Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Quarterback Problem

I particularly liked this article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. It describes the quarterback problem, how predicting which college quarterbacks will succeed in the pros is nearly impossible. Some of the best college quarterbacks flop while other seemingly less promising players thrive. Performance in the college game is only a modest indicator of how a player will perform in the NFL with it's very different and more extreme set of challenges. And I.Q. tests and other commonly used predictors are largely useless:
"This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired."
In other words, the only reliable way to figure out how a quarterback will play in the NFL is to put him in the NFL and see how he plays.

And, Gladwell argues, teaching suffers from the same dilemma. Training, certification, and other requirements typically mandated of teachers turn out to be essentially useless in predicting a teacher's success.

Again, it's the same basic problem: the set of challenges presented by a classroom are so unique and the set of skills needed to successfully manage them is so specific that no test—other than putting someone in a classroom and seeing what happens—can accurately identify who will be a successful teacher. (I've certainly witnessed first-hand exactly how teaching can go wrong and how, despite my good intentions and promising list of skills, I got brutally sacked—metaphorically, that is—by a bunch of twelve-year-olds.)*

Curious, curious.

* The implication, Gladwell continues, is that teaching should shift to an apprenticeship system in which anyone with a college degree can start teaching and is subsequently judged based on actual performance in the classroom, not on external, largely arbitrary criteria.


  1. Anonymous11:36 PM

    Ooo. That looks like some good reading. Thanks.

    Also, Mr. O, maybe you're an HSP. I'm just guessing on that (being as you've somehow retained a childhood memory about some friend's father's way of eating his peas as well as the details of the carpet underneath his feet, the chair he sat in, and the tray upon which his peas were placed).

    For these folks a full day of over-seeing a bunch of children would cause a serious case of overarousal, exhaustion, and a need to withdraw.

    (And that's not to say that they aren't great teachers. They're probably the best. They just have to find the right setting.)

  2. Highly Sensitive Person, I like it. Do I get to write "HSP" after my name, like "PhD" or "Esq." I think I'll get some business cards made. (And this may also explain why I'm highly sensitive to electro-shocks.)

    As for the childhood pea-memories, I've accurately described exactly how I remember the scene, and the key facts are essentially correct, though it is possible that my brain has subsequently borrowed some of the secondary details from the depiction of Mrs. Buckets ("Boo-KAY's") low-rent brother-in-law in "Keeping Up Appearances".

    As for the teaching, your assessment sounds about right.

  3. Anonymous9:55 AM

    The tenure process, at least in higher education, is pretty much an apprenticeship program. Especially when you factor in the teaching grad students do. Don't most 'professions' have something like this, for precisely the reasons Gladwell cites? I guess this struck me as less a 'dilemma' than a very familiar situation that's been around forever.

  4. Anonymous9:57 AM

    Oops, I'm not Cameron.

  5. isn't that what student teaching is for?

  6. Anonymous1:17 PM

    A couple of years ago a teacher-friend of mine cc'd me with a similar version of this popular e-mail that floats amongst the people of pedagogy.

    Go figure, the surviving survivor of the latest Survivor is a physics teacher.

    I like the Gladwell article.
    Maybe we should go back to Normal Schools. People could earn the equivalent of an associate's degree, work in the classroom, and if it doesn't work out, return to college to get a bachelor's. (It does seem preposterous that in some states it is becoming required for teachers to have a Master's to teach elementary kids - with no state financial re-imbursement for those extra college years of, basically, theory...and, in regards to the article, no more of a guarantee for a successful career. That seems like A LOT of time and money down the tube.)

    P.S. I heart Onslow.

  7. Anonymous9:21 AM

    It's common for new teachers, especially those pursuing alternative certification, to never experience student teaching. I know I didn't-- they just put me "in service" and wished me luck. And anyway, like craic-head noted, it doesn't take you long to realize that all that theory means squat when you're in a cage fight with 30 adolescents.

  8. I really enjoyed this article. Gladwell's dilemma applies not only to teachers and quarterbacks, but to entrepreneurs as well. No amount of education, training, or social networking will ensure the success of a small business--and what that business needs to survive can only be learned through doing: risking and learning.

    Although it is true that apprenticeships and student teaching programs do exist, it is not true that they always work, or even work very well. It seems to me that Gladwell's point is to illustrate the amount of time and resources that are wasted by following currently established programs.

    His example of the study that analyzes people's personalities by visiting their rooms when they are not in them was quite interesting. The conclusions reached by this method were significantly more correct than those gleaned from interviews with the people themselves.

    I think he's just asking us to think differently about our concepts of excellence; mainly, that we can't know what excellence is until it is actually demonstrated. The article is an apt reflection on our times.