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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Golf Scrambles and "Game" in Education

Golf Scrambles and “Game” in Education

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Department Chairperson and Associate Professor
Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

While riding in a car last week, we had the following conversation as we thought of leadership development and school improvement:

In golf there is a type of competition, “a scramble,” where four people are on a team. Each will hit his/her golf ball, then all four will go to the best ball and hit from there. Teams will usually have a best-to-worst player continuum; the best player (typically called the “A” player) will be the one who shoots the lowest score when playing alone. The “B” player will be the second best player, and so on. Everyone knows who everybody is.  There’s no hiding the rank ordering. This type of competition is quite a social affair yet very destructive to one’s individual game. The ability to “swing away” at most shots removes all inhibitions that may be related to out-of-bounds or water hazards. After all, the winner of most individual competitions is usually the person who makes the least amount of mistakes. In scrambles, the winners are usually those who make the most great shots.

What makes scrambles interesting, at times, is the strategy employed and who owns the strategy. The designation of the leader of each team typically defaults to the best player, as if that person were also the best thinker. When the team is faced with a decision, such as which ball to use, the attention usually shifts to the “A” player, who will pick the one from which he/she believes he/she can most benefit – not necessarily the one from which all four players could benefit. Rather myopic.

Some teams are composed of four good players, with none of them outwardly holding the role as the best player. In these teams we find four individuals who each have an ability to perform a particular aspect of golf very well. One may be able to hit the ball a long distance; one may be able to putt very well, and one may be very good at short-approach shots (getting the ball on the green close to the hole from inside 100 yards). Rarely do we find one chosen for a team because he/she has superior abilities of course management, restated, the ability to make the best decisions given certain situations. Sometimes caddies will perform these tasks when working with professional golfers. They are charged with “coaching” the golfers with respect to providing yardages, line of the putt, controlling emotions, or simply providing head nods as a way to invoke confidence.

As we drove on, we wondered aloud how a scramble might benefit from a player who was not very good at all but had superior skills in course management?

This person would know the limitations of each player on the team and how their particular skills were manifesting that day. He/she would be able to articulate some reasoning behind decisions and perhaps coach players to help them better understand their roles.  He/she could even help them visualize their performance. This person would truly be leading (or at minimum coaching) those around him/her, yet would not necessarily be a good player. Yet, this is rarely the case, as in golf, one’s abilities as a player seem to equate from everyone’s perception to one’s designation as “leader.”

Skills in leadership do not factor into that designation.   Does this make sense?

Let’s apply the notion of a golf scramble to school leadership. How might the scramble concept be similar or different from what is typically deployed in schools in the game of education? 

First, let’s consider the notion of playing from everyone’s “best ball.”  Do we do this?  Let’s examine.

It would seem for the most part that in Professional Learning Communities, the notion of sharing best practice would be much akin to playing a scramble.  After all, we borrow from each other’s best shots, don’t we?  Let us dissect this a bit further.

If leadership or school improvement were a scramble, each initiative would have everyone “swinging away,” as opposed to playing conservatively. Even more interestingly, we would not keep a secret as to who was best or lie to each other in faculty lounges, saying that we are all good.  Everyone would know different, and most all would accept a rank ordering. We’d have our A educators, our B educators, and those who simply could not “bring game.”  It would be obvious, and all would accept it.

As we drove, we wondered how many in schools are honest with each other.  Or … do most folks play-pretend that gamelessness is not in the room?

To take the metaphor further -- In a school scramble, someone’s “best shot” (improvement strategy) would be selected, each step of the way, from which to proceed to the next -- those best shots coming sometimes from the A player, sometimes from the B, and sometimes from others’ lucky attempts.  Yet along the way, most decisions about how to “do school” would be made still by the A player (such as which tools to use to address the challenges).  Do we in education always use someone’s best strategy, from which to build our next move?  In schools, do we defer to those who are ranked “the best” in making our own decisions as to how we play the game, or do we do things the way that are comfortable for us?

We began to wonder about the strength of the scramble metaphor.

We then talked through an example more tangible: math achievement for our struggling students.  In tackling math achievement through a scramble approach, math teachers would be lined-up and rank ordered according to ability.  The best teacher would make the decisions on the tools necessary to take the first swing at something.  Let’s say that it is raising achievement in the lowest quartile of students in 1st grade.  Four teachers are involved.  Students would then be divided to provide similarly situated groups. Teachers would each take their own swing at the problem for a fixed period of time, after which the team would convene to examine the results.  Yet at that point, could they really then move forward from the best position?

Here’s where the scramble, as a pure metaphor in education, broke down. 

A scramble would have each teacher adopting the performance results from someone’s best crack at a strategy, as everyone moves to the best ball’s position in a golf scramble. They would then move on from there, taking their individual swings for another fixed period of time, thereafter reconvening.  Then they would adopt best performance again before moving forward.

Yet, in education, we can’t really “drop our ball from the optimal spot.”  Moving forward from someone’s best position would be impossible, of course, unless one could adopt the scores and performance levels of higher performing students from the group whose teacher/golfer took the best swing at teaching them.  Like in a golf scramble, one would need to pretend that the lower scores (worse shots) didn’t happen and drop a ball in the best position to shoot next. 

Children don’t accord us this luxury.  We can’t pretend that the reality of the “next best” or “worst” approach, or even the contextual variables that affect the reality of the situation, didn’t happen.  In schools, we can’t magically move skillsets, starting fresh at a higher level.

So in education, even in the best professional learning communities, we really don’t scramble.

Yet maybe if we consider what we typically DON’T do in a scramble (but maybe we should), we’ll get closer in how educators can “bring game.”  We said earlier to each other:

Rarely do we find one being chosen to be on the team because he/she has superior abilities of course management, restated, the ability to make the best decisions given certain situations. Sometimes caddies will perform this task when working with professional golfers. They are charged with “coaching” the player, with respect to providing yardages, the line of a putt, controlling emotions, or simply providing a head nod as a way to invoke confidence.

In this sense of dividing responsibilities among those in schools, everyone typically has a skill that can contribute something. Even the worst teacher typically has something of value to add to the conversation.

Thus, in bringing “game” to education, playing smart while capitalizing on each other’s strengths is what really helps a school’s performance.  In such, the principal seems the logical choice as the “coach” of the team (if superintendents have hired wisely), yet the principal’s selection as coach does not imply that he/she is necessarily recognized as the best teacher, or even a great teacher. 

The principal should, however, be a good caddy.

Dr. Steve Gruenert and Dr. Ryan Donlan enjoy learning from deep conversation, especially when midway through, they can detect fallacies in their own thinking and discover new avenues to ponder, those that make more sense.  Will you consider joining them? One way to do so is to visit them on campus and have lunch.  Another is to offer your own thoughts by contributing to the Leadershop.  Please consider helping these guys stay relevant through your feedback. They can be reached at or at

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