Atul Gawande — New Yorker staff writer, surgeon at Brigham and Women’s, and professor at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) — took 90 minutes from his busy schedule Wednesday to talk about ways teaching can be improved through coaching as part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Askwith Forum series.

“The biggest factor in determining how much students learn,” Gawande told the crowd at Longfellow Hall, “isn’t class size or standardized testing, but the quality of their teachers.”

Gawande discussed a visit to a middle school in Albemarle County, Va., to observe how an eighth-grade math teacher, Jennie Critzer, benefited from coaching to achieve better outcomes for her students. As Gawande explained, Critzer’s coach knew exactly how to break down performance into critical components, such as the quality of planning and interaction in the classroom. A coach provides a pair of skilled eyes and ears, an outside perspective on performance.

Critzer was especially open to coaching, noted Gawande, because she’d “exhausted everything [she] knew about how to improve on [her] own, and was starting to burn out.”

Long conversations with her coach about even the smallest details created “a tidal change” in her teaching, leading to more energized engagement with students and more innovative pedagogical approaches, Gawande said. Critzer’s experience suggests that the coaching model athletes benefit from is something that could be applied in a range of fields, so that learning doesn’t end with graduation.

Gawande’s talk covered observations from sports and music, as well as anecdotes from his career — including his experience working with a surgical coach. In addition to suggesting some technical changes (like changing the position of his elbow), the coach also “pointed out the ways I’d missed opportunities to help the team perform better,” Gawande said. After making changes and re-focusing on small details, “I saw my complication rates go down.”

What makes a great coach? Gawande emphasized a number of factors, including credibility, creativity in solving problems, effectiveness in communication, as well as “an understanding that the details create success” — that small things usually make the difference between good and great. Gawande cited the late John Wooden, the UCLA coaching great whose teams won 10 NCAA championships in 11 years. Wooden liked to spend the first day of practice showing his players exactly “how to put on their socks” because “details create success.” A player who avoided blisters, said Gawande, was one of many details on the road to Wooden’s legendary success.

Of course, being coached isn’t easy. Gawande noted that teachers and doctors famously prize their autonomy as “among our highest professional values.” But improved outcomes “also depend on teamwork.” Being coached can be psychologically challenging, forcing professionals outside their comfort zones by making them re-examine deep-rooted patterns, Gawande explained, but coaching can also help teachers develop success by promoting “humility, belief in discipline, and [more] willingness to engage in teamwork.”

Gawande concluded by inviting questions from the audience. In response to a question from a Cambridge principal about the mechanics of implementing coaching, Gawande noted that, “how you set it up is a huge part of its success.” Coaches should not report to principals, he said, because “teachers might then view them as spies.” The relationship between coach and teacher must be open, transparent, and intended solely for the teacher’s development. If implemented properly, Gawande said, coaching can help turn good teachers into great ones.

Bonding time