Jazz, Basketball, and Teacher Decision-making

When top jazz musicians select notes from a chord to improvise a melody,  stellar basketball players drive toward the basket on a pick-and-roll, and effective teachers ask questions of students, the cascade of  instantaneous micro-decisions that occurs in the heads of trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, the Dallas Mavericks’ Jason Kidd, and kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley would stun most non-musicians, non-basketball players, and non-teachers.

Consider jazz and the swift decisions a Wynton Marsalis makes as he improvises. Jonah Lehrer describes a neuroscientist who used MRIs to study brain activity of jazz musicians improvising. one center that showed much activity was during improvisation had been identified for its function in language and speech. The neuroscientist argued that creating new melodies depends on that part of the brain where sentences are invented, where every musical note is like a word. Lehrer continues:

“Of course, the development of these patterns requires years of practice, which is why [the neuroscientist] compares improvisation to the learning of a second language. At first, it’s all about the vocabulary, as students must memorize a dizzying number of nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations. Likewise, musicians need to immerse themselves in the art, internalizing the intricacies of Miles and Coltrane. After years of study, the process of articulation starts to become automatic – the language student doesn’t need to contemplate her verb charts before speaking, just as the musician can play without worrying about the movement of his fingers. It’s only at this point, after expertise has been achieved, that improvisation can take place. When the new music is needed, the notes are simply there, waiting to be expressed.”

Turn now to the act of basketball players rebounding as an instance of super-quick decision-making “that reflects an astonishing amount of cognitive labor.” Here Jonah Lehrer points out the subtle and swift decisions rebounders make.

“The reason we don’t notice this labor is because it happens so fast, in the fraction of a fraction of a second before the ball is released. And so we assume that rebounding is an uninteresting task, a physical act in a physical game. But it’s not, which is why the best rebounders aren’t just taller or more physical or better at boxing out – they’re also faster thinkers. This is what separates the [Lebron James] and Kevin Loves … from everyone else on the court: They know where the ball will end up first.”

Here is where I turn from improvising jazz and basketball rebounding to classroom decision-making. Non-teachers would be amazed at the total number of decisions teachers make during a 45-minute lesson, the frequency of on-the-fly, unplanned decisions, and the seemingly effortless segues teachers make from one task to another. Decisions tumble out one after another in questioning students, starting and stopping activities, and minding the behavior of the class as if teachers had eyes in the back of their heads.

What decisions do teachers make during lessons?

I know of no MRIs that neuroscientists have used with teachers in experiments on classroom decisions. Nonetheless, the number and frequency of decisions teachers make during a lesson have been examined sporadically (mostly in the 1970s and 1980s) through simulations and video analysis but seldom since then. (Readers who know of recent studies, please let me know).

In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-made routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions–were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, equipment breakdown). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected piled up teacher decisions in each lesson.

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

Effective teachers, then, like top jazz musicians and basketball rebounders improvise–decide on the spot–as they deal with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.


Filed under how teachers teach

41 responses to “Jazz, Basketball, and Teacher Decision-making

  1. Great post. The only thing left out is that teachers work making decisions under a huge layer of other people making decisions so their skills have to be pinpoint. I think that the recent news about teachers seems to only approve of young teachers and Michelle Rhee even poked fun at anyone who stayed in teaching longer than a few years. Politicians took up the cry and . … teachers with the valuable skills you speak of were savaged in the press . Not many rose to speak of the dedication ,skill and knowledge networks that skilled teachers bring to education and the children whose future they touch.
    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  2. Dear Professor Cuban:

    I am Alfredo Rojas, teacher working on school leadership in Latin American countries. Can I translate to Spanish those articles that could be interesting to teachers? Can I put them in some point of the cloud? Or perhaps… could I send you the translations and you post it in a “mirror” blog for teachers, in Spanish? The idea is to disseminate the knowldege you present, calling readers by facebook and twitter.
    Thank you very much in advance

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Alfredo, go ahead and translate into Spanish those posts that you believe would interest teachers and circulate them as best as you can. Writing this blog for nearly two years is, to me, a form of teaching. To reach teachers, administrators, researchers, policymakers, and parents has been a goal of mine. Thank you,

  3. Great article and I love the connections between music, sports and learning.

  4. Cal

    I like this post, too, but I wonder if those of us who see teaching as an art form balancing planning and improvisation are going to be hammered down by the educational form of sabermetrics (sorry, I’ve been reading Moneyball).

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  9. David B. Cohen

    Great post, Larry – on the basketball front, I’m fairly certain that it was Bill Russell who said the secret of his success as a rebounder was everything that came before the shot arrived at the basket: knowing the shooter, knowing the angles and probabilities, etc.; as Lehrer says, knowing where the ball is headed.

    I think part of the success of National Board Certification is in making teachers more cognizant of those decisions, and making the analysis and reflection about those decisions more explicit. I’m not too familiar with the Japanese approach with lesson study, but it sounds like a simliar idea. I hope that through more teacher writing, case studies, and more teacher leadership, we can elevate the outside understanding of our work by making this complexity more transparent.

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  11. Wonderful post, Larry! You’ve put into words what I’ve been thinking, feeling and talking about with colleagues. Only after you’ve been doing it a few years do you really get the sense of how much a teacher has going on in a finite period of time. The first time I had a student teacher was when I really became mindful of how much I was doing and how much better I had gotten over the course of my first few years–and I was an old dog doing new tricks (started at age 35 after a corporate existence).

    We see it every year in the NBA: athletes with the superior but raw athletic skills of youth being bested by lesser athletes who have refined their craft. Likewise, not every technically sound musician can flow like a seasoned jazz performer. I won’t belabor what you’ve already said better than I can!

    As previous commenter bonniebraceysutton indicated above, the likes of Michelle Rhee devaluing what experienced teachers do speaks to a gross and fundamental misunderstanding of teaching. Perhaps Rhee’s alleged star turn as a teacher was too short-lived to have reached the point at which awareness comes.

    A jazz/teaching tangential note: I tell my too-young-to-be-so-stodgy, number-oriented math/science types (who take my discussion-heavy AP Literature class because it is weighted) when they express concern about how their efforts will be quantified, “Find your way into the conversation and shape it as you can. This is jazz up here in room 216; marching band is out on the field.” Most of them are also musicians, many are in marching band and they all have reverence for what jazz artists do even if it can’t be quantified.

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  14. Nora Gannon

    I just found this as I am researching teacher’s decision-making in assessment for my dissertation. Although I much appreciate the analogies with the emphasis on experience, it seems to me you leave out what a teacher brings to his/her practice to begin with. I am an avid music lover but no matter how much I could ever learn about Miles Davis, Coltraine, 12-bar blues and jazz theory, I would never be able to improvise like the greats or even those who aspire to be like the greats. Great teachers bring something with them to the table to begin with. Experts cannot describe their decision making processes – they barely process the decisions themselves before they act. Still, we have much to learn from the best about how they make decisions in the classroom and what influences those decisions. Thanks for posting this!

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