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Atul Gawande does it again—I need a coach

October 4, 2011

I’ve written about Atul Gawande before. He’s a world famous surgeon and writer, who I’ve come to discover, has more good advice for teachers than John Dewey reincarnated.

His latest article in the New Yorker, Personal Best, is another must read for teachers.

In this article, Gawande focuses on how the best performers get better, and start with the tagline that if top athletes and musicians have coaches, why shouldn’t you?

Gawande takes his own advice to heart, and invites a retired surgeon to sit in on his surgeries once a month and offer him feedback. The process is revelatory—Gawande states that the 21 minute visit from the coach gave him more ideas to work on than the entire past five years.

Here are some choice quotes from this article:

Élite performers, researchers say, 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. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.

Yet modern society increasingly depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for doing extraordinary things: operating inside people’s bodies, teaching eighth graders algebraic concepts that Euclid would have struggled with, building a highway through a mountain, constructing a wireless computer network across a state, running a factory, reducing a city’s crime rate. In the absence of guidance, how many people can do such complex tasks at the level we require?

After reading this, I’ve decided two things—I need a coach myself, and I need to be a better coach. I think I’ve found my coach, to a very large extent in this blog. Here I post ideas, lessons and occasional video, and I’m amazed by the quality of feedback I get from you. More and more, I want to pull back the curtain to my classroom completely and share the work we are doing openly so that we can all get better—me, my students, and possibly even those who are helping us to improve.

I’ve also invited Brian Frank to come to my school to visit for a day. Brian has graciously agreed to do this, and I hope that he will offer me every bit as frank as Dr. Osteen gave Dr. Gawande. I do think this is scalable—why not invite that teacher you greatly respect from a different school to come and spend the day observing your class. There are even many fantastic retired physics teachers out there who would probably love to spend the day in a classroom if they didn’t have to take home any papers to grade.

Second, I need to be a better coach, and this is directly tied to my role as a mentor. I’ve greatly enjoyed working with A, my mentee, and he is developing into a great physics teacher far beyond where I was as a new faculty member. But I still feel like I could be a better coach—I think this will require me to spend a bit more time digesting this article and going back to some of the great mentoring advice I got from some of my previous posts.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 5, 2011 11:13 am

    John,
    Great analysis, I agree with your thought of opening up what we do day in and day out with each other for feedback. I think I might try to incorporate that into my blog.

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