Schools as (Cheesecake) Factories

I’ve written before about the truly superb work of Atul Gawande, a surgeon who often appears in the New Yorker. Previously, he has drawn comparisons between schooling and medicine by arguing that in both fields practitioners would benefit from coaching.

Recently, he appeared in the New Yorker touting the benefits of standardization across the medical world. After a visit to a local Cheesecake Factory, he wondered why his meal was more reliably delivered and the quality higher than we could expect from routine surgeries. And he writes with awe about the standardization methods used by the chain – and suggests surgery results could improve with a similar mechanism in medicine.

Of course, the debate about standardization in schooling has been raging for some time. While he can seem glib about the topic, Gawande asks some great questions: why do we expect greater reliability from a restaurant than from our most important institutions?

Gawande in his own words:

It was Saturday night, and I was at the local Cheesecake Factory with my two teen-age daughters and three of their friends. You may know the chain: a hundred and sixty restaurants with a catalogue-like menu that, when I did a count, listed three hundred and eight dinner items (including the forty-nine on the “Skinnylicious” menu), plus a hundred and twenty-four choices of beverage. It’s a linen-napkin-and-tablecloth sort of place, but with something for everyone. There’s wine and wasabi-crusted ahi tuna, but there’s also buffalo wings and Bud Light. The kids ordered mostly comfort food—pot stickers, mini crab cakes, teriyaki chicken, Hawaiian pizza, pasta carbonara. I got a beet salad with goat cheese, white-bean hummus and warm flatbread, and the miso salmon.

The place is huge, but it’s invariably packed, and you can see why. The typical entrée is under fifteen dollars. The décor is fancy, in an accessible, Disney-cruise-ship sort of way: faux Egyptian columns, earth-tone murals, vaulted ceilings. The waiters are efficient and friendly. They wear all white (crisp white oxford shirt, pants, apron, sneakers) and try to make you feel as if it were a special night out. As for the food—can I say this without losing forever my chance of getting a reservation at Per Se?—it was delicious.

The chain serves more than eighty million people per year. I pictured semi-frozen bags of beet salad shipped from Mexico, buckets of precooked pasta and production-line hummus, fish from a box. And yet nothing smacked of mass production. My beets were crisp and fresh, the hummus creamy, the salmon like butter in my mouth. No doubt everything we ordered was sweeter, fattier, and bigger than it had to be. But the Cheesecake Factory knows its customers. The whole table was happy (with the possible exception of Ethan, aged sixteen, who picked the onions out of his Hawaiian pizza).

I wondered how they pulled it off. I asked one of the Cheesecake Factory line cooks how much of the food was premade. He told me that everything’s pretty much made from scratch—except the cheesecake, which actually is from a cheesecake factory, in Calabasas, California.

I’d come from the hospital that day. In medicine, too, we are trying to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, we haven’t figured out how. Our costs are soaring, the service is typically mediocre, and the quality is unreliable. Every clinician has his or her own way of doing things, and the rates of failure and complication (not to mention the costs) for a given service routinely vary by a factor of two or three, even within the same hospital.

It’s easy to mock places like the Cheesecake Factory—restaurants that have brought chain production to complicated sit-down meals. But the “casual dining sector,” as it is known, plays a central role in the ecosystem of eating, providing three-course, fork-and-knife restaurant meals that most people across the country couldn’t previously find or afford. The ideas start out in élite, upscale restaurants in major cities. You could think of them as research restaurants, akin to research hospitals. Some of their enthusiasms—miso salmon, Chianti-braised short ribs, flourless chocolate espresso cake—spread to other high-end restaurants. Then the casual-dining chains reëngineer them for affordable delivery to millions. Does health care need something like this?

The Woefully Misunderstood Nature of Creativity

If we are ever going to improve schooling – and maybe more than that – we need to examine all of our old and comfortable beliefs. I’ve written again and again about the half-truths, silliness, and outright lies that people, especially those in this field, repeat without any warrant. Things that might be true, but probably are not – and certainly have no reason behind their popularity.

There are few ideas more commonly repeated and tenderly believed than the value of brainstorming – the notion that the greatest, most productive responses are from groups whose members throw out answers without worrying about their merit.

Jonah Leher, the neuroscience wunderkind, has written a note-perfect piece in this week’s New Yorker. He writes as he usually does – with grace, and clarity, and evidence – in order to unseat one of our most comfortable, but likely untrue, beliefs:

The evidence? Empirical studies, performed since the popularization of the brainstorming fad at BBDO in mid-century, paint a grim picture. In study after study, participants who are asked to brainstorm in the classical manner produce fewer innovative and workable solutions than those who use other methods.

One promising method: debate. Rather than stifle creativity, as the brainstorm proponents would have it, debating the merit of ideas instead of merely accepting all comers.

