Changing the Saints

Great story in SI by Don Banks about how the Saints defense was transformed, thanks to the efforts of new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Forget football for a second (at least until Sunday)–this is one of the clearest organizational change stories I’ve heard in a while:

If you want the short answer of how the Saints went from being a 7-9 and 8-8 team in 2007-08, to this year’s “turnaround” 15-3 NFC champions, it has everything to do with Williams and his relentless emphasis on creating turnovers. …

“He came in and he made us obsessed about takeaways,” Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita said. “Obsessed.Every day in practice we’re the crazy team that’s picking up every loose ball, every incomplete pass, and returning it for a touchdown. If opposing teams could watch the way we practiced, they’d probably think we absolutely lost our minds. But now the obsession has become a habit.” …

“It was my No. 1 job when I came in the door; we had to do a better job of taking the ball away,” Williams said … “And remember this: They call them takeaways. They don’t call them giveaways. I don’t want to hear that. It’s not a turnover. It’s a takeaway. If you take that approach, you go try and take the ball all the time. It’s not something you just do half the time.”

Did it work? The Saints had a -4 turnover ratio last year but were +11 in turnovers this year (3rd best in the NFL). And they led the league in defensive touchdowns.

What makes a great teacher?

If you’re interested in teaching, this article by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic is a must-read. For years, people have speculated about what makes a great teacher.

But now there is data. It has been gathered painstakingly by Teach For America for over a decade, and it covers hundreds of thousands of kids. TFA linked the test scores of students to their teachers, so that TFA can spot patterns in the data: Which teachers are causing big boosts in the kids’ scores–for instance, advancing them by three grade levels in one year? And what traits do those star teachers have in common?

Read the article for the full scoop. But here’s one bit that fascinated me. The data suggested a “profile” of a great teacher, and so naturally, in hiring new teachers, TFA wants to match that profile. So they’ve begun to build an “outcomes-based hiring” system, and in doing so, there were some surprises:

Once a model for outcomes-based hiring was built, it started churning out some humbling results. “I came into this with a bunch of theories,” says Monique Ayotte-Hoeltzel, who was then head of admissions. “I was proven wrong at least as many times as I was validated.”

Based on her own experience teaching in the Mississippi Delta, Ayotte-Hoeltzel was convinced, for example, that teachers with earlier experience working in poor neighborhoods were more effective. Wrong. An analysis of the data found no correlation.

For years, Teach for America also selected for something called “constant learning.” As Farr and others had noticed, great teachers tended to reflect on their performance and adapt accordingly. So people who tend to be self-aware might be a good bet. “It’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis,” Ayotte-Hoeltzel says.

But in 2003, the admissions staff looked at the data and discovered that reflectiveness did not seem to matter either. Or more accurately, trying to predict reflectiveness in the hiring process did not work.

What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance—not just an attitude, but a track record. In the interview process, Teach for America now asks applicants to talk about overcoming challenges in their lives—and ranks their perseverance based on their answers.

Steven Farr, the guy who is leading this research at TFA, has a new book out — Teaching as Leadership — that suggests ways teachers can improve their effectiveness. I just ordered it from Amazon — can’t wait to check it out.

The web’s “face-sucking” potential

Stanford professor Brian Knutson describes the way the internet has changed his thinking:

In terms of how I think, I fear that the Internet is less helpful. Although I can find information faster, that information is not always the most relevant, and is often tangential. More often than I’d like to admit, I sit down to do something and then get up bleary-eyed hours later, only to realize my task remains undone (or I can’t even remember the starting point). The sensation is not unlike walking into a room, stopping, and asking “now, what was I here for?” — except that you’ve just wandered through a mansion and can’t even remember what the entrance looked like.

This frightening “face-sucking” potential of the Web reminds me of conflicts between present and future selves first noted by ancient Greeks and Buddhists, and poignantly elaborated by philosopher Derek Parfit. Counterintuitively, Parfit considers present and future selves as different people. By implication, with respect to the present self, the future self deserves no more special treatment than anyone else.

Thus, if the present self doesn’t feel a connection with the future self, then why forego present gratification for someone else’s future kicks? [read more]

[h/t Andrew Sullivan]

Move Your Money

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Move Your Money movement. The core idea is that, if you’re fed up with the behavior of the big banks that contributed to the economic crisis, then you should yank your checking & savings account out of Bank of America (or Wells Fargo, etc.) and into a local bank or credit union.

What impresses me about this movement is that its leaders have been able to channel anger into action. So often movement leaders are great at getting people riled up about problems or inadequacies or betrayals. And then, inevitably, the call to action is: Call your Congressman. (Or, sign this internet petition!)

Some critics have argued that moving your checking account won’t accomplish much, but I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Andrew Leonard nails it:

Move Your Money is a way to assert independence and autonomy in a world that seems all too shaped by powerful forces beyond our control. And while J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon doesn’t appear to be shaking in his boots yet at the threat to his dominion, for a smaller, local bank, every new account makes a real difference. That’s more than enough reason to make a change.

For a movement to work, it’s got to move. Its supporters need to feel like they’re capable of meaningful group action. And if Move Your Money can accomplish that — if its followers learn that they can speak with one voice, and that their voice is heard — who knows what their *third* step will be.