By Steve Kelman

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Competition, performance and the proper degree of pressure

steve kelman

I sat in for lunch this week with about 20 Kennedy School faculty colleagues -- quite a large number actually, as our total faculty is in the vicinity of 120 -- for one of the periodic meetings of the Kennedy School Teaching Seminar. These faculty members showed up completely voluntarily for one of the periodic discussions on innovations in pedagogy and how to be more effective helping students learn. And they came to listen to a presentation by an associate professor at another part of Harvard, presenting a new website that he and some colleagues had developed that puts in one place various resources available for ways to engage students actively in learning. (The basic idea is that student retention and motivation is higher if they actively participate in their own learning, rather than just passively listening to a lecture.) The website discusses a bunch of new techniques that have been developed recently to improve student engagement in learning, gives some tips and best practices about how to use each technique, and even presents summaries of any academic research that has been done to evaluate the technique's effectiveness.

These two features of today's lunch, I suddenly realized, were both quite remarkable.

At the Kennedy School, these activities to actively improve teaching, to search and try new teaching methods, have started only in the last few years. The teaching seminar began in 2009, but has become large only in the last year or so. As for the presenter from another Harvard department, he was a non-tenured associate professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where traditionally it was essentially unheard-of that a junior faculty member would worry about teaching methods or quality, since this played no role in promotion decisions.

Clearly this teaching innovation ferment is related to the big changes now underway in higher education -- the new competition from online courses, and new delivery approaches involving star lecturers complemented with small online discussions moderated by young faculty or grad students. Harvard is probably more immune to the drastic economic impacts of this disruption than just about anyplace else in higher education, but clearly even Harvard is feeling something.

The behavior this competitive pressure seems to be producing, based on my experience at the lunch today, looked pretty attractive. The site -- called ("ABL" stands for active-based learning) -- is available not just to all of Harvard, but to anyone who might be interested. The people working on the Harvard site have also begun a collaboration with a number of other universities (so far MIT, Yale, Cornell, and Mass Bay Community College) to share ideas and insights. They also have presented the website at events sponsored by the White House and the U.S. Department of Education.

Competition's effects are not always as unreservedly benign as we seem to be seeing here, of course. Psychological research conducted as long as a century ago suggests there is a reverse U-shaped relationship between pressure (including competition) on the one hand, and performance (and/or innovation) on the other. When pressure is too low, people become lazy, but when it is too high, people freeze up, and many try to escape. Competition can also produce efforts to refuse to share, and even to hide, information from others (you want to keep the benefits to yourself) -- or even to sabotage the efforts of others.

Many people believe, and I tend to agree, that government organizations generally don't face enough pressure or enough competition, and that this inhibits performance improvement or innovation. Yet I don't think we want to create an environment of cutthroat competition in government organizations either, or of turbo-charged pressure and stress.

Harvard seems to be in a happy middle place, facing enough competition and pressure to spur improvement, but not so much as to produce dysfunction and burnout. Maybe a nice happy medium towards which the government might aspire.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 23, 2014 at 5:38 AM


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