Group culture in a classroom: doing things differently

Group culture in a classroom: doing things differently

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When I first read Phil Jackson’s book Sacred Hoops in 1996, I was struck by his descriptions of the Chicago Bulls and what I have come to call their “culture of difference”. Of course, they were elite athletes playing basketball at a world-class level, but so were many of the other teams in the NBA. The Bulls felt that they were different from other teams, that they were breaking new ground and setting new standards for the way the game could be played. The Bulls were playing the game unselfishly, with deep respect for each other, and perhaps most importantly, with their “heads in the game” at all times.

It sounds obvious that professional athletes should be focused on playing their sport whenever they compete. After all, basketball is a team game. In the 1980s, however, many NBA offensive schemes sought to isolate star player to work their one-on-one magic, score points, and entertain the crowds. And, the Bulls certainly had some of the world’s top performers, including the incomparable Michael Jordan, perhaps the best individual player ever.

When Jackson took over as head coach in 1989, though, one of the first mission he defined for himself, was instituting a more team-oriented and less star-oriented mindset and style of play. Together with his coaching staff, Jackson implemented the now famous “Triangle  Offense”. What I find fascinating about this offensive system is that, above all else, it is designed to keep each player on the floor thinking actively and focusing constantly on his next move. Its great virtue is not that it is a superior system to others per se, but rather that it institutionalizes mindfulness. Practicing this system day in and day out taught the players to keep their heads in the game at all times.

In other words, the genius of the triangle offense was that it forced each individual to think constantly about what was happening. It was not necessarily a superior offensive scheme but rather a superior “engagement scheme”. And, the Bulls made it part of their story of identity, part of their unique culture. They were not just playing basketball every day; they were changing the way the game was played. They were on a sacred quest.

As such, Jackson’s goal in fashioning his offensive system and his practice sessions was to convince the Bulls that they were doing things differently than the others, doing something special and meaningful together.

I was so impressed with the teamwork and group culture aspects of Sacred Hoops that I decided apply some of the concepts to a business school classroom. I wanted to build an environment that is different from what the students, my “players”, were used to, one where we are doing something special together. The challenge of achieving this environment is not always an easy one, but it is a challenge I enjoy.

The power of doing things differently: While the two contexts may seem quite dissimilar, there are numerous parallels between Jackson’s approach to creating a culture with a sports team and what I would like to do in a classroom.

Of course, in a classroom we are “playing the game”, our game of learning and transferring knowledge, just as the Bulls were playing basketball. But, I believe that we should try to do far more than transfer knowledge, particularly in today’s world of MOOCs (“massive open online courses”), where knowledge has become widely available and mostly free. I would like our classroom to feel far different than a traditional educational environment. It should become a place to congregate and learn together, where we truly focus, where we are fully engaged, listen attentively, and respect each other in a spirit of collaboration.

Just as Jackson and his assistants devised an offensive system to keep his players focused and mindful, I use simple exercises that necessitate active listening and encourage mindfulness. Using exercises has the advantage of indirectness: from the first class, I would like to establish rules and codes of behavior, and I begin creating the culture, all without the students realizing it. They think they are doing a straightforward introductory exercise, but we are in fact beginning to co-create our environment.

For those who want to learn more about Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, watch the video below

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