• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


When Less Can Be More

Beware of diminishing returns.


March 6, 2018

Do you ever have the experience of seeing where somebody else appears stumped by a dilemma, and not knowing why, because the answer seems obvious?  

I had that on Tuesday reading this piece from the Hechinger report about teacher coaching.  Yes, it’s set in K-12 schools, but that seems incidental to the crux of the piece. It’s about the benefits to teachers and students when the teachers themselves have coaches who occasionally work with them to make their classes better.  Apparently, there’s a fairly noticeable improvement in the first year, with a rapid leveling-off after that. The payoff for students isn’t trivial: as the article notes, “[t]he increase in student achievement from coaching is on par with the gain researchers typically see from students of a veteran teacher with 5 to 10 years of experience compared to a novice teacher.”  That’s something.

The article presents the leveling-off after the first year as a bit of a mystery. I’m not sure why. Herein, I propose my alternate explanation:

The first few times a coach observes a teacher, s/he is likely to notice the most glaring issues. As those get addressed, or not, the coach will move down the list of steadily less important (or less changeable) issues. Diminishing returns will set in.

I don’t see that as an argument against coaching, at all.  I see it as an argument against routine.

On my own campus, we have a group of faculty who are on call to provide non-evaluative peer observations for their colleagues, upon request.  I’ve sworn the group to secrecy as to who they’ve seen, but a few people who’ve been seen have volunteered testimony to the effect that it was remarkably useful for the small amount of time involved.  A peer watches one class, then talks to you about it afterwards for maybe a half hour. That’s it. In that time, a peer might make one or two suggestions that turn out to be useful. Fresh eyes on one side, and open ears on the other, can lead to something valuable.  But if the peer came back week after week, or new ones came back week after week, the feedback would quickly devolve from revelatory to desultory. It would have to.

The lesson for me is not that coaching is inherently good or bad. It’s that a little bit is very good, but you hit diminishing returns quickly.  So the goal of any coaching approach should be to reach as many people as possible, even if only briefly.  And institutionally, it’s better to have a set of tools to switch out than to use the same few over and over again.  Just as with students, not everybody will respond to the same intervention the same way.

In the parable of the fox and the hedgehog, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. This is where administrators need to be foxes. Any one solution, no matter how elegant, will take you only so far; you have to keep trying different things.  

Admittedly, this temperament made grad school a bit of a challenge; I would look into one school of thought, or follow one person, until diminishing returns set in and I would switch. Some hedgehogs didn’t think much of that, and in retrospect, I can understand why. But to thine own self be true.

What looks like a mystery to a hedgehog is clear as day to a fox. Do some coaching, then switch it up and do something else. The law of diminishing returns is unforgiving.


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