What Can Teachers Learn From Kermit Washington?

The other day I picked up a month old (November 10) New Yorker while waiting for an appointment and started reading an article by James Surowiecki titled “Better All the Time.” I learned that in 1976 Kermit Washington, a former college basketball star with great natural athletic ability and size (six feet eight inches), found himself sitting on the bench with the L.A. Lakers. He had the size.  He had the natural ability.  But he didn’t have the skills. 

So, he hired a personal trainer to help him with technique.  This sort of thing just wasn’t done in 1976. People thought either you had the talent to be a pro, or you didn’t.

Over the next four years he became an All-Star.

Other basketball players began hiring trainers too. And they improved. Tennis players began hiring strength trainers and trainers to help them with their ground strokes. Cyclists hired nutritionists and engineers. Football players began thinking about training and technique year-around, rather than just during the season.

The focus on continuous improvement was not limited to sports where there was big money. Today’s chess players are much better than the chess players of 40 years ago. Today’s conservatory students can perform pieces that, not long ago, were considered all but impossible for anyone but the greatest virtuosos.

Attention to continuous improvement went beyond sports and the arts.  Cars today are much better than they were in the 1970s. The rate of industrial accidents is way down. Airline safety has improved. Manufacturing quality and efficiency are way up.

With all of this improvement, Surowiecki asks, “What are the fields that could have become significantly better over the past forty years and haven’t?”

Well … there is customer service.

And … Surowiecki notes … there is education.

I didn’t see this coming.  Should have, maybe, but didn’t.  I started the article thinking I was going to read about basketball.

As I wrote in my previous post, one current and popular idea about improving education is to set cut points on high-stakes assessments higher, perhaps working from the theory that if the numbers look bad enough, pressure on somebody (schools? teachers? legislatures?  Nah … not legislatures) will build to the point that someone finally gets serious about fixing schools.

I was afraid that Surowiecki might go there. But he didn’t, and what he did say was interesting.

He argued that part of the problem is that teachers work alone. Kermit Washington did not get to be an All-Star by working alone. Teachers, like Kermit Washington, need support from others to keep improving. Ideally, much of that support will come from others who are deeply familiar with what is going on in the classroom: other teachers.

But an even more important part of Surowiecki’s argument is that we need to abandon the conception of the “natural-born teacher.” As David Cohen points out in Teaching and Its Predicaments, teaching is an un-natural act. The demands, opportunities, dependence on student engagement, and other predicaments associated with teaching call upon skills, capacities, and training that go far beyond what anyone does in “natural” interactions with others.  To be sure, some teachers adjust to these demands more easily than others. But paying attention to that initial capacity gets in the way of attending to the need to keep improving, regardless of what the teacher brought to job at the outset.

As Kermit Washington learned, having natural ability is a gift. But it is not enough to be play as a pro. To be a pro you need to keep improving, and that means having systems that support that improvement.

We have a system for supporting teacher improvement that looks more like football in the 1960s and 70s. The coach had you practice in the heat of August in full pads. You either had the ability or you didn’t.  You either wanted it enough, or you didn’t.  We seem to assume that the good teacher, given a classroom, will figure it out.

Surowiecki closes his article this way:

High performance isn’t, ultimately, about running faster, throwing harder, or leaping farther. It’s about something much simpler: getting better at getting better.

I mostly agree. But I don’t think that getting better at getting better is necessarily simpler. What it does mean is paying attention to different things.

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