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Performance is Good, but We Need Learners (What the World Series Can Teach Us About the Classroom)

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This is the first in a four-part series exploring the power of mindset in creating positive learning experiences and changing outcomes.

Dr. David Dockterman, Ed.D.

Dr. David Dockterman, Ed.D.

I suspect we all agree that the world is changing. How fast? You can see a live view of Internet churn here, which highlights stats and figures related to social media and download activity. Take a look - it’s staggering.

The digital revolution has sparked a knowledge economy with new companies and business models constantly blossoming (and wilting) in a swirl of innovation. Take a moment to reflect on how much your own personal and work lives have changed over the last decade. How many new ways of communicating, paying, watching, teaching, and listening have you learned…or resisted learning? The one constant in today’s world is change. How do we prepare our students, our children and the next generation, for this kind of moving target?

To flourish in this dynamic landscape, we (educators, families, community members) and our students, need to be adaptable, curious, willing to take risks, and open to innovation. We need to be learners.

Sadly, our educational system isn’t always aligned with that goal. Sometimes we focus too much on performance, passing the test, showing mastery of objectives, and covering the curriculum. We forget how difficult – and rewarding – learning something new can and should be. We can also get caught up trying to protect our students’ self-esteem. We don’t want our children to feel defeated, so we sometimes go overboard protecting them from failure. Well-meaning parents and teachers step in at the first sign of struggle to gently guide their charges along the path to success. We want achievement and high performance to come effortlessly.

When it does come effortlessly, students feel smart. “Look what I did, and I barely even tried. I must be really smart at this.” And when achievement doesn’t come easily, students can feel dumb. “Other students got it so quickly, but I didn’t. I must be dumb at this.” Students all along the performance spectrum can develop what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” about their ability to learn in certain domains. Performance becomes everything, shutting down the effort that learning demands and creating a roadblock to eventual success.

Ned Yost, manager of the 2015 World Series Champions, the Kansas City Royals, illustrates this tension between performance and learning with his unique approach to coaching his players. Yost often receives  criticism for not being a data-driven manager. Early in the season he’ll put an untested pitcher on the mound in a tough situation or leave a player in to hit even though the numbers suggest a different option would be better. Commentators chastise Yost for these bad decisions, but the manager has a different goal.

“I wanted to put those young players in a position to gain experience, so that when we could compete for a championship, they’d know how,’’ Yost says. ‘‘You can’t do that when you’re pinch-hitting for young guys. You can’t do it when you quick-hook starting pitchers. They’ll never learn to work themselves out of trouble. People would say, ‘What’s he doing?’ They didn’t understand. I’d rather lose a game on my watch so they could win later.’’ (New York Times)

Yost wants his players to be learners in order for them to be performers. He doesn’t want them stuck in a mindset of only being good at what they already do well. And his approach has paid off.

We need to strike a similar balance in the way we educate our children at home and in school. The future, while exciting, is uncertain. What skills will be valuable in the next decade might not be the skills children learn today. Our kids, like Yost’s young players, need to be ready and willing to take on new challenges. They need the experience of effortful learning and working their way through something difficult. If we can successfully turn our students into learners, we’ll get the performance we want in school and beyond.


David Dockterman, Ed.D., is Chief Architect, Learning Sciences, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Adjunct Lecturer on Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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