Do You Need a Coach? (Yes)

I love this recent New Yorker article by surgeon Atul Gawande. It’s called “Personal Best: Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?”  He tells his own personal story about how, at the peak of a long career as a successful surgeon, he decided to invite Robert Osteen, one of his old medical school professors (long since retired from practice) to watch him perform surgery and offer suggestions, basically to be his surgery coach. The first time Osteen sat in on a surgery, Gawande thought it had gone exceptionally well. And because it was a procedure that Osteen wasn’t familiar with, he was pretty sure Osteen wouldn’t have much to say. But when they sat down to talk afterwards, Gawande saw that Osteen’s notepad was dense with observations, and he had a lot of small things Gawande could have been doing better.

If a top surgeon can benefit, then why not the rest of us? A lot of Gawande’s article is about improving teacher quality. Gawande reports that when a new teaching technique is introduced by a coach–a colleage who watched them try the new technique, and then offered suggestions afterwards–90 percent of teachers adopted the new technique. Without a coach, the adoption rate never passed 20 percent!

Many districts are beginning to offer coaches to their teachers. For the most part, only the very new teachers ask for it; the experienced teachers think they are already pretty good. (But note that even Gawande, who was pretty good, learned a lot from his coach.) And some teachers get really nervous about being watched; they worry that the coach is really working for the school administration, and that the coach report will go in their personnel file. (Coaching doesn’t work unless the coach works for the professional, not for the boss.)

Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components….Elite performers…must engage in “deliberate practice”–sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. (p. 49)

The New Yorker, October 3, 2011.

Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching

I’m delighted to report that my latest book has just been published: Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching, by Cambridge University Press. I edited the book; each chapter is by a different scholar who is using improvisation to improve teaching. I first started working on this in about 2004, after I kept meeting teacher educators who were using improv techniques. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to bring all of these people together and share this exciting approach with everyone?

The key idea is that good teaching involves both structures and improvisation, both advance planning and adaptability. Expert teachers know how to use structures (lesson plans, activities, techniques to discipline unruly students) in an improvisational way that’s customized and targeted to each class and each student. This is what “creative teaching” really is: it’s not a flaky, New Age performance artist who mesmerizes the students. It’s an expert with a deep knowledge of the craft of teaching, and of the subject being taught, and an expert who can use that to orchestrate valuable learning activities among the students. A creative teacher is one who, once the learning is done, the learners say “we did it ourselves.” (To paraphrase the Tao Te Ching)