top of page
  • Writer's picturerobertthornelltx

Lessons Baseball can share with Educational Leaders

Making Decisions With The Head and The Heart

Those that know me best know that I am a huge baseball fan. I don’t follow it day to day like I used to, but after years of playing it as a kid, I have always been fascinated by the game. I actually credit baseball for my love of reading. I can still remember reading “The Baseball Life of Willie Mays” over and over when I was in third grade. I remain convinced he was and is the best baseball player that ever lived. Once in college, I was fortunate enough to take a class called, “Baseball as a Metaphor for Life”. It didn’t matter that it was an 8:00 AM class, I never missed it. It is with that theme in mind I take I think about how we use data to make decisions in education by using two of my favorite baseball movies, Trouble with the Curve and Moneyball.

Besides being fun to play and great to watch, real baseball fans know there are two distinct philosophies that separate baseball from other sports. The first is “the book”. You can’t really define “the book” but in your gut, you know what is right and what is wrong. If you are around the game for any length of time you will hear someone talk about “playing by the book” and what they really mean is they are doing things that have been commonly accepted and therefore their decisions would not be questioned by others even if they don’t work. Many teams and managers have been quite successful over time, by playing by the book. Their decisions are sound because they are based on their own experiences and those around them. They make decisions with their gut, but it is not just their gut, but generally, they are based on sound, trusted decisions. Many of our schools function in the same exact way. We do things because we have, over time, been successful and gained experience that allows us to make decisions because “we know best.” However, there are times doing something the way it has always been done does not produce the best results. For baseball traditionalists, this can be hard to swallow. For some educational traditionalists, it can be hard to swallow too. In the movie Trouble with the Curve, Clint Eastwood plays the role of an aging baseball scout. In the movie, Eastwood is fighting others in his organization and they are convinced that they “know” players better because of the data they collect. (Here is a great scene where the team suggests the game has passed him by: Trouble With The Curve) Eastwood, even with failing eyesight, could recognize things that the data could not and in the end, he

was proven right and prevailed over the computer assessments of players.

A second way of looking at the game is strictly through data and analytics. Proponents of this method strictly look at the game through a data lens. Advocates of “Moneyball” constantly look at data to make decisions. Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball is said to have changed the way major league baseball teams run their organizations. In it, Lewis chronicle’s the true story of the Oakland A’s and how they continually try to overcome economic challenges to compete with the wealthiest teams in the league. (If you don’t want to read it, the movie starring Brad Pitt is pretty awesome too! Here is a scene of him explaining to his “old” scouts why he is now using analytics: Moneyball) The team, with resistance from many, chose to no longer base their decisions on their own experiences or gut feelings, but instead use numerical data trends to determine which players to use and when. True disciples of this philosophy trust statistics rather than instincts to make decisions. Sometimes these decisions go against traditional baseball moves (“the book”) and therefore many hardcore baseball people find them difficult to depend on. Some would argue this approach has depersonalized the game and taken away the human side of decision-making. Schools face the same dilemma. Teachers and administrators are faced with an enormous amount of data and are asked/forced to make decisions in their classrooms and schools based on numbers rather than relationships. Sometimes the data forces us to admit that decisions and beliefs we hold dear appear to be less effective than we would like to admit. In the movie version, Brad Pitt plays the real-life general manager, Billy Beane who is trying hard to change a culture that relies on the way things have always been done. As you might expect, by the end of the movie his methods prove to be effective in closing the gap between the A’s and the other teams.

Thus, a struggle between the two philosophies exists. Are we, as educators in the people business or the data business? In his bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman addresses some of the issues of dealing with what we know and what we believe. He calls it the “anchoring effect”- our tendency to be influenced by irrelevant numbers that we happen to be exposed to and our willingness to accept them. Keep in mind, anchors can hold us in place for safety, but also can weigh us down. He shares that there are two emotional systems in play with most decision-making. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional. While there is a certain amount of “gut” feeling in this system, I would argue that this fast-thinking also leads to “playing by the book” because there is little real decision making to be done, but rather we go with what we have always done and what is the accepted practice. Now that is not always the case, and not necessarily all that Kahneman implies, but it does often happen that way in reality. The second system is much more deliberate, analytical, and slow. This style takes time to study and work with hard data to make decisions. Kahneman insists that there is a place to trust our intuitions and places we should not. As school leaders, baseball managers, or other walks of life, it is essential we understand and reflect on how both systems of judgment shape our decisions.

Failure to acknowledge both systems of thinking has torn apart organizations that trust one version over another and cannot seem to find a way to reconcile the two. The truth is, the most successful baseball teams, the most successful teachers, and the most successful schools all must use both!! We can’t forget about “playing by the book” because we are teaching kids, not robots. People bring variables that numbers just can’t predict. However, gone are the days when numbers do not matter. It would be foolish for a baseball manager or an educator to not access the data that is available to them to help them make the best decisions for their students. The best and most successful baseball managers and educators are the ones that can balance the humans as well as the numbers. They are able to used System 1 and System 2 thinking. I should acknowledge that I believe it takes a great deal of courage and faith to follow either system because a leader will be questioned from either side. As Brad Pitt says in the movie when people are questioning his methods, "The real question we need to be asking ourselves is do we believe in this or not?"

For those that are curious how it might all turn out, I am convinced both ways are correct. In Moneyball, which is a true story, Beane remains their general manager to this day and the A’s improved quite a bit and have narrowed the gap between the other teams. Over time, this has proven successful in other organizations and the use of data has literally changed the game of baseball over the past twenty years. However, it is still a game played by people and the unpredictability of that alone makes taking chances and going with your gut a calculated risk that can pay great dividends. In a similar style, schools have become much more “data-driven” in the last twenty years. In many ways, there are a lot of positives about this. Teachers, school leaders, and even parents have more information at their fingertips than ever before. However, the data and the computer programs, cannot, in my opinion, replace the personal touch of a teacher and a student. I encourage educators everywhere to use their instincts and experience to make great teaching decisions but don’t ignore the trends and results in your data (especially if you just don’t like what they have to say). We must remember to use our hearts AND our heads to PLAY BALL!

Reflective questions you might ask yourself or your team:

  • What data is most important to us and why?

  • Is the data culture at our school used to enhance student learning?

  • Are there current practices we are holding on to that we should reexamine?

18 views0 comments


bottom of page