Humans do not always perform according to algorithm
by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist
The Red Sox won the World Series this fall for the fourth time in fourteen years. If any of my friends had told me in 2003 that the Red Sox would collect four World Series championships in the next decade and a half, I would have told them they were crazy. (Disclosure: I strongly believe most of my friends to be crazy anyway.)
Championships do not happen by fluke. The cosmic forces of the universe have to align to create just one instance when a team is permitted to accomplish such a feat. Okay, having great talent helps: but the team with the most talented players does not always win– and often does not. It takes a myriad of little things to make a championship happen. A former boss of mine used to preach to the staff: “Worry about the little things. Big things take care of themselves.” For the Red Sox, those little things began on the very first day of Spring Training. For us fans in the world of education, there are lessons to be learned here.
From the very first day, manager Alex Cora made his philosophies and strategies clear to his players. Much of it had to do with rest. He was preparing the team not just for the 162-game season but for a deep playoff run as well. He made this clear to the players and communicated days in advance when a player was to have a scheduled day off. When Xander Bogaerts received such a text during the first week of the regular season he replied, “You really weren’t kidding about those days off?”
Communication is vital to the success of any endeavor. When an administrator issues a blanket policy to teachers without explanation or any type of logic, it can cause a backlash among the staff. The same thing goes for a teacher to students: if students do not understand why the classroom is run the way it is, or why they are doing an assignment, they may not fully buy in. Complete buy-in was essential for the Red Sox. Alex Cora’s players would run through walls for their manager by mid-season. Many were at that point much earlier. He gained their trust and he had a plan. Which, it turned out, worked exactly the way he intended.
Right vs Wrong
Cora could seemingly do no wrong during the playoffs. His moves were inscrutable. Brock Holt was the first player ever to hit for the cycle in the playoffs. He was pulled from the lineup the next night. Eduardo Nunez pinch-hitting for Rafael Devers? Three-run home run! But there were times during the season, and even once in the playoffs, when Cora admitted a mistake. “The game got a little bit ahead of me,” was a line he used more than once during the season. He frankly admitted leaving Eduardo Rodriguez in for one batter too many in World Series Game 4, resulting in a three-run homer. Shades of Grady Little.
A manager admitting a mistake was unusual and refreshing. It earned him respect from fans and the media alike. Administrators and teachers are much like managers and coaches: we hate to admit when we’ve made a mistake. But teachers will have great respect for an administrator who concedes that an idea of his wasn’t exactly what the school needed; and students will respect a teacher who admits that “The class got a little bit ahead of me. ” It is usually abundantly obvious to both teachers and students when mistakes are made. Not admitting them demonstrates a lack of humility and can even project a sense of arrogance. No one is buying in when arrogance rears its ugly head.
Cora and the crew who crunch numbers for the team did an outstanding job behind the scenes. Cora had a wealth of information about his own players and the opponents for each game. But every once in a while, he played a hunch rather than going strictly by the numbers. There is a quirky human factor in the game of baseball, and sometimes things happen that make absolutely no statistical sense.
In education, the wealth of standardized testing delivers ample data for teachers and administrators. But as professional educators, we know our students. Teachers and even administrators are human, and humans do not always perform according to algorithm. The people in the trenches and on the front lines know their students best, and know when to let instinct trump statistics. The hunch played in a classroom can result in an academic grand slam for a student.
Early in the season, J.D. Martinez made the unprecedented request to have his batting practice sessions videotaped so he could analyze them. It did not take long for all the players to request the same thing and suddenly the team had a new resource to improve hitting.
Administrators may find that the best ideas come from teachers, and teachers can discover a new idea or method of presenting material by listening to students. If the staff and students have truly bought in to the goals set for the school, everyone has a stake in the game and everyone will find a way to contribute.
Best for the Team
One of the best moments of the World Series came in the middle of the ninth inning. For the entire playoff run, the pitching staff threw their concerns about protecting their arms out the window. Players who threw over 100 pitches one day were volunteering to pitch the next. Immediately after the 18 inning Game 3 marathon, Alex Cora had no less than four pitchers in his office volunteering to start game 4. One of them was Nathan Eovaldi who had just finished throwing 97 pitches in more than six innings of relief.
In the ninth inning of Game 5, Chris Sale, the originally announced starter, began warming up in the bullpen. As the bottom of the ninth began, the bullpen door opened and all the pitchers lined up and applauded Sale as he entered the game. It was a sight even veteran baseball fans had never seen. Most players want the ball, and while they may never admit it, they get a bit jealous when another pitcher gets the call. This group were all about what was best for the team. They checked their egos at the bullpen door.
Our focus as educators always has to be on the good of the students. It can be hard to focus on the task in front of us and not stew about the colleague who has an easier schedule or has students who are more focused and teachable. Borrowing a page from the Patriots playbook, everyone on the 2018 Red Sox did their job and showed no qualms about the assignments handed to other teammates. The result was another duck boat parade.
It takes an entire organization to shepherd a team to success. From the very top down, everyone must find a way to buy in, trust each other, and always focus on the common good. It isn’t easy. It takes a very special type of leadership to foster such trust and commitment—even when it takes until 3:30 a.m. to see the results. The more students find ways to make great plays, the more teachers can celebrate, and administrators can plan for the duck boat parade.