Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Triangle Offense and Packaged Curricula

Phil Jackson is a certified basketball genius.  He has won more games as a coach than all but four other men, more NBA championships than anyone else, and his teams have a higher winning percentage than those of any other coach.  He is renowned for being the architect and chief implementer of the "triangle offense", an offensive system that supposedly is part of the key to all of his success.

So, when the New York Knicks were searching for someone to help them out of a decade-long funk, they brought in Jackson, who played for the Knicks in their championship heyday of the 1970's, to serve as the team president.  Sure, he would be able to work his triangular magic on a team that had seen few winning seasons of late and seemed to be increasingly dysfunctional.

Except that it did not work.  Jackson took over the Knicks in the middle of a lost season last year and promptly replaced the coach with one of his former players, Derek Fisher.  He then laid out the plan - the Knicks, a team made up of one superstar, one former superstar, and a collection of lesser lights, would follow their rookie coach as he directed them into the triangle offense and on to victory and back to the playoffs.  Sadly, this plan did not work, as the Knicks won only 5 of their first 41 games this season and Jackson has now publicly acknowledged that something went amiss.

How could this be?  How could something that worked so well for so long suddenly fall flat on its face in New York?  It's not as if Jackson coached in low-pressure smaller markets before this - his championships came in Chicago and Los Angeles, the next two largest media markets in the country.  If the system was designed so well that it merely needed to be installed in order to work, then why did it not work once installed?

Of course, there is another component that may have had something to do with Jackson's previous success.  His Chicago teams featured a couple of Hall of Famers named Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and his Los Angeles teams included future Hall of Famers Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.  In other words, each of his rings can be attributed to at least two mean who are arguably among the 50 best to ever play the game.  The triangle offense may have helped, but it may not be enough to turn a mediocre team into a champion.

The tale of Jackson and the Knicks resonated with me as reminiscent of the thoughts that run through my mind every time someone pitches a new educational product or curriculum my way.  So many products promise eye-popping results, guaranteeing that my students' abilities and motivation and outputs will be massively increased, that test scores will go up, that Nobel Prizes will be coming their way because of the method that has just been perfected or the online portal that has been carefully designed or... you get the point.

Education, like sports, is a people business.  Our goal as educators is to create the conditions that will allow the most number of students to succeed to the greatest degree possible.  And when those efforts do not work, or do not work for some of our students, our next goal is to tweak the approach, or find a new approach, that will allow them to ascend the ladder of success a little further than they had before.

That is why teacher training is so much more valuable than purchasing programs that include training in how to use the program.  Our teachers need to know how to sense what their students need and how to respond when the best laid plans are not working.  For Phil Jackson, that means finding some other geometric construct.  For our teachers, that means slowly but surely developing an ever-deeper pool of resources and instincts that they can call upon when the situation calls for it.