Lessons Learned from One Fat Ox…

James Surowiecki starts The Wisdom of Crowds–his intriguing title about collective intelligence–with the story of a man, a group of ordinary people and one fat ox! 

The man, a statistician named Francis Galton, went to an English country fair in 1902.   While there, he stumbled across a competition where people were trying to guess the weight of an ox.  There was a prize for the winner, so over 800 people–experts and non-experts alike–submitted guesses.  Some Of the guesses were more accurate than others (think of the kid who guesses 1 million when looking at a Mason jar full of jellybeans) and there was a winner.

Somewhat obsessed with numbers (as statisticians are known to be), Galton asked for the submission tickets.  He was curious to see how the people had guessed—and relatively convinced that most submissions were going to be ridiculously wrong!

Turns out that the ox weighed 1,198 pounds.  (I told you it was a fat ox.)  The average of the 800 submissions for the contest was 1,197 pounds.  The lesson Galton learned that day was one that people have pursued for decades—with mixed results–ever since:  That the collective wisdom of a group is often more accurate than the wisdom of any one person.

The impact of Galton’s lessons has been minimized because–for some reason–America is obsessed with heroes.  We’re convinced that in any field, you’ll be able to find one or two superstars that hold the keys to success.  As a result, we spend inordinate amounts of time and resources trying to identify and then amplify the work of small groups of high-flyers.  In education, that often translates into efforts that recognize and reward "top performers" with year end bonuses after standardized test scores are released.  Houston Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra took this commitment to individuals a bit too far when he described bonus recipients in his district as "the cream of the crop," and "dedicated" earlier this year. 

The implications for the rest of the teachers in Saavedra’s district:  You don’t count. 

From my perspective, Saavedra–and other educational policy makers who push for professional compensation plans that reward individual teachers–couldn’t be more wrong.

How do I know?  Because I am a part of a small team of teachers that has worked to identify and then share effective instructional strategies over the past few years and together we have done great things.  The diversity of opinions that we have in our group leads us to some pretty remarkable understandings–"truths" even–about instruction that I could never come to on my own.  Like most groups, our decisions/thoughts/conclusions are strong because they are based on the collection of individual experiences, expertise and discrete bits of knowledge that each person brings to our planning meetings and informal conversations.

I’ve seen the impact that my learning team has had on my own practice over the past three years.  Despite having earned recognition and experienced great success before joining this group of colleagues, I quickly recognized that the end product of shared conversations was better than any work that I had been producing on my own

I learned to come to planning meetings with my own thinking and lay it on the table, waiting to see what it will become.  Sometimes my ideas are taken "as-is" by the group and other times they are discarded completely.  Most times, pieces of my thinking are combined and refined with pieces of thinking from the other members of my team, becoming a part of something much bigger—and much better.

Our group is a perfect working picture of collective intelligence in action—and together we’ve had some terrific results.  Consider that we raised the percentage of our students on grade level in reading from 92 to 99 percent last year.  Those results are pretty hard to argue with, aren’t they?

My collaborative work with colleagues has convinced me that professional compensation plans interested in making sure that every single student has a great teacher should reward the results of small groups of teachers working together.  By encouraging collaboration, we incentivize the kinds of responsible professional behaviors that amplify effective practices across classrooms.   

Wouldn’t that have a greater impact on children than rewarding only a small percentage of teachers who have earned hero status because of isolated accomplishment?

Those ideas run throughout the TeacherSolutions report on professional compensation that I had the opportunity to co-author with 17 incredibly accomplished educators over the past year.  Based on our understanding of the culture of schools, we understood that emphasizing collaboration is essential if we are ever going to be able to guarantee that every child learns from an accomplished teacher.   


