Byron's Babbles

Better in 2013

Posted in Coaching, Education, Education Reform, Leadership by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on December 30, 2013

 Those of you who know or follow me know I am a veracious reader. As we came to the end of 2013 I was trying to decide whether to do a top 10 reads in 2013 or what what to do to reflect on my reading. In considering my options I decided to write this final post of 2013 on what was clearly the best book I read this year. In fact it was so great I read it three times! It was not the first book I read from this author, but I was extremely moved and motivated by this book. What was the book? Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (2007) by Atul Gawande.

I am in education, but as I always say there is about 90% similarity between all industries and only 10% difference. There are amazing connections between the field of medicine and education. I have read all the books of Atul Gawande.  He is widely known as an expert on reducing error, improving safety, and increasing efficiency in modern surgery. He wrote the books Complications: A Surgeons Notes on an Imperfect Science, A Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, and The Best American Science Writing 2006. All of his books are incredible, and I was particularly moved by Better.

There are always takeaways that are personal to the reader in any good insightful book, and this book was no different. One of his themes he discussed was the variation in doctors. Those doctors who are “the best” doctors with the best outcomes. Who are they? Why are they better? He calls these doctors “positive deviants.” The biggest question: How do you become one? As I read the book I also considered the variation in educators and educational leaders. Really, you could do this reflection on any profession, including your own.

A paragraph early in the book really touched me and set the stage for my intense study of the entire book. Gawande said: “Betterment is perpetual labor. The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing, and medicine (education) is nowhere spared that reality. To complicate matters, we in medicine (education) are also only humans ourselves. We are distractible, weak, and given to our own concerns. Yet still, to live as a doctor (teacher) is to live so that one’s life is bound up in others’ and in science and in the messy, complicated connection between the two. It is to live a life of responsibility. The question, then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility. Just by doing this work, one has. The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does work well.” (p. 9) You will notice I put ‘education’ in parentheses beside ‘medicine’ and ‘doctor.’ Do you see the connection between the two? You could put your profession in this paragraph too!

Now, I want to make sure you caught the responsibility part. People talk about accepting responsibility all the time and the question is asked if we accept responsibility. Think about what Gawande said here. Just by doing the work we have accepted the responsibility. Therefore we have accepted the responsibility to work to be better or best! This thought alone really brings urgency to what I do every day!

At the end of Better Gawande had five suggestions for anyone to get better:

1. Learn something about your patient.  He says to ask “the unscripted question,” like where did you grow up? tell me about your family? He talks about making the human connection. Really it comes down to what I consider to be one of the most important components to education – Relationships. Without relationships and knowing your students (patients) there can be no learning.

2. Don’t complain. This is tough! It is easy to complain, but think about it… None of us like to hear others complain. Really, complaining becomes a poison to an organization. Be a solution to problems, not part of the problem!

3.  Count something.  We should be scientists and do action research. My doctoral degree journey really drove this home for me. By picking a problem to research that I was passionate about, I found a love for digging in and quantitatively and qualitatively analyzing. I have also learned to let the data speak for itself. It is also important to look at the data without judgement. We tend not to look deep enough into successes; it is easier to study failures.

4.  Write something.  Gawande said, “What you write need not achieve perfection.  It need only add some small observation about your world.” I have always said that my posts to this blog serve more for my learning than for others. Even though it is really awesome to have others read what you write, writing is personal and causes us to reflect and learn.

5.  Change.  Gawande asserted we should, “Make yourself an early adopter.  Look for the opportunity to change.  I am not saying you should embrace every new trend that comes along.  But be willing to recognize the inadequacies in what you do and to seek out solutions.”

Hopefully if you have not read this book yet, I have given you enough of an intellectual appetizer to convince you to read Better. If you have read it, I hope I have caused you to go back and look at your highlights and reflect on your reading. As we close out 2013 and begin 2014 I want to use Gawande’s five suggestions to help me achieve his three core requirements for success: (1) Diligence; (2) Do Right; (3) Ingenuity – Thinking Anew. My wish for everyone in 2014 is to truly be BETTER!

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