Teaching as Coaching?

erics-double-v-fc

This is another in my irregular musings about teaching, learning and how grading should help rather than hinder the latter.

Does the textbook have a responsibility for student learning?  No, it’s just a source of course content.  Does the teacher have a responsibility for student learning, or is the teacher as expert just another source of course content?  Most people would say the teacher does have a responsibility for student learning, but are most course environments set up that way?  I would say no, not really.

For some time, I’ve been thinking about the parallels between sports and school.  Participants generally think sports are fun, otherwise they wouldn’t participate.  School?  Not so much.

Once the sports team has been selected, the purpose of coaching and the objective of players is to improve performance.  There is regular assessment with clear consequences: players that perform the best get more playing time.  The purpose of coaching is to improve performance.  If the team’s performance doesn’t improve, the coaching hasn’t been very successful.  (Admittedly, this is a collective goal, like a group project.)  But by and large it is successful.  Virtually every team I’ve witnessed improves over the course of the season.

Can we say the same thing about teaching and learning in school?  I’m not sure.  There’s certainly evidence to the contrary.  In a recent article in Peer Review, Bain and Zimmerman retell the story of the experiment conducted by physics professors to see how much learning actually took place in their intro classes.  They conducted pre and post-tests of the some of the fundamental content in their course.  When the professors gave the post-test, several months after the course, they discovered essentially no change in the survey scores, indicating no learning of the fundamental content.  More alarming was their finding that the change in survey scores was unrelated to the grades students earned in the course.  ‘A’ students scored better on course exams and other graded assignments, but they didn’t learn the fundamentals of physics any better.  Bain & Zimmerman argue that this result is not limited to physics but applies to all disciplines.

In school, when a student receives a poor grade, they usually feel bad, even guilty, and they often blame the teacher.  As teachers, we tend to discount the student, thinking ‘they failed’  Our emphasis is on delivery of the content, more than on coaching over and over to help the student get it right.  There are some exceptions to this: composition courses where students write and get feedback repeatedly, and teachers who go out of their way to provide recurrent feedback to students who can’t seem to get it.  But this is not the norm.  Usually, the content drives the schedule, and students are supposed to get the content and move on to the next topic.

I think that teachers teach with the expectation that successful students will earn an A.  Anyone less than that, isn’t really successful.  We teach the content; we assess learning of the content.  At that point it’s sink or swim.  The expectation is that the good students will get it, and the rest, well, they’re not good students so the fault lies with them.  We claim to offer help to students who don’t make the grade.  But we don’t really expect that everyone or even very many students will come to our office hours.  By and large, we expect that students will do the lion’s share of their learning, their remediation on their own.  We test them, we give them the correct answers and we expect them to figure out where they went wrong on their own.  There’s a certain contradiction in thinking here.  At one level, we act as if everyone should get an A.  (We often teach to the level of A work.)  But we don’t really believe that, and in an important sense, for those that don’t, we wash our hands of them.

Compare this with sports and coaching.  In sports, there is little expectation that players will perform perfectly on the first attempt.  Once players have made the team, the purpose of practice is not to delivery content (how to field a grounder), though there’s a great deal of that done.  The purpose of practice is to provide repeated opportunities to improve performance.  The objective of coaching is to help players improve from where they are.  After all, if the goal is to improve the team’s performance, helping each player to improve will contribute to that goal, even if no players become all-stars.

In school, grading tends to be a sorting mechanism of whittling students down. The grade is perceived as a judgment about one’s personhood, rather than as helpful feedback.  Not surprisingly, students push back against grades.

In sports, assessment is more directly connected to performance.  The goal of learners and teachers is to build one up, not document how one falls short of perfection.

I wonder if teachers could learn from the sports approach.  That is, if we are more interested in learning than sorting.

This entry was posted in Assessment & Grading, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Teaching as Coaching?

  1. Casey Stengel says:

    The teaching as coaching analogy only goes so far. Coaches have the option of “cutting” or else not playing their hopeless players. Teachers do not have that luxury. If we could “cut” our hopeless students, the classroom learning environment would be much improved and more attention could be devoted to the remaining students.

    Ultimately, students will not learn anything unless they learn it themselves. They have to get out of bed and come to class, read the assignments, ask questions in class, and make use of office hours. We can’t do that for them. If they do not do that on their own, they will not learn. The coach gets to cut the players who do not do that.

  2. Andre Malan says:

    I think one of the biggest differences between teachers and coaches is that coaches spend very little of their time telling the players what to do. It’s normally a 10 minute “Okay, here is what I want you to focus on… remember to take this into account… be careful not to…” and then walking about the players as they do. As the coach walks they find weaknesses and strengths and demonstrate the best way to improve on them.

    School on the other hand is 50 minutes of “remember this” and then “Okay, now go home and practice by yourself… and if you mess up on the big day there will be consequences”. Then, almost as an afterthought “I’ll be at some obscure place at some obscure time that is completely out of context and doesn’t fit with your schedule and is far away from the field for about an hour if you need any help”.