  1. Parry

    I would like to partly agree/partly disagree with the points you make. After spending six years in the classroom, four years as an educational consultant, and three years as an assistant principal (and in the interests of full disclosure, one of those years was spent working in the same school as Bill), I have had the opportunity to observe and work with teachers in a variety of collaborative situations, including professional learning teams. Based on these experiences, I would argue that the types of successes that Bill describes are the result of a complex recipe that does include some parts serendipity, but also includes many other ingredients.
    First, one technical point. In your post, you put learning teams under the umbrella of “committees” when you say “most committees (learning teams, etc.)”. In my experience, learning teams should be (and often are) very different from committees. Committees tend to be short-term, ad hoc groups brought together to focus on a particular issue, with advisory (as opposed to decision-making) authority. In addition, committees are often disbanded once their central issue has been addressed, which could mean a variety of things, such as creating a report, issuing a recommendation, implementing a policy or program, etc.. In contrast, professional learning teams are long-term collections of stable members who work interdependently, have real decision-making power (most especially in their own classrooms), and focus on a variety of topics directly related to their own day-to-day work.
    So what leads to a successful professional learning team? You suggest that it is a serendipitous combination of just the right people with just the right characteristics. In my experience, I have found that a balanced combination of personalities does matter in PLTs, but what matters more are the intentional policies of interaction that a team uses, along with the types of work on which a team focuses.
    Policies of interaction include such things as the development of team norms (e.g., how a team will make decisions, the rules of conversation, the strategies for generating ideas) and the assignment of team roles (e.g., timekeeper, facilitator, record keeper). When the personalities of team members don’t mesh well, these types of intentional, structural nuts and bolts are particularly important because they facilitate productive meetings, discussions, and decision-making. And dysfunctional teams can still develop effective policies of interaction, i.e., dysfunctional teams don’t have to get caught in the catch-22 of being dysfunctional because they don’t have effective policies and not being able to develop effective policies because they’re dysfunctional. With the help of outside facilitators—often an administrator—just about any team can develop the types of policies of interaction that will help their meetings to be productive.
    In addition to the policies of interaction, effective PLTs focus on the right issues: teaching and learning. Again, this is something that is aided by but not dependent on a serendipitous combination of personalities. Effective PLTs develop common assessments, analyze student work against a common set of expectations, and implement interventions based on student achievement results. In the process of doing this work, as Bill describes, PLT members will develop a collective sense of ownership for student success and work collaboratively to improve practice across the group. When a PLT struggles in taking on or addressing these tasks, it is again the responsibility of an outsider to help focus the team. This might mean explicit instructions from a principal—e.g., requiring a PLT to develop a specific common assessment, share it with administration, document student results, and then discuss possible interventions with administrators—or it could mean informal conversations. Either way, outsiders can ensure that a PLT’s success isn’t simply dependent on serendipity.
    Does having a team of people “who are capable of leaving their egos at the door, who have a clear sense of the ultimate mission (building bigger and better brains for the kiddies), whose self confidence allows them to consider and use the good ideas of others and who can work and play well together” make the work of a PLT easier and more successful? Absolutely. But with the right structure, work focus, and help from outsiders, I believe that most teacher groups can develop into those types of successful teams, even if they don’t start out that way. Sure, it may take some time, hard work, and difficult conversations, but it has been my experience that the outcomes are more than worth it.

  2. Nancy Flanagan

    Hey, Mike.
    I am one of the teachers who co-authored the Performance-Pay report with Bill. When our group started meeting, and Bill started talking about his fabulous team and how one option for performance pay ought to be the collective efficacy of a team—well, I took YOUR point of view.
    As a music teacher, my experience with teams is that when these “PLCs” are formed, those doing the forming don’t know what to do with non-core folks. We used to have subject-matter teams; then we moved to inter-disciplinary teams where teachers taught the same kids. And somehow, I always ended up at the table with the part-time Wood Shop guy and “Coach” the P.E. teacher, trying to figure out what we had in common. Like you, I preferred to be out on my own, responsible for my own students and my own program (and my own glory, frankly).
    Bill–and other Teacher Solutions members–changed my mind. Even though all teams may not function well (especially at first), it’s time to get past the idea that we’re only responsible for a student in one context, one hour a day.
    Teams have other benefits: In a large school, a poor teacher can hide behind the strength of other teachers, but in a small team, teachers begin to look more thoughtfully and critically at their colleagues’ work. They can develop a sense of collective responsibility and willingness to share their best stuff, to benefit the kids. Peer pressure at work, but peer pressure that gently steers a teacher toward more effective practice is a whole lot better than ignoring weak teaching.
    How do I know this? Because a couple of teams in my building, after some false starts and heated conversations, developed a nice working sense of collaboration. Parents started requesting “the team” instead of individual teachers, leaving other dysfunctional-on-purpose groups wondering why these particular teachers were suddenly seen as shining stars.
    Working in functional teams is the way of the 21st century, besides–a “world is flat” lesson for all of us.
    While I agree that Americans are not naturally inclined to subvert their egos to the way of the community–I think Bill has a point here, in thinking about how we should pay teachers, and especially in thinking about best ways to teach kids.

  3. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    I wonder to what degree the positive and productive experience of your learning team owes to serendipity? You seem to be working with a group of people who are capable of leaving their egos at the door, who have a clear sense of the ultimate mission (building bigger and better brains for the kiddies), whose self confidence allows them to consider and use the good ideas of others and who can work and play well together.
    It has been my sad experience that such personalities are rare, and rarer still is finding a group of such people in one place at one time. All too often we’re left with the old saw of a camel being a horse designed by a committee. It is for this reason that I avoid committees like the plague, or being forced to be involved, quietly provide what I can and then watch as, for political, personality, or similarly foolish reasons, the results go off the rails. Most committees (learning teams, etc.) seem to be established as a rubber stamp for a higher-up’s idiotic ideas, or so that higher ups can claim that they are accepting “input” from the great unwashed in the classroom.
    In Texas, for example, each school must be governed, by law, by a “site-based” committee made up of teachers, principals and others from that school. You get three guesses, and the first two don’t count, as to how many of these committees actually have any real authority in determining school policy and governance.
    Cynical? Me? Surely you jest! (No; and don’t call me Shirley. Ar, ar).