Good Sports?

It is a known phenomenon that (ex) P.E. teachers are disproportionately represented in management circles. In fact, I remember during my P.G.C.E. hearing them specifically advised to ensure they secured management roles because of their physical expiry date in terms of how long they could continue to keep up with energetic teenagers. As someone who increasingly feels the pace of even classroom teaching, I am not going to disagree when it comes to the effects of ageing.

I am not going to launch an ad hominem criticism, for despite that rather calculating advice, I am sure the majority of such people have a lot to offer: there are some aspects of learning where the P.E. approach would appear valid. But I am also getting sick and tired of sporting types trying to convince the rest of the world that it would be much better if only we could run everything through the medium of sports psychology.

Regular readers will also know that I have nothing against Psychology either. In fact, I think we need more of it in teachers’ professional armoury. But Sport Psychology is not the only, nor even the most appropriate type for the whole of education, let alone wider human endeavour.

Yesterday, I was invited to consider why the U.K. Olympic team has improved its performance so markedly over the past twenty years. A number of responses were offered by colleagues, but we were assured that it was, in the main, down to the psychology of marginal gains. It is the cumulative impact of lots of small technical adjustments that add up to large effects. This is what led to Olympic success, and it is to what Team Sky coach Dave Brailsford attributes Tour de France success too.

Members of my break-out group were asked to identify marginal gains that we could use in education. It was suggested that we could provide rulers and highlighters for children as they went into the exam hall. Some other ideas emerged. But they were all logistical: practical steps that teachers could do to remedy children’s deficiencies. (Whether we should do that is another matter; there is a view that says bringing the requisite equipment to an exam is part of the test). But when I asked how we might instead deliver – and identify – marginal learning gains, there was silence. Even those who were generally in favour of the concept seemed to struggle to know what a marginal learning gain is, and how we should know it when we see one. And that is before we can explain just how or why a specific marginal increase in knowledge might be tangibly more useful.

Matthew Syed is a well-known motivational speaker, which followed from his career as a top table-tennis player. I have no issue with his success – but he seems to be someone else who believes that what works for sports is directly transferrable to all other human endeavours. I disagree.

Syed falls foul of the Achilles’ Heel of sports psychology: he does not seem to understand the difference between practical, measurable performance such as a sporting ‘best’ and something that is a philosophical or existential imponderable, such as those which concern the effective development of the intellect.  And he multiplies his error by demonstrating his inability sustain an appropriate analogy.

His recent TEDx talk compared the mindsets of the aviation industry to sub-optimal performance with that of the medical profession.

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Why-you-should-have-your-own-bl

Syed claims that the aviation industry has a rigorous and open culture that discusses its mistakes and conducts forensic investigations with the aim of improving performance. This, he claims is a Growth Mindset. He contrasts it with the medical profession, which he characterises as largely closed-mindset, where complacent professionals rest on their laurels, and will do anything including subverting uncomfortable truths in order to perpetuate their own status and hegemony. Quite where the evidence to support this claims is, is not made clear; it sounds suspiciously like lazy generalisation to me, and is certainly not what my knowledge of the Health Service would suggest.

But the real weakness of the analogy concerns the nature of these two ‘industries’. Aircraft are constructed by (human) engineers using known technologies to perform single, predictable tasks. When they fail, it is relatively straightforward to identify the failure, even if it is human error, and to put mechanical ‘fixes’ in place to rectify recurrent problems. One might also observe that the aviation industry is driven primarily by the profit motive.

Human bodies are not (in the evolutionary sense!) made by people. For all that we do know, they remain in many ways mysterious, and it is certainly not true that a specific intervention such as the administration of a drug will have only one, knowable, proportionate effect. It is also considerably harder and more risky to dismantle a human body and observe the malfunction in concrete terms – especially while it is still functioning. Human beings’ diagnostic software is notoriously unreliable and also subject to whim and emotions such as fear.

