. When a parent says that we cannot afford something, especially a luxury item, the child learns to understand that no means no. There is just not money available. “No, we can’t” is simpler.

For a wealthy family, this situation is much more complicated. When the child asks for something, such as a teenager wanting a fancy car at age 16, the child is much more likely to challenge the wealthy parent. The parent cannot say “no, we cannot afford it.” The wealthier parent’s reply is “no, we won’t.”  The child can argue “why can’t you buy this for me?” This requires a conversation. This requires a set of values and the ability to articulate the values to the child. This is much harder. The less affluent family’s more clear cut resolution can become a major source of challenge and conflict for wealthy families. Gladwell explains that there is a “point where money starts to make the job of raising normal and well-adjusted children more difficult.”

Gladwell has caused me to really think about these topics. I have sent my children to a high school with small class sizes. There are benefits to this school, but he has made me aware of some potential negatives I had not thought about. The effects of wealth on parenting is a real challenge. I put myself through college, have always worked since high school and know the value of money. It is harder to tell my children “no, I won’t” than my mom telling me “no, we can’t.” I knew we couldn’t afford many things growing up and I probably didn’t even ask. Gladwell’s points about choosing a college are interesting. We don’t always succeed by putting ourselves in the most competitive environment. Getting all A’s in an undergraduate program at Michigan State University may be more advantageous than B’s and C’s at a school like Harvard.

Bigger may not always be better.  Advantages may turn out to be dis-advantages.  But reading to expand our ideas is beneficial.  Reading David & Goliath is truly worthwhile.

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