As my Twitter handle @RESP3CTtheGAME indicates, I am passionate about baseball–a dedicated student and teacher of the game. Baseball is more cerebral than most sports, not necessarily won by the bigger, faster, stronger team. I crave the competition, strategy, and team success; there is no greater reward than watching players execute the skills emphasized in practice. Baseball is a dignified team sport–especially when played the right way–but those who understand its intricacies know baseball is also a game of individual failure, constant adjustment, and mental combat. Fighting these demons requires sustained focus, patience, and a growth mindset. This is where we lose many participants over time, be it on the field or in a classroom. Learners must be willing to overcome educational adversity and constructive discomfort in order to improve.
In my roles of high school teacher and varsity baseball coach, I attempt to create memorable, brilliant (potentially award-winning?) practice and lesson plans. I love strategically differentiating to meet everyone’s needs, while adding enough variety to maintain enthusiasm. I do not want practice to feel boring, tedious, or laborious–the negative connotation of work. Reality reminds me that the majority of those involved want to skip the preparation and get right to the performance. One of the greatest challenges of any coach or teacher is to get participants to invest in the value of practice time.
Allow me to introduce my coaching staff…
Anyone who has attended one of my baseball camps or practices around the batting cage knows that after I introduce each member of the coaching staff, I present my top instructor… the hitting tee. He gives specific, immediate, continuous feedback; he is flexible, patient, and adjustable; he is always willing to put in extra time without expecting recognition. These characteristics also separate the master teacher from the rest of a staff. Despite the impressive qualifications, even the master teacher must show results to validate effectiveness and earn respect. So, we allow the tee to do the teaching.
Some of the most physically gifted athletes overlook the value of tee work. They find it mindless, repetitive, and pointless–an insult to their abilities. Many consider it a child’s toy, a prop used by beginners incapable of hitting live pitching. As I passionately speak of fundamentals, discipline, and work ethic, players hear, “blah-blah-coach-speak-here-we-go-again-blah.” They know better than to roll their eyes, but I see doubt in faces of nonbelievers. Peers look at an invested teammate as an overachiever, or Coach’s pet, rather than a hard worker attempting to avoid a slump.
In an ideal world, baseball players and students would arrive ready to practice–eager to learn. Obviously, this is not always realistic, so we must initiate a level of excitement. This happens naturally in a culture of learning. Hitting consistent line drives to the far end of the cage is not as easy as it seems, but the goal is clear and attainable. The depth of the tunnel reminds the hitter to swing hard, but the ball will not travel properly unless the head remains steady and eyes focus softly on the point of contact. None of this is possible unless the lower half rotates and allowing the hips to clear a path for the hands to follow.
Every learner has strengths, where understanding and skill result in quick mastery. This comfort zone enables students to grasp concepts with relative ease. In hitting terms, this is finding the sweet spot. Given no specific instruction, hitters place the tee in the most comfortable position and hack away. I support these “feel good” reps knowing they increase confidence, build muscle memory, and identify individual strengths. However, learning stagnates when unforced beyond a comfort zone; fear of failure inhibits growth. If only pitchers were more considerate in delivering the ball to the sweet spot with regularity; unfortunately, stepping into the batter’s box is an unpredictable, overwhelming test at times. The enemy scouts our weaknesses and attacks our flaws. Nine players on defense versus one hitter doesn’t seem fair.
Many students approach their academic reps in the same way. They use the most comfortable–often apathetic–shortcut, through the formative process. They fall into a routine of compliance to appease the teacher and keep parents satisfied, especially where points are awarded. An even greater challenge is awarding no points for practice work, especially in a world where grades dictate student “worth.” Will this be graded? Does this count? How much is this worth?
Teachers, coaches, and parents must work with students to shatter this harmful mindset. Yes, it counts–more than any quantifiable grade, percentage, or average–but this is where teachers need to make sure students and their parents understand the value of the learning process. If practice is perceived as worthless, it is disrespectful to students and detrimental to a culture of learning. Formative practice is where learning occurs; this is the time for interaction and growth.
Those who respect the game of baseball, honor the importance of preparation. They find beauty in the art of practice. Classroom learning must be purposeful in relation to course standards. It should be interactive, engaging, and (dare I say?) fun. When students refuse to accept the value of practice, they turn the process into a points game. Maybe the class work is too easy, mindless, or repetitive; they can test without doing any work. Maybe the work is not tied to any standards. The teacher assigns homework because that’s what is expected; there is no clear rationale for completing perceived busy work. So, students rush to complete the assignment, copy a peer’s answers, or accept a zero–none of which prepares them for game time. When formative assessment is calculated to determine an average, the final grade is not an accurate indicator of learning.
Time to reconsider the educational purpose behind instructional practices, home work, and assessment. Time for educators to adjust the tee.
Adjusting the tee
Teachers tell students to be more creative but use the same lessons, tests, and plans every year. Schools tell teachers to be innovative, while expecting educators to increase standardized test scores and stick to the curriculum. We have predetermined outcomes that control learning, yet complain about kids’ lack of creativity. Children have wild imaginations (maybe video games are beneficial), but do not have the time nor freedom to express their creativity.
Learning, like tee work, requires the complex thought process of visualization. Hitters must conceptualize scenarios to discover the feel of staying on top of a high fastball, or driving a pitch on the outside corner. Reset. Move the tee out–then in–to simulate various points of contact. Initially, hitters might need situational prompts from a coach, but if effectively modeled, visualization becomes an art. Growth requires multiple opportunities for success–a full bucket of balls. Stretch the imagination. How does it feel to drive in the winning run with two strikes and the game on the line? What if it’s an off-speed pitch? Adjust. Make learning a memorable event–celebrate growth.
While the real education takes place throughout the formative stages of each unit, if treated properly, the final product will reflect successful growth. Formative feedback should guide further instruction and provide clear indication of preparedness for the summative assessment–game time. If I have done my job of providing multiple opportunities while communicating continuous, target-specific feedback, students should want to showcase their learning. In my classroom, such assessments are known as “celebrations of knowledge.”
Allow space for failure and recovery
Learning is messy. The growth process must be nurtured with care. No one wants to be evaluated on every swing in practice. Even with the best intentions, a batter inevitably strikes the rubber tube with such force practice stops to locate the source of the embarrassing thwack. It’s bad enough having to pick up the tee in front of teammates, let alone the judgmental eyes of a coach. As difficult as it is to resist the teachable moment, sometimes I have to step back and allow a hitter to work through his flaws. Proud or stubborn competitors don’t always seek a coach’s advice. The tee provides ample feedback. The hitter makes corrections. Following failure or success, I ask what he learned from the hitting instructor. Self-assessment and verbalization of the learning create ownership of the lesson. The hitter will adapt in much the same way during a game when isolated in the batter’s box.
Such cognition is powerful; this hitter may share his learning with teammates through understanding only one with experience can express. A partner can make helpful suggestions or simply provide support by loading the tee with another ball. The team builds a unique culture during practice, which should transfer to the dugout and onto the field. The chatter around a batting cage highlights my summers in much the same way an active classroom composes the soundtrack of the school year.
Join the Culture of Learning team–dominate the Major Leagues of Education. Lead a team where everyone shares a vision of success, outworks the competition, and earns playing time. But we must careful with our analogies. There are plenty of games to enjoy in life; if we make learning a priority in education, we will stop playing the game of school.
*Day 21 of @Teachthought #reflectiveteacher 30-day blogging challenge