It was a cold rainy March night in Hershey, Pennsylvania when a sparse crowd shuffled in to watch the two professional basketball teams play their scheduled game that night. It was estimated that a bit more than 4000 fans came out to watch the game between the Philadelphia Warriors and the New York Nicks. In 1962, the Warriors were playing in Hershey in order to facilitate larger crowds at their games. There were no television cameras and no New York sportswriters covering this, as it turns out, monumental historical event. The only known recording of the documented heroic feat was a fourth quarter radio broadcast. No one expected to happen what actually happened, and now it is just a part of professional basketball lore.
I am not sharing this story because I think we need “heroic events” in education to help more of our students achieve at high levels or because basketball is my passion and everyone should just appreciate a good basketball story. On the contrary, this story and others will illustrate for us why good ideas have a hard time spreading across larger groups and what lessons we might be able to learn about culture and the power of positive change. With that said, let’s get back to basketball.
The Warriors employed a third year veteran named Wilt Chamberlain. He was a 7 foot, 275 pound man that could score at will. He would often shrug off multiple defenders to put the ball in the basket. That night he was truly amazing. At the end of the first quarter he had scored 23 points. That isn’t that amazing, but by the end of the first half he had scored 41 points. It wasn’t until he had scored 69 points at the end of the third quarter that people knew something special was happening. Wilt Chamberlain ended the game scoring 100 points by himself. A mark that has never been repeated in NBA history. Actually Wilt averaged 50 points a game that season which is a mark that will most likely never be matched. But Wilt had one Achilles heal. He was a terrible free throw shooter. Before that year he was only making, on average, 4 out of every 10 free throws he tried. If you are not familiar, the free throw is a shot that is 15 feet from the basket, and no one is allowed to defend you. You get to take your time to shoot the ball in the basket on your own. One of the highest scorers in the game and he couldn’t shoot from the “charity stripe”, as it is sometimes called, at a high rate.
I went to hear a teacher speak about a month ago, and the message was very moving. I was taken aback by her candor about her childhood and what her experiences were at schools. I was so moved that I felt compelled to stand and applaud when she finished. But I didn’t. What I actually did was look around and see what others were going to do and then when no one else stood, I also did not stand. This is a prime example of what we are discussing. Back to basketball.
So Wilt couldn’t shoot the easiest shot in basketball. But that year, and in particular in that game, Wilt tried a different tactic. He was shooting underhand from the free throw line and it was working. That night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Wilt made 28 out of 32. That was an astounding 87%. He was actually raising his average that year as a whole. Wilt Chamberlain, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, had found a solution to his problem. But then he did something that changed that trajectory. He stopped shooting underhand and went back to his dismal 40%. Why would someone who had finally found a solution to the one area of his professional career that he needed to work on stop using a solution that solved that issue? Here are Wilt’s own words in his Autobiography. “I felt silly, like a sissy shooting underhand. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best fowl shooters in history shot that way. Even now one of the best ones in the NBA, Rick Berry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn’t do it.” He just couldn’t do it? What? But this might have helped his team to never lose a game, and he just couldn’t do it.
Social Science has many studies that are beginning to explain why Wilt Chamberlain stopped shooting underhand and why I wouldn’t stand to applaud that teacher. Mark Granovetter, sociologist and professor at Stanford University, calls it the problem of thresholds. Before Granovetter’s theory many people thought that individuals modified their beliefs based on something called “Mob Rule”. But Granovetter didn’t buy it. What he is saying is that a belief is an internal thing that is in our head or our heart and that rarely changes in a moments notice. Thresholds, on the other-hand, are an external force (peer pressure if you will). This external force is influenced by the number of people who have to do something before you will join in. We all have them. For example, lets say you let your teenage son take the car out with friends. While they are out driving he drives 100 miles per hour with the car. It really isn’t that he “believes” that driving 100 miles per hour is a good idea. In that moment, his beliefs are irrelevant. His behavior is guided by his level of threshold as it pertains to driving with friends. He is 18 years-old, with his friends late at night, and at that moment his threshold is low enough to act upon a suggestion that might break his beliefs. This is why people regret some actions.
That example doesn’t really explain why “Mob Rule” happens really. Why do really nice people do things that seem to go contrary to their beliefs. Well what he says is this. Within a group everyone has different thresholds. So if one of the persons in a group has a low threshold (zero), they will stand and applaud without anyone else standing, then they will activate those with a threshold of “one” who will activate those with a threshold of “two” and so on until the entire group might be doing it. He goes on to say that it happens over a very short moment of time. It isn’t about their beliefs of what is right or wrong, they don’t lose those beliefs suddenly; their personal threshold has been met and so they do it. Some standing and clapping might actually not “believe” that they should be standing and clapping, but they are still doing it.
In my current position I am afforded the opportunity to visit classrooms. While on one of these walks, I ended up in a classroom where the teacher was admonishing the students for their behavior with the sub the day before. This teacher was talking about what they should have done and telling them that next time they might get extra work if it continues and so on. The teacher was pleasant and trying to communicate how disappointed he was. At first all of the kids were just sitting and listening. Then one student said a joking “smartaleck” comment and a few students giggled. The teacher then responded to that student comment, in a very quiet kind manner, and all the students either literally turned and looked at that one student or turned their listening to that one student. The student did come back with a response but so did three other students, and all the students giggled. The teacher wasn’t mad and didn’t get angry at the comment. The teacher handled it perfectly. He recognized his strategy wasn’t having the effect he had hoped for so he went in another direction. It is a dynamic that is played out everyday in our schools. I am not talking about the teacher student interaction described above. I am talking about how students’ actions are activated by other students’ actions. We work in a social environment.
What can we learn from this piece of information? Well first of all, for those of us who can’t shoot a free throw, we might want to consider the underhand shooting technique. But also we should recognize that beliefs aren’t going to matter as much if you want to understand why people do or don’t do something. You have to understand the social context in which they are operating. It takes real social courage for a student, or a staff member, to make a change or do what is clearly going to work at certain key moments. People will wait until their thresholds are met before they get fully on board. How do we change the dynamics so the thresholds of people are helping us effect the behavior that we know will help kids? How do we get that one student to stand and clap so that it activates more students to do the same?
This ties us back to the other discussions we have been having with Mindset research, (Carol Dweck), and Grit research, (Angela Duckworth). The same behavior that can lead to someone choosing to do something bad, can also lead to someone doing something innovative and good. Rather than considering things like grit, perseverance, curiosity, and motivation as skills to be taught, it’s more accurate to look at them as products of their environment. If the environment values perseverance and grit, and the social dynamics of the students thresholds activates each others ability to be more gritty, then they will be more gritty. Camille Farrington, of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, calls it academic perseverance. The key factor behind this type of behavior is the students’ resilient attitude toward failure. Teachers who created an environment that helped students perceive that they belonged to this academic community, had the ability and competence to grow with effort, could succeed at this, and the work had value for the learner, those teachers were able to show significant growth in all of their students.
The trajectory that children follow can sometimes be redirected by things that might at first seem, to the adults, to be small and
- Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
- Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Big Man Can’t Shoot.” Audio blog post. Revisionist History. Panoply Media, 29 June 2016. Web. 2 Aug. 2016. <http://revisionisthistory.com/>.
- Tough, Paul. Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. Print.
- Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
- TEDxToronto – Drew Dudley “Leading with Lollipops” https://youtu.be/hVCBrkrFrBE