Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The surprising advantage of larger class size, dyslexia and losing your parents

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath, he tells the always appealing story of the underdog – the little guy who wins despite the odds - from a seductive standpoint: our disadvantages are often the advantage that allow us to win. For example, he tells of dyslexics whose very struggle with reading allows them to win in the world by conferring some advantage – the capacity to listen carefully in one story, in another, the capacity to take risks, because frequent failure numbs fear. He shares stories of people who have gained an advantage – again, a kind of fearlessness – from losing a parent before the age of 20.  A researcher reviewed the lives of people whose lives merited more than one column in the Encyclopedia Britannica or Encyclopedia Americana. By the age of 10, 25% of these high-achieving people had lost a parent; by the age of 15, 34.5% had had a parent die; by age 20, 45%. On the other hand, Gladwell also points out that prisoners are two to three times more likely to have had a parent die in childhood and the number of dyslexics in prisons far exceeds the average.  When I was telling my very practical youngest son about the people whose disadvantage gave them an advantage, he said that he had no doubt that the number of dyslexics and people with early childhood loss in prison far exceeded the number that excelled. And quite likely, he added, the high-achievers had other advantages that factored more importantly in their success.

Yes, but we are always so easily seduced by the story of the underdog, especially the story of an underdog whose very disadvantages are the weapon against the established top dog. The vast majority of us, after all, are underdogs with a full gamut of disadvantages. (Gladwell lists some of them in Outliers; simply being born after March, for example, is a disadvantage.) Surprisingly, one of the disadvantages that turns out to be an advantage in Gladwell’s book is class size, a topic of great interest in British Columbia right now, where schools are shut down for a teacher’s strike that includes a demand for a more thoughtful approach to class size and composition. According to the research that Gladwell shared, class size falls into a category of things that follow “inverted-U” logic. For example, too little food is detrimental to health, but at some point, adding more food to our diet becomes as harmful. So, too, he writes, too many children in a class is a disadvantage, but at a certain point, too few children is equally disadvantageous.

Any teacher would agree. As Gladwell writes, “It is a strange thing, isn't it, to have an educational philosophy that thinks of other students in the classroom with your child as competitors for the attention of the teacher and not allies in the adventure of learning?” Indeed. That’s why BC teachers never speak of class size without composition; diversity in a classroom also falls on the inverted-U:  too little does not spark creativity and divergent thinking; too much causes chaos. (How do you know when you've reached the tipping point from advantage to disadvantage? Ask the teacher. But of course that would mean we respected teachers’ understanding of the complex dynamics in their classrooms. We prefer to find a mythical mathematical formula.) Gladwell argues that wealthy people who send their children to expensive private schools with small classes may be conferring an unwitting disadvantage. I find it hard to believe. I’d argue that a larger class size is like the “advantage” of dyslexia and losing a parent, helping a few (perhaps) and harming countless others.

The most disturbing part of the book for me was how many of the stories showed that disadvantages in early life allowed the person to be ruthless or deceptive enough to win – and these qualities, serving a “win,” were renamed an advantage. Of course, that’s how the Davids win. And really, when you think about it, that’s how the Goliaths stay on top (or the Davids, once they've beaten Goliath).

I keep wondering, lately, if there are different stories to grip our imagination, that don’t focus on who wins or who loses or how to gain an advantage over our enemies. Today, thousands of years after David took out his sling shot, in what seems an endlessly perfect summer of blue skies and gentle breezes, the tragic battle continues in the land of David and Goliath and the bitterness deepens in the decades-long dispute between the BCTF and the government. No new ending seems possible in either story. The rhetoric of peace and negotiations, fair deals and settlements are merely maneuvers to gain advantage. It seems to me that as long as we continue to focus on how to be or remain the winner, we lose the story of good.  That’s a story I’d love to hear.

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