Is Teaching More Like Baseball Or Basketball?

** Republished here in the Washington Post

Earlier this year, a paper by Roderick I. Swaab and colleagues received considerable media attention (e.g., see here, here, and here). The research questioned the widely shared belief that bringing together the most talented individuals always produces the best result. The authors looked at various types of sports (e.g., player characteristics and behavior, team performance etc.), and were able to demonstrate that there is such thing as “too much talent," and that having too many superstars can hurt overall team performance, at least when the sport requires cooperation among team members.

My immediate questions after reading the paper were: Do these findings generalize outside the world of sports and, if so, what might be the implications for education? To my surprise, I did not find much commentary or analysis addressing them. I am sure not everybody saw the paper, but I also wonder if this absence might have something to do with how teaching is generally viewed: More like baseball (i.e., a more individualistic team sport) than, say, like basketball. But in our social side of education reform series, we have been discussing a wealth of compelling research suggesting that teaching is not individualistic at all, and that schools thrive on trusting relationships and cooperation, rather than competition and individual prowess.

So, if teaching is indeed more like basketball than like baseball, what are the implications of this study for strategies and policies aimed at identifying, developing and supporting teaching quality?

Let's quickly review the study first. The authors argue that "widespread intuitions about talent and team performance [i.e., the more talented individuals a team has, the better the team will be] are not uniformly accurate." They elaborate as follows:

More talent often facilitates team performance - but only up to a point. Beyond this point, the marginal benefits of more talent will decrease and eventually turn into detriments. That is, at some point there will be too much talent, which will impair team performance.

According to the researchers, one reason why talent is sometimes in overabundance is that, in the absence of a clear hierarchy, energy that could be used productively (e.g., to coordinate work with team members) is used unproductively (e.g., to establish a pecking order via intra-team competition). The researchers also anticipated that the “too-much-talent effect” would be moderated by how much interdependence is required to perform a given task. They tested these hypotheses by examining soccer, basketball and baseball data. As predicted, they found a too-much-talent effect for soccer and basketball but not for baseball, which requires less team-based coordination and interdependence.

"Our findings," the authors conclude, “reflect the disappointing fact that teams of superstars often fail to live up to expectations. (...) The current data suggest that selecting fewer top-talent players may produce a better team."

This should not, in my opinion, be disappointing, especially if we consider the fact that most individuals are not top-talent. As Charles O’Reilly and Jeffrey Pfeffer argued about a decade ago, there is hidden value in ordinary people, and smart organizations would do well to avoid the escalating war for talent and, instead, focus on building organizations that allow ordinary folks to perform at a high level.

Unfortunately, none of these insights inform the dominant education discourse. Most reforms and their advocates continue to focus on identifying, recruiting, and retaining the best and the brightest. To be clear, talent no doubt is important, and should be a part of any education strategy. However, the research that we've been discussing in the social side series suggests that it might be smarter to focus on developing excellent teams of educators for all. One reason, which I discussed at length in a previous post, is that while most of us are neither exceptional nor awful, social capital (i.e., relationships, networks and collaboration) can move us from good to great.

The work by Swaab and colleagues suggests a second reason: Too many excellent individuals might in fact produce a lower performing team, especially if the task at hand requires coordination and cooperation. Of course, this doesn't mean we shouldn't get the best teachers we can get, only that the best teachers might already be under our noses without our knowing it, and need only proper supports (e.g., time and space to work together) as well as consideration of issues like fit, to collectively reach the level of quality that we need in our schools. 

-Esther Quintero


Esther--your points along these lines are completely on-target!

I have long argued that creating effective teams of teachers is more analogous to building a basketball team rather than a baseball team. My favorite example is the San Antonio Spurs. They focus on (1) playing as a TEAM,(2) ensuring stability of coaches (leaders) and players (teachers),(3)empowering their players (teachers) to lead, and (4) drafting the best player for the TEAM rather than the best player AVAILABLE.

This approach has arguably led to the most dominant franchise in basketball since the Bulls with Michael Jordan. But even the Bulls during their championship years followed much of the same formula.

My colleagues Bruce Baker and Michelle D. Young took this approach in our study of effective principal prep programs in preparing principals effective in improving achievement through the building of teacher TEAMS.

Fuller, E., Young, M., & Baker, B. D. (2010). Do principal preparation programs influence student achievement through the building of teacher-team qualifications by the principal? An exploratory analysis. Educational Administration Quarterly, 47(1):173-216.


Hah! I thought the comparison between baseball and basketball was going to be more along the lines of episodic sport with time to think in between plays, versus constant "flow" sport with decisions being made on the fly. There are elements of both in teaching, of course, but the wall-to-wall action of basketball is too grueling to make sense in a classroom or school day setting,