In “The Big Man Can’t Shoot” from the first season of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, Gladwell explores Wilt Chamberlain’s adoption and then subsequent rejection of the underhand shot as a study of why excellence in innovation is so challenging. Wilt’s example is, on the surface, simple. He had a problem—he couldn’t shoot free throws. He found a potential solution—shoot underhanded, a solution that would suddenly make him an asset not a liability at the end of close games. As his coach said, if Wilt shot 90 percent, we might never lose.
Of course, Wilt never shot 90 percent. He shot 51 percent for his career, because he quickly gave up on the underhanded shot. As he describes in his biography, “I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now the best one in the NBA Rick Barry shoots underhanded. I just couldn’t do it.”
He couldn’t do it? He had an unconventional method that had proven effective and with more refining could prove even more effective. There was quantifiable evidence of success, but he couldn’t do it because he felt silly. One of the most impressive athletes of the last century couldn’t improve because he felt silly, or worse, he felt like a sissy.
Now this is a bigger problem than basketball. This is a problem for education and even for society. How many times does our pride get in the way of our progress? In 2006, Carol Dweck wrote a book entitled, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, that explored how the fixed mindset impedes learning. The lesson is not unlike the lesson of Wilt Chamberlain. As Dweck discussed early in her work, those with a fixed mindset approached every learning task with the following questions running through their mind: “Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?” In essence, “Will I look silly?”
Interestingly, those who were labeled smart, or worse, gifted and talented, from a young age were even more hesitant to take on challenging tasks and risk their status. Like Wilt Chamberlain, already deemed the most amazing athlete of his generation, they simply had too much to lose. As parents and educators, we have to be aware of Dweck’s findings and work hard to not inadvertently solidify how students see themselves. The best educators have to see intelligence as fluid, to see each individual child as having the potential to grow. As Dweck states later in her book, “Great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.” This year, we will focus on great teaching, specifically, how our educators inspire growth in each other so that they can inspire growth in their students.
To reach our potential as professionals, we will rely on innovation, collaboration, and leadership. First, when we innovate, we immediately imperil our pride. We have to step forward and say, “I want to try something new, it may fail, but I am committed to refining the idea, as crazy as it may be, until it is effective.” That process, if it includes reflection and openness to feedback, will naturally result in growth.
Who most helps us grow? Our colleagues. To collaborate well, we must put aside our ego and be open to the opinions and ideas of others. In doing so, we learn more about ourselves professionally because of an inclusive approach that gives us access to a wide range of expertise and experience. This year, through Peer Cohorts and the Faculty Growth Feedback Model, we will encourage this inclusivity and cooperation amongst our teachers, building on the natural collaboration that occurs in teams and departments.
Leadership comes in many varieties, but at its core is a commitment to engage and influence. The first step is to enter any collaborative situation and be fully present, listen and witness thoroughly. Then, the next step is to devote oneself to positively impact the group, the grade level, and possibly the entire school. Like innovation and collaboration, leadership is a gamble. There is always the possibility to fail, to look bad, but hopefully, we have the courage to step forward even in the midst of that risk and do our best to change Graland and the world for the better.
This year I am excited to see what manifests from this commitment to growth. If we approach learning experiences with the belief that we will gain growth rather than the fear that we will lose status, we will help create a dynamic learning environment where both children and adults flourish. I am not sure we will sink more free throws, but we will definitely change more lives.
Josh Cobb joined Graland in 2002 as a seasoned educator who taught history, English and drama. Now Head of School, he holds a master’s degree in English literature, a master’s in education and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Josh once traveled extensively through the Himalayas, spending two years studying Buddhism and teaching English to Buddhist monks.