  3. Jim says:

    I absolutely love to see images in your posts, see what all the financial crisis training gets you! Oh yeah, and what Andre said, damn that kid is smart.

    And bully for your soon, who I am assuming is in the image above.

  4. Terry says:

    Steve,
    Bain’s book “What the Best College Teachers Do” goes into depth about what a kind of “coaching in the classroom” might look like, and, in fact, *does* look like in the classes of said “best college teachers.” If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it. I would love to hear your reaction to Bain’s ideas. He did a great presentation for our faculty here a few years back. Maybe your new teaching center could bring him in for a day.

  5. Bardiac says:

    I think the sport analogy is flawed in a lot of ways.

    Coaches at almost every level (except the youngest kids) get to kick players off the team or bench them if they don’t perform or appear to be working hard, or for any rule infraction. The idea isn’t to coach most of the population to a decent level of performance in football, baseball, soccer, tennis, and swimming. It’s to coach the best athletes in their one or two sports.

    Few kids play more than one sport; often, they choose one they’re good at, and really practice. It’s really hard to start a new sport and get on a team if other kids have been doing it for a couple of years (individual sports are easier to get into). Imagine a student whose never played baseball, deciding in college to play on the team. Do you think the coach is going out of his way to get the kid the individual coaching he needs to catch up?

    In academics, we want everyone in the population to be literate, to have some basic math skills, to know some history, and so forth. In college, we provide introductory courses in many areas (and community colleges provide remedial courses in things such as reading and math). A student with minimal math prep in high school can become a math major. (Admittedly, in my school at least, that doesn’t work for music majors.)

    My school has maybe 80 students on the football team, and six coaches. There’s a coach for the quarterbacks, and one for the offensive line, one for defense, and so on. I’d like those numbers for my teaching, wouldn’t you? They also have nice facilities, and we’re no big ten school or anything. Even the local high schools have multiple football coaches.

    In contrast, most high school kids get no coaching, just go to a gym class and get told to run around and do this or that. We’d have a whole lot healthier population if high school PE folks focused on teaching active lifesports to most of us rather than trying to get a couple of men onto college football teams.

  6. I think much of this depends on the subject matter in that is it fact-based (history)or skill based (music, art, computer programming).

    Since my area is music and music technology, I’ve been studying how teachers get the most of their students. Fortunately, because of the time I worked in Hollywood, I met many composers and orchestrators who after WWII, studied either in Paris or Santa Barbara with Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger studied with Faure who also taught Ravel.

    While I was writing How Ravel Orchestrated: Mpther Goose Suite, I spent time studying Ravel and his life as a student. To the point: Ravel was a terrible student in the classroom and was thrown out.

    What made Ravel Ravel, was Faure, who in the evenings would go hear student compositions outside of class and critique them constructively.

    Ravel had the desire and the motivation to put into excelling as a composer. What he needed was direction and mentoring. That came outside the classroom, not within.

    What I’m seeing is that learning must be broken down into two camps. The first is fact based. This is easy to teach in a lecture environment. Skill, however, is assimilating and doing.

    This is where the coaching comes in. I think good models here are basketball greats John Wooden and Dean Smith. The coach has to be “hands on” for those times where a demonstration is required.

    To develop skill one must learn to think the subject through. Then comes the experimentation that develops insight, competency and technique.

    The requirement of the student is that he/she must be willing to give themselves over to this level of dedication and the teacher must be skilled enough to direct it.

  7. Pingback: More on the value-added of teachers at Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

  8. “Coaches at almost every level (except the youngest kids) get to kick players off the team or bench them if they don’t perform or appear to be working hard, or for any rule infraction.”
    He’s not suggesting that this is always the case. There are BAD coaches too, who concentrate on having a few good players and leaving the ones who need extra help in the dust. You don’t conduct a successful team like that, it’s discouraging and makes it less fun for everyone. My coaches always focused on helping the kids who needed more help, let the ones that were good to their own devices and made all of us play together, to teach each other.

    “The idea isn’t to coach most of the population to a decent level of performance in football, baseball, soccer, tennis, and swimming. It’s to coach the best athletes in their one or two sports.”
    Football, soccer, baseball, tennis are the sports where it’s MOST important to bring people up to a decent level. The ones that excel will excel and take the least of the coach’s time. These are team sports, everyone works together to learn and to play, or the team as a whole doesn’t succeed.

    “Few kids play more than one sport; often, they choose one they’re good at, and really practice. It’s really hard to start a new sport and get on a team if other kids have been doing it for a couple of years (individual sports are easier to get into). Imagine a student whose never played baseball, deciding in college to play on the team. Do you think the coach is going out of his way to get the kid the individual coaching he needs to catch up?””
    In a lot of colleges, this is the case, unless you’re Division 1 in everything. Rugby starts up with people that’ve never played before, sometimes lacrosse, etc. The kids who excel the best in sports have been playing many sports, maybe a different one every season since they were small. General athleticism and reaction time helps in all other sports too, it’s half physical and half rules/techniques execution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.