Growing up, the two best movies about teaching were “Dead Poets’ Society” and “Stand and Deliver.” The key moments in both movies were when the teacher made eloquent and amazing speeches that made the hair go up on the back of your neck, when suddenly the students — and you — saw the world in a new and wonderful way. Those movies were totally great.
Also, totally wrong. Not because inspiration isn’t important — it is. But because that’s not how effective teachers really teach.
Great teachers don’t make inspiring speeches to groups. They send short, super-clear bits of targeted information to individuals, which helps them make the right move. They’re like a really useful twitter feed — Do this… Now try that… Reach here… Now here.
We saw a beautiful example of that this fall, when Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and largely confined to his hospital bed. An interim coach took over the team, but Pagano kept coaching, sending in small, targeted messages via text and phone.
Before a big November 26 game against the Bills, Pagano sent a message to punt returner T.Y. Hilton that said just three words: “Stretch and cut” — in other words, stretch out the defense by running horizontally, then cut upfield.
No speech. No elaborate explanation, no inspiration. Just three words. And it worked. Early in the game, Hilton received a punt, stretched the defense, cut upfield, ran 75 yards and scored; the Colts won.
The deeper reason that this kind of tweet-style teaching works has to do with the fact that even the simplest instruction is, underneath, incredibly complicated. There are four basic steps for any communication:
- Step 1) The teacher/coach has to think up the right idea.
- Step 2) They have translate that idea into the right words
- Step 3) They have to deliver those words in such a way that they can be understood and retained by the learner
- Step 4) The learner has to translate those words into the right action
The simplest teaching — stretch and cut — is actually a complex, fragile four-step chain, with each step holding the potential for misunderstanding and mistake.
Teaching is not about eloquence; it’s about information and interpersonal skills — delivering the right signal to the right person at the right moment.
Which is, when you think about it, pretty damn inspiring.