Continued learning

Last week I read a fascinating article that compares the coaching model of pro sports with the traditional teaching model. It is written by a surgeon, Dr. Gawande, who had recently spent a free afternoon at a tennis club and paid the club pro (a young man just out of college) to look at his tennis serve and provide advice. Soon afterward, watching a tennis match on TV, he noticed that even the best tennis players in the world have coaches.

Why, he wondered, did professional athletes think it normal and necessary to have coaches, but not people in other professional careers? “Why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?”

Gawande explains the two contrasting models of instruction:

The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. …

Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.
As Dr. Gawande explored the idea further, he discovered that some professional musicians do have coaches. Singers, in particular, need someone to listen and critique them, because the voice always sounds different to the person singing than it does to everyone else. (This is because when you sing or speak, you hear your voice from within your own head as well as coming through the air to your ears, which is why your voice sounds so strange to you when you hear a recording.) 
Gawande learned about a program for teachers to receive coaching from other teachers. Not all teachers want coaching, and not all teachers make good coaches. But for those who request and receive coaching, the results are very positive. And it’s not just new or poorly performing teachers who benefit from it – very good teachers can become even better by getting the feedback provided by a good coach.
So he decided to try getting a coach himself. He contacted a retired surgeon who had trained him during residency, who agreed to come observe during surgery. The first time was a routine operation, which went very smoothly. Yet the retired surgeon was able to point out a number of small details that would improve Dr. Gawande’s technique, and how well he utilized surgical assistants. At other operations he provided continued constructive criticism, enabling Dr. Gawande to continue to improve after he felt he had reached a plateau.
I wish I had had a coach when I was trying to teach. I had not taken education classes in college and had not gone through student teaching, because I already had a double major and did not decide I wanted to teach until my senior year. Perhaps if I had done student teaching I would have become a successful teacher. Or perhaps I would have learned much sooner, and less painfully, that I was not cut out for that profession.
In my first teaching position, I was supposedly an “intern” and was supposed to learn from a “master teacher.” She taught science, however, not foreign languages. I was the only language teacher at the high school. (There was a Latin teacher in the middle school, but Latin is not taught the same was as modern languages.) After one year I went back to school to get a Master’s degree and take some education classes.
In my next (and last) position, other teachers sometimes came and sat in my classroom. What they observed, however, was never the same as what went on when they weren’t there. My problem was with the students’ behavior, more than with teaching techniques. And the students knew enough to behave themselves when there was a more experienced teacher in the room.
Most professions do require continuing education, but this consists primarily of taking classes. Teachers learn new pedagogical techniques and theories about learning. Scientists try to keep up with the enormous advances that take place in their fields. My husband, a pastor, has taken a variety of continuing education classes on topics that will help him as a church leader and as a counselor. Even accountants, who still use the double entry bookkeeping system invented in the fifteenth century, need to learn about new laws, and ways that accounting can improve a business rather than just making sure the books are accurate.
All that is adding to one’s store of knowledge, however, not improving one’s technique. I read today that the root of the word profession is the same as of the word professor, as they are fields where specialized knowledge is essential. Ability can’t make up for a lack of knowledge. But as a failed classroom teacher, I can assure you that knowledge doesn’t do a lot of good without certain kinds of skill.
Just about every professional needs good interpersonal skills. (Certain technical fields may be an exception; even people with autism spectrum disorders often excel in information technology.) Some professionals do manage to get by with shortcomings in this regard, especially if they are especially skilled or knowledgeable in their primary area of responsibility. But they could be even more effective in their work if they improved in the interpersonal area also, and it often takes an outside observer to provide the feedback needed for such improvement.
I think that a lot of what contributes to the success of Toastmasters is the mutual coaching it provides. Many people are understandably uncomfortable with being evaluated when the result can have repercussions in terms of job performance reviews. But Toastmasters, even in a corporate club like ours (only employees can join), is a “safe” place. You get to practice your speaking and leadership skills among friends who want have no personal stake how well you are rated, other than as friends who care about each other.
Of course, there is the problem of people giving evaluations that just say what a good job you did and offer next to nothing in the way of constructive criticism. But we improve in our skills as evaluators also, and I have learned in the past few months areas I need to work on from those evaluations.
There are times I wish I had a coach for life in general. Did I answer that question Al asked well enough? Did that comment I made to a co-worker sound really lame? What could I do differently to make friends more easily? Do I need to just try harder at some particular endeavor or is my whole approach misguided? What things am I too hard on myself about and in what areas do I let myself off too easily?
I’m good with the kind of knowledge that comes from books. I enjoy learning and I do it well. But the kind of skills that really seem to matter most in life are harder to learn – or teach, and even more difficult to know whether I’m doing them well enough.

2 Responses to Continued learning

  1. Stephen Kahn says:

    Excellent post. As is so often the case, my experiences (with teaching, for example) are very similar to yours. When I began teaching I was a terrible teacher, but over time I gradually became a better one. Eventually, I trained and coached some volunteer teachers at the library where I worked.

    I didn’t learn to use a chain saw until I was 60 or so and moved to the woods. My neighbor has used one all his life and has been a gentle, helpful, and charming coach.

  2. Stephen Kahn says:

    As I sometimes do, I am going to suggest several topics you might want to keep your eye on for discussion in your blog:

    1) The film Transcent Man about Ray Kurzweill.

    2) The recent DARPA Starship Conference

    3) The science fiction book about starship travel, discovery of alien intelligence, and calamitous attempt to send a Jesuit Missionary: The Sparrow.

    4) The interesting book about whales and dolphins (I heard the author speak and talked with him) Devil Dolphins of Silver Lagoon and Other Stories

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