Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jose Reyes, Ryan Braun, Ted Williams and Campbell's Law

What if yesterday's National League Batting Title is metaphorical of how our obsession with numerical data and statistics is corrupting our love for baseball and learning?

Yesterday, September 28, was the last day of Major League Baseball's regular season. The pennant races proved to be full of barn-burning action, but to be honest, that's not what I found most interesting.

Today, I want to talk about Ted Williams, Jose Reyes and Ryan Braun.

First, some history.

Seventy years ago yesterday, Ted Williams went into the last day of the 1941 regular season with an epic batting average of .39955 which would have been rounded up to .400. When faced with the opportunity to not play on the last day of the season, thus ensuring his record-book average, Williams chose to play in a double-header against the Philadelphia Athletics.

Williams ended up going 6 for 8 that day and raised his average to an impressive .406. Later, Williams explained that had he not played, he would not have deserved the title. At the time, this was Williams first of six batting titles, and today, he is the only player since 1925 to finish the regular season with a .400 batting average.

Going into yesterday's final day of the regular season, the 2011 National League Batting Title was a two horse race between New York's Jose Reyes who had a small lead over Milwaukee's Ryan Braun.

Reyes, however, chose a very different strategy than Ted Williams.

After laying down a first inning bunt single, Jose Reyes promptly pulled himself from the game. This strategy allowed Reyes to preserve his league leading average while simultaneously forcing Ryan Braun into a position where he would need to go 3 for 4, in order to have a chance at the title. Unfortunately for Braun, he went 0 for 4.

But here's the difference, while Reyes chose to quit before the first inning was even over, Braun chose to play the entire game. Reyes collects accolades while Braun goes home empty handed. Reyes gets remembered. Braun forgotten.

Are you as disgusted as I am?

This story epitomizes the cancerous effects of our mania for reducing the things we love, like baseball and learning, to numbers. When an obsession with our batting average actually convinces us to quit playing or a fetish for our grade-point average persuades us to quit learning, I think it's time to pause and reflect on how our use of data is sabotaging our ultimate goals.

If the point is to succeed and/or conquer others rather than to stretch one's thinking or discover new ideas and abilities, then it is completely logical and rational for Jose Reyes and students to want to do whatever is easiest. To do what ever is easiest, which sometimes includes quitting like Jose Reyes, can maximize the chances of success or minimize the odds of failure.

To be clear, this isn't a Jose Reyes or little Johnny problem. This is a systemic problem that is the result of our mania for reducing something as magnificently messy as baseball and learning to statistics and grades. Campbell's Law tells us that the more any one indicator (such as test scores or batting averages) are used for decision making, the more that indicator will suffer from corruption, therefore, bastardizing the very processes it was meant to monitor.

There is no substitute for what a teacher can see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears when observing and interacting with students while they are still learning. Because the children are always watching us, I fear they will learn the same dangerous lesson from Jose Reyes that they learn from grading; that real learning and strategically conquering others are the same thing.


  1. As sucker for metaphors and sports I love this. Numbers are fun but we love the players who bring the intangibles. There's a beauty in sports that can't be measured.

    My love of golf is more than a score. I keep it and use it as one measuring stick. In fact, I keep my own score and basically play against myself. But the real love of the game comes from a bunch of things that aren't measureable.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dean. I always appreciate your readership.

  3. This relates to a problem we are having in our high school: students in running for valedictorian have figured out that if they opt to be a teacher's aide rather than take one more class senior year, all other classes and grades being equal, the student that chose to be an aide's GPA figures higher than the student who took another class and learned more. (Because of the way the GPA math works out.)

    So our "highest achievers" choose to enroll in less courses to improve their valedictorian odds.

  4. We game numbers all the time when the numbers are all that matters. Teachers do this with grade books, students with assignments and classes. When we talk about outcomes based learning, the irony is many people are working to a non-learning outcome. This is an element of the hidden curriculum we have dismissed from our discourse I think.

    I often go into a golf game dreading each stroke. I march down the course with each par in my mind. What fun is that? Why should I care that the course has determined that I should be able to hit a ball five times to put it into a hole? They post the pars so I feel bad.


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