Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Fosbury Flop

In 1968, Dick Fosbury shocked the high jumping community by winning the Olympic gold medal in high jumping with the Fosbury Flop. The dominant technique at the time was the straddle. Thousands of high jumpers around the world were competing to squeeze as much performance out of the straddle as possible, and incremental improvements were quickly adopted and studied. But by 1972, 28 out of the 40 competitors in the high jump at the Olympics were using the Fosbury Flop, and the last world record set using the straddle was in 1978. The normal in high jumping before 1968 was the straddle; after, it was the flop.

My goal as founder and Chief Learning Officer of Vertical Learning Labs is to create a new normal in teaching and learning. My goal isn't to disrupt the institution of schooling, but to change how we think about teaching and learning at a one-to-one level. In my opinion, everyone is using the straddle technique today. This includes every classroom, our best teachers, charter schools, private schools, one-on-one tutors, homeschoolers, MOOCs, Khan Academy, flipped classrooms, camps, after school clubs, Finland and Singapore, parents at home in a teachable moment… we are all using the straddle. Researchers are studying expert straddlers and policymakers are trying to figure out how to get everyone to use those best practices, but none of that is good enough. We need a flop.

You don't arrive at a flop through iteration and incremental improvement. Advocates of procedural and conceptual learning are on neighboring hills sniping at each other. Each camp wants to pull everyone else uphill. Up their hill. Meanwhile, the flop is a mountain sitting miles away that towers over both of them. How do we get there?

Dick Fosbury developed his flop in complete isolation. He tried to use the straddle, but felt that the technique was too difficult for him to master. So he started from an outdated version of the scissor. It took Fosbury five years to refine the flop to the point where he could win the Olympics. In the early years, his coaches tried to talk him out of it until he began showing improvement and setting personal bests.

As a student of new normals, I have four questions when it comes to the Fosbury Flop:

  1. Would the flop still have appeared if Fosbury hadn't developed it?
  2. Was winning the Olympics necessary for the flop to gain traction and take over?
  3. How obvious is the flop in hindsight? How much better is it than the straddle?
  4. Is there another flop waiting in the wings to become the next new normal?

It appears as though the development of the flop happened just as high jumping was transitioning to softer landing zones that made it safer to land on one's back, neck, and head. The flop wasn't actually feasible at world record heights until the 1960s. And Fosbury evolved the flop from an existing technique that was popular at one time. So it is possible that there were other high school high jumpers experimenting in the same way, but Fosbury was the first to get noticed because he was the first to win with the flop on the world stage. On the other hand, Fosbury had to put up with a lot of crap. The results from his initial experimentation weren't promising and everyone was telling him to go back to the straddle. I'm guessing that Fosbury only stuck with it because he knew that he would never be world champion using the straddle, and he wanted to be world champion enough to persevere. It would be interesting to know how many other high jumpers in the world were experimenting with radical techniques, and how many of them were close to breaking out when Fosbury did. One in a thousand? One in ten thousand? One in a million? Is there a tipping point when a new normal becomes inevitable?

I don't think that Fosbury had to win the Olympics in order for the flop to become the new normal. Even if Fosbury had only won bronze, I think you would have seen a lot of floppers at the 1972 Olympics. The flop didn't take over because the high jumping establishment instantly saw it as superior; the flop was still received skeptically after Fosbury's win. But enough individual high jumpers (probably the ones in the second tier who realized they weren't going to make it to the Olympics sticking to the straddle) were willing to take a risk and start using it, and they found success. It's when floppers besides Fosbury started winning that the flop became the new normal. What if Fosbury had still won the NCAA championship in 1968, but hadn't made it to the Olympics? Clearly, Fosbury had to win on a stage large enough to encourage a critical mass other high jumpers to try the flop, but how large that stage needs to be is very unclear.

The last world record set with the straddle was 2.35 meters. The current world record set with the flop is 2.45 meters, a difference of less than 5%. Knowing how quickly the Fosbury Flop became the new normal, I was expecting a greater difference. However, in athletics, a difference of 5% is probably the difference between an Olympic champion and a good college athlete, so I shouldn't be surprised. Usually, new normals are obvious in hindsight; that is how and why they become new normals. As a non-high jumper, it isn't obvious to me that the flop would be superior to the straddle. And apparently, there is considerable debate about this within the high jumping community. Some feel that the straddle is as good as the flop, but that the flop is much easier to master. So, while an expert straddler will jump as high as an expert flopper, there will be a hundred expert floppers for every expert straddler.

I think that the world needs a new normal in teaching and learning, and I think that my approach to curriculum design can produce that new normal. I've already done what Fosbury did and refined my process in isolation; I'm just waiting for my Olympic moment. What will it be? How large does it need to be? The student outcomes I see from my curricula are much more than 5% better than what we achieve with our current curricula, but we don't see the same rewards and willingness to take risks to be 5% better, so the deltas need to be greater to reach a tipping point in education. Still feeling my way to next steps, but I like this analogy. I should have a problem description and environmental analysis soon. After that, my goals and strategies. Stay tuned!

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