Sunday, March 13, 2011

Make Learning Inevitable-Lessons from the Gym

How would you like to have your student in a classroom of "inevitable learning"?  I'll bet you would, and I would be that it might look something like this:

  1. Complete student engagement--so engaging that students want to practice even the most basic and repetitive skills on their own time
  2. An environment that builds in practicing of basic skills in a non-threatening, encouraging manner that invites risk-taking and is not punished or rewarded by marks.
  3. Abundant and immediate feedback and encouragement from the teacher and from fellow peers.
  4. A commitment to working interdependently toward a common goal of success for the entire class.
  5. Mutual respect for all members of the learning environment.
  6. Unmatched parent involvement/interest.
  7. Extensive use of 21st Century Learning Skills, including communication, collaboration, critical-thinking, problem-solving, and culture development.
  8. Cheering, hugging, tears, and thanks when the class is over because the class and the learning was so incredible that those who are finished do not want to leave, and there are wistful thoughts about what the class will look like next year.
I don't know about you, but if I could have a classroom that looked like this for my daughters, I would be the happiest dad alive.  If we had each of these characteristics in all of our classes in the current education system, I am confident that we would be speaking about the greatest education system on the planet.  And the best part is, I saw this classroom this over the last two days.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of driving down to Vancouver to watch our teams participate in BC High School Provincial Championships.  My four-hour drive down to the Lower Mainland was filled with excitement and hope--our Grade 8 Girls Basketball team is a scrappy group that can make things happen, our Junior Girls Basketball team went in ranked #3 in the province, and our Senior Girls Basketball team ranked #5.  Not to mention our Girls Curling team going into the BC Finals as the reigning champions and ranked #1.  The potential for a Provincial Banner or two for our school was high.

It turned out to be a fantastic weekend.  Our Grade 8s finished higher than expected.  Our Seniors narrowly lost in the semifinals and won a great consolation final to finish with the Bronze Medal and two allstars.  Our Juniors won a thrilling semifinal and were leading in the final before succumbing to the #1 ranked team--Silver Medal.  And our unbelievable Girls Curling team successfully defended their title and brought home a second Provincial Championship in as many years. It was amazing, and I felt very lucky to have been at these events to watch our students compete.

But as much as the success of our girls on the court and the ice was phenomenal, at each event that I was at, I noticed a number of things that truly warmed my heart and made me think about John Wooden's idea of the court being 'the biggest classroom' in the school, the very classroom that I described above.

At these Provincial Championships, I saw each one of these elements:

  1. Complete student engagement--so engaging that students want to practice even the most basic and repetitive skills on their own time:  I have watched these students and their coaches put in hours and hours of practice, not only during scheduled practices, but at lunch, in the morning, and on weekends.  Dribbling.  Throwing dozens of rocks on the ice at night.  Putting up endless jumpers with the Gun in the gym in the morning.
  2. An environment that builds in practicing of basic skills in a non-threatening, encouraging manner that invites risk-taking and is not punished or rewarded by marks: the idea at practice is that the students DON'T know the skills, the defenses, the offensive sets, whatever, and that they will be broken down over and over, specifically for each position and skill set. They don't get marked, they get encouragement, and they get practical opportunities and simulations that are revisited over and over again if the players don't get it.  The coach realizes that they cannot move on as a team if there are people that 'don't get it'.
  3. Abundant and immediate feedback and encouragement from the teacher and from fellow peers: Clapping, cheering, encouraging, alerting them to potential pitfalls, telling them when there was a teammate open under the hoop.
  4. A commitment to working interdependently toward a common goal of success for the entire class.  Peers helping peers.  If a teammate missed a check or a defensive assignment, there was help behind them.  High-fives after a great shot.  Howls and screams when someone hit the floor after taking a charge for the team. Success was found only in the success of the team rather than the individual, and everyone recognized it.
  5. Mutual respect for all members of the learning environment.  By lifting a fallen opponent off of the ground when they fall.  Putting a hand up after committing the foul.  Saying "Nice shot" after an opponent pulled off a beauty.  Shaking the opposing coaches and players hands.  Thanking the ref after the game.
  6. Unmatched parent involvement/interest.  Through driving thousands of miles during the season,  living out of hotels, cheering for all of the kids, win or lose.  Cutting up oranges for half-time, having to get up and leave because the nerves are too much, occasionally (!) yelling at the refs.  Staying to watch the next game because "that's who we're playing next and we need to know what they do!".
  7. Extensive use of 21st Century Learning Skills, including communication, collaboration, critical-thinking, problem-solving, and culture development. Whether it was trying to figure out what kind of defense the other team was playing, or which sort of strategy that was required to get around a guard in the house on the ice, or communicating about switches on the court or when a rock needed to be swept, each member of the team was working together collaboratively towards a common goal.  All while wearing Titan Black and Gold in the culture we call the Titan Nation.
  8. Cheering, hugging, tears, and thanks when the class is over:  Athletes, coaches, parents, brothers, sisters, (and the Principal!) gathering together bursting with emotion, wiping tears of joy and sadness, saying thanks to each other for a great season, and promising to keep in touch, no matter what.  Seeing the genuine sadness in the eyes of the graduating players who know that this was it, the last game, and wishing they could go back in time and do it all over again.
This was a classroom that made me proud as a Principal.  I was proud of all the learning that took place, and much like a classroom with a final exam, I sat there and realized that it really isn't about the final, it's about the process.  The process of engaging students and parents in something so interesting that they want to do it in their spare time.  Something so special that we are willing to dress up in school colors and cheer each other on because we realize we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Athletics is just one example of something that engages our stakeholders in the process of learning, and there are many others.  But we need to be cognizant that we need to strive to have this level of engagement IN the classroom and in our schools each day.  By trying to take these eight things that we can find on the court and on the ice apply them into our schools, we can create a learning environment so compelling and personalized for students that we make success virtually inevitable.

And that is a classroom that I want our students to be in, don't you?

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed your post and wholeheartedly agree that these are the elements we aspire to in the classroom. However I can't fully agree with the sports analogy. I know coaches and physical education teachers who embarass the pupils and make them feel "small". sports for some is highly competitive and I know many pupils who would do anything to miss a class.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Naomi. While this may be the perception (true or otherwise) of some coaches and some PE teachers, I think that has little to do with sport and more to do with the individual. Your same description might apply to a music teacher, a dance instructor, a performance director, or a regular classroom teacher. But these are issues with the individual and they way that they attempt to deal with their pupils, not the discipline that they are in.

    In every field there will be those who do choose to act in a certain way, and those who do not. In all of my years of involvement in sports, the overwhelming majority of coaches provide an unforgettable experience for kids.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

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Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog!