Set the bar high with a lot of cushions under it - SmartBrief

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Set the bar high with a lot of cushions under it

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The recent success of the Boston Red Sox has much to teach us about how to educate students. Their success emerged out of an environment/culture designed for optimal learning and success. Amy Edmondson, of the Harvard Business School, has found through her research that such an environment has high levels of psychological safety combined with high levels of accountability. I refer to this combination as “setting the bar high with a lot a cushions under it.” With the common core learning standards designed to raise the bar for learning, schools need to address the other condition for optimal learning: psychological safety.

The Red Sox story

The Red Sox went from last place to World Series Champion within the span of one year. This rapid transformation could be attributed several key changes that addressed both high accountability and high psychological safety:

Switched from a “me” culture to a “we” culture

They replaced certain players who performed at a high level individually for players whose statistics were not as good but who were considered “good clubhouse” guys. These were players who were noted for getting other players to value and “think” team over individual performance. These players combined with players who were already team oriented and therefore tipped the whole culture in that direction. Their now famous bearded appearance was a visible sign of how they were united; that was more important than how they “looked.” These players knew the value of outward signs and ritual to create a strong team community.

Leadership that promoted shared leadership

They replaced a charismatic type manager with a low key unassuming one. The new manager preferred to let the spotlight be on the team and not him. He trusted his players to lead each other. Players challenged themselves and supported each other in meeting that challenge. When someone deviated from this approach they took responsibility for reminding the player about what was important. His trust in his players was contagious — it helped them trust and challenge each other.

Had high goals but focused on the daily grind

Baseball is a marathon. To be successful a team has to be disciplined to know that their daily effort of doing things the right way is more important than winning and losing. They focused on the things they could control: playing with hustle and enthusiasm, practicing their skills, working hard, and sticking together during tough times. They believed that if they did those things the winning/results would take care of themselves.

Support for failing

Baseball is a sport where you fail more than you succeed. The best hitters succeed only 30% of the time. Players know that failure is the path to greater success. A strong team provides the support necessary to help each team member persist through inevitable failure. This support enables them to continue to learn from their efforts rather than become discouraged. The only true failure is giving up and not trying.

They defined themselves

They didn’t let the previous year’s last place finish nor the experts who doubted them, define who they were. They knew that they could write their own story and create a unique identity for themselves. They didn’t follow a script or formula handed to them from above telling them who they should be or how they should play. They accepted responsibility for writing their own story. When you write your own story there is nothing stopping you from putting a happy ending on it.

They had fun

In spite of the daily grind and the high rate of failure and disappointment in baseball, the players made sure that they enjoyed playing the game. They enjoyed each other.

They had a high moral purpose

The team played with a sense of obligation to the fans and the city of Boston. They aspired to do more than just win a championship. They knew that the city was hurting from the marathon bombing, so they connected playing well on a daily basis to the greater mission of helping others.

A Lesson for schools

There is a lot to be learned from the Red Sox story this year. It is not unique — look at any successful team and those elements for success are usually present. Probably the most important lesson that schools could learn would be to shift from viewing a class students as a collection of individuals to viewing them as team/community. Every class of students can be a strong team; that should be a paramount goal of education. Being on a strong team, makes each member of the team feel safe and supported.

Right now most classrooms are places where students are focused on their own individual achievement. Individual achievement is very important, but it doesn’t get diminished, when a group of individuals become a strong team. In fact, the opposite happens, individual achievement increases when people feel connected to each other.

Students also need to see their individual effort connected to something greater than themselves. They want to feel needed by their school and community. They are waiting to be invited to share leadership with educators. They want to be viewed as leaders and as responsible, trustworthy individuals. As Michael Fullan has said, people often need to be given trust and respect before they have earned it. Educators can do this, not by letting students go off on their own, but by working with them as partners in solving problems and making the school a better place.

When students can try and fail and not suffer consequences or judgment, they see learning as a process of getting better individually and collectively. Students will be much more likely to try to reach for that high bar and even try to jump over it, if they don’t have to worry about getting hurt. When educators put “cushions under the bar” by creating a safe learning environment, all students are more likely to keep trying to reach it and will do so until they do.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at