Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Teachers & Quarterbacks

Malcolm Gladwell (author of bestsellers 'Tipping Point', 'Blink' and 'Outliers') writes about the responses to his latest article in the New York Times:
In some of the responses to the piece, I've seen some resistance to the idea that choosing NFL quarterbacks and choosing public school teachers represent the same category of problem. There are only a small number of NFL quarterbacks, and we are selecting candidates from a tiny pool of highly elite athletes. By contrast, we need a vast number of public school teachers and we're recruiting from an enormous non-elite pool to fill that need. So, the response has gone, it's apples and oranges.

Precisely! But of course non-symetrical comparisons are far more interesting and thought-provoking than symetrical comparisons. If I wrote a piece about how finding good point guards in the NBA was a lot like finding good quarterbacks in the NFL, the comparison would be exact. And as a result, it would be relatively useless. What new light does the addition of a second, identical example shed on the first?

What makes an idea thought-provoking, to my mind, is the extent to which we are forced to make an effort to assimilate apparently contradictory or at least antagonistic notions. Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, has a wonderful book out on this very idea ("The Opposable Mind"). He argues that what distinguishes successful business leaders is their ability to reconcile apparently irreconcilable options. So, for example, the genius of Izzy Sharpe, the founder of the Four Seasons chain, is that he was the first to understand that a hotelier doesn't have to choose between the advantages of a large hotel (breadth of services) and the advantages of a small hotel (intimacy). For years everyone assumed those were mutually exclusive categories. Sharpe realized that you can, in fact, do both. Martin's book made me think that there is value in pushing the envelope on comparisons.

All of this is a long way of saying that instead of resisting the implausibility of the pairing of NFL quarterbacks and teachers, it is actually more interesting to embrace it. And what happens when you do that? You discover that the psychological situation facing the gatekeeper in both cases is identical: that confronted with a prediction deficit, the human impulse is to tighten standards, when it fact it should be to loosen standards.

Second point:

One weakness of the piece, I think, is that I didn't spell out another of the parallels between good quarterbacks and good teachers. One of the obvious implications of the notion that the college experience does not predict professional quarterback success is that professional quarterbacking is a skill learned only in the pros. That is, what matters more than anything in predicting professional success is the quality of the learning environment that the quarterback is drafted into, not the quality of the experience he was drafted from. (Think Matt Cassell's rather remarkable performance this year: surely that's a consequence of being drafted into one of the league's best learning cultures).

My brother, an elementary school principal, believes very strongly along these same lines: that effective mentoring of a new teacher can make an enormous difference in that person's ability to become a "star" teacher. But the problem, he argues, is that the process of mentorship is much too haphazard. As he says, "It's like training NFL quarterbacks by randomly sending them out to teams - some CFL teams, some Division III teams, some Division I College teams, some community teams, and a few to NFL teams."

It strikes me that one very logical response to the quarterback problem is not just to lower entry standards, and be willing to make after-the-fact judgments of quality, but also to spend a great deal more time and attention on the issue of talent development. If Matt Cassell can thrive in the NFL, after essentially zero college quarterback experience, what exactly is New England doing right? And what can the rest of the league learn from them? Maybe that should be the subject of a follow-up piece.

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