Recall the last professional development adventure. My bet? It involved the following steps: a collection of weak readings; some sort of collective discussion exercise, resembling a brainstorm session (‘develop a list of ideas that you can all agree on…’); a sharing of these ideas in a group setting; some sort of closure activity, usually non-critical. The common thread? A lack of dissent and debate. All ideas are presented as equals, partly because of the demands of collegiality and partly because the assumption underlying the exercise is the same as the BBDO brainstorming: we collect ideas as though they were all of equal strength. No discussion that might question the consensus. If we’re honest with ourselves, these are nearly always futile exercises that serve to do little else but provide the illusion of developing an organization’s members; part of the reason has to be the degradation of the role of disagreement.

As an advocate of debate in classrooms, I firmly believe that dissent is crucial: it allows students to weigh ideas, to examine their importance, and frankly, to give a damn. School can be boring – asking students to come up with lists of ideas, most of them silly, without asking, “which of these ideas is worth considering,” actually produces more and better ideas. We are a critical species; to pretend otherwise is to engage in sweet delusion.

 

Coaches for Teachers?

Atul Gawande, one of the New Yorker’s most celebrated writers, currently inhabits one of it’s most venerable spaces: the Annals of Medicine. I came across him a few years back in an article he wrote on the increasing industrialization of childbirth. Since then, I’ve devoured his insightful and sometimes contrarian pieces.

Recently, he wrote “Personal Best” – about his experiment using a coach to improve his surgery practice. In it, he makes comparisons between various pursuits – pro sports, singing, surgery, teaching – and wonders if they key to greatness isn’t necessarily talent or education but ongoing, conscious, coach-driven improvements.

Perhaps the reason I like it so much is that I delivered a similar line of thinking in an interview for a position I didn’t get. I made the same comparisons to musicians and medicine – it wasn’t clear to me at the time what the panel thought, but their actions indicated they didn’t share the theory. I still think the idea is correct – and it was lovely to see it in a more capable set of hands than mine.

Here are the highlights of Gawande’s thinking – as it applies to teaching, especially…

Our Current Conception of Learning a Profession
“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. You can go the rest of the way yourself.”

Whereas, in Sports…
“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.”

What about in Teaching?
“California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.”

In a school board where teachers coach other teachers…
“To find its coaches, the program took applications from any teachers in the system who were willing to cross over to the back of the classroom for a couple of years and teach colleagues instead of students.”

An Example of How Coaching Can Help Teachers
“Novice teachers often struggle with the basic behavioral issues. Hobson told me of one such teacher, whose students included a hugely disruptive boy. Hobson took her to observe the boy in another teacher’s classroom, where he behaved like a prince. Only then did the teacher see that her style was the problem. She let students speak—and shout, and interrupt—without raising their hands, and go to the bathroom without asking. Then she got angry when things got out of control.”

The Coaching of a Veteran teacher, Jennie Critzer
“Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.
At lunchtime, Critzer and her coaches sat down at a table in the empty school library. Hobson took the lead. “What worked?” he asked.
Critzer said she had been trying to increase the time that students spend on independent practice during classes, and she thought she was doing a good job. She was also trying to “break the plane” more—get out from in front of the whiteboard and walk among the students—and that was working nicely. But she knew the next question, and posed it herself: “So what didn’t go well?” She noticed one girl who “clearly wasn’t getting it.” But at the time she hadn’t been sure what to do.
“How could you help her?” Hobson asked.
She thought for a moment. “I would need to break the concept down for her more,” she said. “I’ll bring her in during the fifth block.”
“What else did you notice?”
“My second class has thirty kids but was more forthcoming. It was actually easier to teach than the first class. This group is less verbal.” Her answer gave the coaches the opening they wanted. They mentioned the trouble students had with their math conversations, and the girl-boy pair who didn’t talk at all. “How could you help them be more verbal?”
Critzer was stumped. Everyone was. The table fell silent. Then Harding had an idea. “How about putting key math words on the board for them to use—like ‘factoring,’ ‘perfect square,’ ‘radical’?” she said. “They could even record the math words they used in their discussion.” Critzer liked the suggestion. It was something to try.”

And How Did Critzer Feel?
‘I asked Critzer if she liked the coaching. “I do,” she said. “It works with my personality. I’m very self-critical. So I grabbed a coach from the beginning.” She had been concerned for a while about how to do a better job engaging her kids. “So many things have to come together. I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”
She told me that she had begun to burn out. “I felt really isolated, too,” she said. Coaching had changed that. “My stress level is a lot less now.” That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.’

Details Matter
“Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. In sports, coaches focus on mechanics, conditioning, and strategy, and have ways to break each of those down, in turn. The U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, at the first squad meeting each season, even had his players practice putting their socks on. He demonstrated just how to do it: he carefully rolled each sock over his toes, up his foot, around the heel, and pulled it up snug, then went back to his toes and smoothed out the material along the sock’s length, making sure there were no wrinkles or creases. He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. “Details create success” was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships.”

This sort of thinking is exactly the kind of thing advocated by Doug Lemov, teaching and learning guru from the US profiled in the New York Times and elsewhere. In the clip below he highlights the “microtechniques” used by the expert teacher. The details matter; the results, impressive.