Do We Need A Bigger Boat

I was a little under the weather this past weekend and spent a little extra time in bed trying to get some rest.  As I was flipping through the channels looking for something to watch, I came across the movie Jaws at the moment where the massive shark surfaced in front of a chumming Martin Brody for the first time.  Martin slowly walked back into the ship’s cabin and uttered the famous line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Jaws, not seeming to be a movie that would help me relax and rest, was not a big part of my weekend; but this quote has stuck with me, and resonated in a few conversations this week.


Often in education, we attack problems with the Martin Brody response — we need to find a way to get a bigger boat.  Martin Brody did not need a bigger boat, he needed a different strategy and to use the tools he had at hand differently.  Ultimately, (for those who have never seen the movie, spoiler alert coming up) Martin ends up killing the massive shark by shooting an oxygen tank in its mouth, exploding the tank and the shark. Please note, these were tools on the boat with him already.

I feel we face this same challenge in education.  We often believe, just doing more…adding one more thing, will help. “More” does not get to the root of the problem, it often addresses only a symptom or two of the problem.  “More” often hinders rather than helps.  “More” stresses and strains everyone involved as we get pushed to, and sometimes past, our max.  “More,” often means too much.

When things are not going as planned, too often we want to give “more” when what we really need to give our students is “different.”  We want to throw a new strategy at it, or try to incorporate another activity in an already packed lesson.  If what we are doing is not working, we probably don’t need a bigger boat, we more than likely need to attack the issue with a different intention and attitude.

Our challenge is that we need to look at things differently.  To look for different solutions with the tools we do have, and that solution is not necessarily helped by adding “more” to our already busy plates.

We need to start asking: What is good for students? How do we know? What can we do next?

Questions like: “How do we know what we are doing impacts student performance?” or “What strategies are most impactful if my students are struggling in a certain skill?” start us along a path of meeting our individual students needs rather than focusing only on our actions as teachers. Focusing just on what we do will take us only so far, where the real impact will be made is when we start focusing on what the students are doing, and how we can best improve those who sit in our classrooms each day.  Being good is dirty hard work, much like what Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated reminds us: “What great performers have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically.”

How do we avoid this “autopilot” mentality in teaching where we find ourselves saying: “I am doing it the way that has worked in the past.” or  “I taught the material; it’s now on the onus of the students to learn it.” or “I have content to teach and cover, I have to move forward, regardless of who gets left behind in order to get it all in.”

Learning is the byproduct of teaching.  The scary question for us to think about, and ask ourselves everyday is: “If students are not learning, then are we really teaching?”

The boat is only so big, and we have lots of tools on board with us. Perhaps we should start to intentionally look at the tools we are using, and those that are underutilized, to make some changes before we jump ship. We know that the fish are in the water, they are just waiting on us to use the right bait. 

Keep learning; keep growing; keep sharing!

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