Hitting home runs

I’ve just finished reading Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which has been made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Finding insight in different places often provides a new perspective on the work we do.  For me, the commonality was the desire to build a high performing baseball team and the desire to build a high performing school, district or system.

The book is based on the exploits of former major league baseball player and general manager of the Oakland As, Billy Beane.  Beane faces the uneviable task of trying to build a succcessful baseball team within ever increasing financial constraints and greater expecations by fans.  The tried and true method of drafing players rested with talent scouts who would scour the country identifying players based on personal perception and experience.  Beane decides they need to do something differently to turnaround the team and enlists the help of a statistician who has no baseball experience.

Surprised by the amount of data that was either unused or previously unanalsyed, Beane and his statistician begin analsying player by player.  And like all good Hollywood scripts,  the team begins to improve because Beane had the courage to challenge the prevailing culture, to use evidence to support the decision making process, to put the best players where they would make a difference and to question the existing paradigm.  If the Oakland As was a case study in education, Michael Fullan would refer to this as a turnaround school.  While Beane didn’t dismiss the wisdom of the crowd (the talent scouts), he sought to get the best results using evidence and experience.

What are the lessons we can learn from the Oakland As?  Are we hitting home runs for our school communities?

4 thoughts on “Hitting home runs

  1. I haven’t read the book, but “Moneyball” was an entertaining movie and the central character, Billy Beane, is indeed portrayed as showing courage in challenging conventional wisdom and turning around his team. So what can we learn as educators and school leaders? And what might we hesitate to follow?

    Using statistics to inform coaches and athletes has for decades been an integral part of elite sport in Australia. Perhaps one of the earliest proponents was our own Forbes Carlisle back in the 1960s. Elite athletes in sports such as baseball or swimming practice a very narrow range of skills to a very high level of expertise. The target skill can be very precisely defined. It is relatively easy to gather statistics about the athlete’s performance – an observer can easily focus on this narrow skill set. Agreement about successful performance can be reached readily.

    Can we apply this to teaching and leading? I see that the immediate and regular feedback that elite athletes and coaches receive may be much like formative assessment. It can be highly effective in improving performance. However, here to me is where the analogy ends. Do we and should we agree to measure our school success and our teachers’ success on a similar very narrow skill set such as we might use for elite athletes? Can we easily define what expert practice in teaching is and what are the desired understanding and skills our students should acquire? The main lesson I’ve learnt this year from our Instructional Rounds network is how very complex teaching is and how difficult is it to get agreement from experienced educators as to what constitutes the ideal performance in each of the multifaceted actions that each teacher takes each minute of each day.

    My other main hesitation is that to which Ed aludes. In sport, players (teachers?) are selected for their talent and dropped (retrenched/ transferred?) after a few poor performances. “Moneyball” highlighted the way Beane selected the right players for his team based on criteria even more narrow than those traditionally used. If you watched “Moneyball” did your heart sink when players were released from their contracts based only on performance in one or two games where they failed to achieve the desired statistics? Other qualities the players displayed- teamwork, effort, application – weren’t considered. Yet is this the world we are moving to in education – league tables, performance pay?

    Viewing or reading “Moneybal”l might prompt us consider what is important in leadership and what isn’t.

    At the end of this year I want to say thanks Greg for the varied and challenging readings you provide for us. You are providing a wonderful thought-provoking resource for educators.

    1. Thanks for all your insightful comments. I’ve been reflecting on the book in light of your comments. I don’t know whether Fullan had input but Fullan would certainly resonate with gathering evidence to inform practice and improve learning in much the same way as Beane did to improve his team’s performance. The book/film make the point that ultimately the success of the team depends on the number of runs over the course of the season. This might seem obvious but it certainly wasn’t obvious to the scouts, commentators and managers at the time. The lesson we can draw is that the improvement of the learning is where we score the greatest runs on our board. The second observation I want to make is that in my reflections about Moneyball, I agree wholeheartedly that it is the breadth of data that is critical – the narrower we make it the more short-sited we are. Ultimately, what Moneyball showed was that the achievement of the runs was not just down to the batter, it depended on a number of variables that had to do with the opposition, who were the first three batters, nature of management etc. This speaks to me about the power of the team and an understanding that improving kids’ learning is dependent on how well we work together as a learning community. Keep sharing your ideas, comments and expertise.

  2. Overwhelmingly the book / movie Moneyball draws many parallels with our system. For too long we have sat around the table talking about what felt right or what looked right relying on our ‘gut feeling’ to inform practice. Moneyball is a great example of what you can do when you collect data, examine it and make decisions based on the data.

    Beane also had to make the tough often unpopular decisions. He also challenged those who opposed him and used those who blocked him to his greatest gain.

    I wonder if Michael Fullan had input into this script?

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