The job of a medical practitioner is therefore not the same as that of an aircraft engineer when it comes to offering confident diagnoses and plans of action. While the general principles of the human body are known, the way forward is much less certain, and that is without the problem that a human being has  feelings and multiple (sometimes conflicting) purposes and priorities in the way an aircraft does not. Given these differences, I would suggest that any reticence or even defensiveness on the part of medical practitioners is at least highly understandable. I suggest that at least in the U.K., much of the medical profession is not primarily driven by financial profit.

In many ways, medicine remains in part a matter of judgement, rather than a knowable applied science like mechanical and electrical engineering.

I have discussed this at length because too much is made of such analogies in educational professional development terms. The objections outlined above occurred to me pretty spontaneously – and to others as well. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising when such claims are greeted with scepticism.  There are undoubtedly some elements of education that are quantifiable, but much of what concerns people like me comes much closer to the considered judgement of medical professionals than the conscientious but largely mechanical procedures of aviation.

But there is a further objection, for which Mr Syed is as responsible as any: this is not being used dispassionately, but to promote the Growth Mindset and other specific agendas. There is an implication that those who disagree do so because their thinking or worldview or personal motives are deficient. Or to put it another way, ‘if only you thought properly you would come to the right conclusions’ (i.e. Ours).

I have no difficulty with the Growth Mindset, given certain caveats – but any value it has can only be destroyed by using it in a partisan way: this is not good academic practice. I have heard tell that even Dweck is not entirely happy at the way her concept is being used by education.

With my maverick’s hat on, I argued that the success of the Olympic team shows that selection by ability works. At least some of those athletes were head-hunted for their talent, and then around £5 million per medal thrown at them. No-hopers lost their funding.

I wonder how many of the Syeds and disciples of this world would demonstrate a growth mindset if presented with that argument, particularly in the field of education.

Unfortunately, the fallout of such P.C., partisan approaches is the undermining of training within our profession, not least in the eyes of those who are meant to be benefiting from it.

In the rush to impose sports psychology on even the most inappropriate of fields, such people ably both demonstrate their own lack of understanding of the complexities and subtleties of education, and perpetuate the misgivings some of us have as to why it is they are deemed suitable to be telling the rest of us what to do.

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5 thoughts on “Good Sports?

  1. This is a worthwhile dialogue with Syed by Prof. Ross Tucker, an academic sports scientist.

    Note that Tucker’s basic position is “marginal gains, shmarginal gains”, as the articles make clear.

    http://sportsscientists.com/2016/07/fixed-matthew-syed-dismissal-whistleblower-fears/

    http://sportsscientists.com/2016/08/syeds-response-final-wrap-whistleblowerfaith-debate/

    It’s also worth noting that the idea that airline practice has much to offer medicine is hardly new, and not Syed’s work. There a summary from The New Yorker, hardly the most specialised journal, in 2007:

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/10/the-checklist

    The underlying paper is Hales, B.M. and Pronovost, P.J., 2006. The checklist—a tool for error management and performance improvement. Journal of critical care, 21(3), pp.231-235.

    It’s a massively cited paper, which rather gives the lie to the idea that hidebound doctors are resisting good ideas.

    • Many thanks for those links – I have only had time to skim read so far, but it makes interesting reading.

      Debate and critique is fine of course – but surely ought to be included in any review that uses such sources.

  2. Amen. In fact, I’d take it even further.
    The Team GB model works because the achievement – reward relationship in elite sport is so stark; there isn’t much difference between first and fourth in absolute terms, but come fourth at the Olympics and you might as well not have bothered. In that case, it’s worth putting huge efforts into squeezing out the last drops of performance from the fortunate few, but you can only do it for the few, because it costs so much. In a way, it’s what schools do with the CD borderline focus.
    The thing is that I don’t think that’s what schools are being asked to do. A closer fit might be public health- vaccination, clean water, nutrition and the like. In that field, the game seems to be the smallish number of big things that make things OK for the broad population.

    • Good point, thanks. Another problem is that I simply don’t see why education has to be seen in competitive terms. Of course qualifications etc. have come to be competitive by nature, but that is not how I see the function of learning to *think* at all.

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