Last week I read a blog post on the Freakonomics blog previewing an upcoming article on stats and the Celtics. While I am not an avid fan of the NBA, do not like the current style of the game preferring instead the team aspect of college ball, I do follow certain teams and players. Historically, I have been a fan of Boston and since they drafted KU standout Paul Pierce I keep track of their progress.
The internet being what it is I quickly found myself following links and began reading a post detailing the debate on practice versus talent. As both a teacher and a coach I enjoyed the message of the article.
“In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person “encodes” the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice.”
This statement supports several of my beliefs. One is that there is no such thing as luck. I feel that good preparation allows people to take advantage of situations. I have several examples from my coaching , but since you will have take my word for those instances I will cite a recent event familiar to those who follow college basketball and one in which I was able to witness first hand. Mario Chalmers game tying three point shot at the National Championship was dubbed by many in the media as a miracle.
While I admit that the shot was not textbook form, YouTube proved that the play itself was not a first time attempt. It is clear that this play, and thus the victory, was the result of practice as much as it was talent.
Aside from once again plugging the glorious year of sports that fans of the University of Kansas were able to enjoy, my athletic reference come with reason. There are multiple reasons why sports are so prevalent at educational institutions. It is because that many of the skills that enable students to become successful student-athletes are transferable from the sporting world to the classroom. It has become cliché to call these transferable lessons “life skills.” Personally, I feel I starting becoming successful in the classroom when I realized that I could take my coaching philosophy into the classroom to make students successful. While I realized that teaching history and English would be slightly different than teaching wrestling, I also become conscious that all three subjects were simply different disciplines. The bottom line was that my students needed practice, repetition, and active learning to improve on the skills in the classroom.
Think about it. If I tried to teach my student-athletes how to wrestle by lecturing for the majority of practice and then give them a multiple choice exam would they really master the skills required to improve? We structure our practices with a short demonstration (guided lecture) followed by longer sessions of drilling (active group work). In addition to this, after several weeks of nothing but practice we begin weekly competitions (assessment). So why is it that many in education feel that it is necessary to conduct their class by controlling the information?
I admit that I do follow some of the old school means of teaching. I administer one multiple choice exam per quarter. I think that every course has to do this as students must be familiar with the style of this type of assessment due to state testing and SAT/ACT exams. But I also feel that this type of assessment is a poor channel for gagging student understanding of information. However, I feel that if my students can master the “messy assessments” that people such as Wesley Fryer advocate then my students can pass a standardized exam once they understand the methods to taking such exams.
The bottom line is that students cannot truly understand the content unless they are active in the learning. If you simply teach students how to pass an exam then you are doing nothing more than teaching them how to memorize information. True learning comes from understanding. While I was an average wrestler, I feel that I understand the sport as proof from my coaching record. As you end this year and begin to reflect on your lessons and courses for next year I challenge you to make a change toward active practice. During wrestling practices I often walk around the room and make adjustments to technique on an individual basis while the rest of the room proceeds without someone looking over their shoulder. In the classroom, I walk around drinking my coffee and individually guide my students in the same method. My challenge to you…drink more coffee and lecture a bit less.
Enjoy your day,