Gladwell’s David and Goliath and Design Thinking

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants discusses perceived advantages and disadvantages and how appearances may not always be what the seem. The book has been received with some justifiable criticism (e.g. Christopher Chabris’ “The Trouble with Malcolm Gladwell”), but I’ve still found it interesting and thought-provocative for its potential applications in education, as we’re on the cusp of some radical and profound changes.

Basically, Gladwell argues that “being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable” (6). He then examines a number of cases in various contexts, where the “underdog,” based on the lack of clear advantages, has actually outperformed or beaten the supposed favorite, starting with the famous battle of David vs. Goliath.

Design Thinking (Thomas Lockwood)
At the #oesis Symposium in Boston this past week (cf. my conference notes), I attended an interesting session on design thinking (DT) by Matthew Cavellier and Hannah Sobol from Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, since I’ve been very interested in the cognitive processes that underlie creativity and innovation. From Wikipedia, DT “is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context,” and it has become very popular in certain industries and business over the past half decade. I’ve been drawn to DT, in that it seems to offer a healthy analytical methodology to approach some of the problems we’re facing in changing the way we approach education (cf. the DT Wiki above for more info on the process).
With this in mind, I’m curious to re-examine some of our own long-held assumptions about relative strengths and weaknesses in our schools, especially within the context of independent-school culture, using the principles of DT. In particular, I fear that some of our problems may be suffering from a lack of clear definition, which is one of the foundations of the DT process. Daniel Kahneman has shown that we tend to substitute an easier “heuristic” question for the target question without noticing (Thinking, Fast and Slow 97), and I see this process of substitution happening all too often, which is why certain problems get recycled over and over again. With an inability to clearly frame our problems with the right questions, we can neither understand them nor work toward effective solutions to them.
A few problems immediately come to mind that are worthy of further thought:
  • As Gladwell discusses (cf. Ch. 3), we often preach that smaller classes are better, especially within independent schools, where class sizes of 12 are not abnormal. But is this really always the case? It’s true that smaller classes are easier to manage from the perspective of the teacher, but are they really better places for students to learn within the technological age? To my mind, the collaboration and diversity that we’ve been so busy promoting only benefits from larger classes. Given that traditional lecture methods are less effective in large classes, though, we necessarily need to transform how we teach. How do we transform our teaching methods considering what’s best for our students?
  • We often think that, for a number of reasons, schools with more money are better off. Money can buy access to a variety of tech tools and devices, but it’s much easier and quicker to put a tool in the hands of a teacher or a student than it is to train them to use it, overlooking the training. The problem, then, is time, which is our most valuable resource. As Cathy Davidson writes in Now You See It, “Time is the new currency—and many young people will gladly trade money to get more time” (223). Rather than looking for money to throw at problems, how can we give our teachers more time for collaboration and exploration, instead of asking them to do these sorts of things on their own time?
  • I heard the idea of “independent-school culture” used often at #oesis last week. Schools, and especially independent schools, take great pride in the culture promoted to students, parents, and staff, and this inherited culture is seen as a great advantage and justification for a school’s given goals. But in my experience, culture in the sense of “tradition” can often stagnate innovation, when we believe that we have to keep doing things they way they were done in the past. The idea that we want students experience education in the same ways that we did just can’t be maintained any longer; it won’t help students to thrive in a world that’s become very different from the one that produced this tradition. If culture is more than simply “tradition,” what is it and why is it so important for us to cling to it? And how can we promote a growth mindset within our communities, while maintaining our culture?
I’m excited to have conversations about using DT to help us frame questions more accurately and rethink our “disadvantages” to create the new opportunities in which Gladwell believes. What other problems do we need to solve, as we continue to incorporate technology into curricula and transform pedagogy? What disadvantages exist that can actually help us to become better in the long run? If there is interest in exploring any these ideas in greater depth, I’d love to host a Twitter chat on them.