My pondering was triggered reading an article written by Carlo Celli and Nathan Richardson titled, Why the United States Stinks at Soccer: We need less practice and more play.
Celli and Richardson are professors at Bowling Green State University and the authors of Shoeless Soccer: Fixing the System and Winning the World Cup. As I read the following about soccer, I wondered about our classrooms.
“Around the world, kids play in mixed-age pickup games, un-coached, without parents, uniforms or shin guards. They play with different-sized balls on hard, fast, small courts packed with kids, where real skill is required just to control the ball, and the basics of the skills of the game teach themselves.”
They mention the great soccer player Pele, whose first team was called “The Shoeless Ones”. They played with no cleats, cone drills, nor hectic soccer parents carpooling to tournaments. Pele’s ball was a sock stuffed with rags.
Richardson and Celli describe our soccer playing students in the US, as participating “in ever-more tightly organized practices,” where an “adult-driven system prevents the kids from developing skills, instincts, and creativity to master the beautiful game.”
I wondered about our schools, where more and more students’ time is often structured with drills and activities designed by the teacher and directed by the teacher. In some of my podcasts and blogs, I’ve mentioned the work of Trevor Ragan, whose website, Train Ugly, often connects sport’s learning metaphors to our understanding of learning in the classroom. He explores the difference between “block practice” and “random practice”. (See video.)
We want practice to create transfer. “Do the skills that appear at practice show up during the game?” If I look at that from the classroom, it’s, “Do the skills that students are practicing in the classroom show up in what we might call real life?” Or a quicker measure, “Do we find the skills that students are learning in one subject showing up when the student works in another subject area?”
Block Practice vs. Random Practice
Sport’s research has identified that while block practice, which is a player getting lots of repetition on the same skill over and over (shooting 50 free-throws from the foul line or having a bucket of tennis balls and practicing the same serve or the same return over and over) gets greater performance during practice, the skills often do not transfer to game time.
Random practice looks more chaotic. In basketball, the player might be practicing different shots, one right after the other from different spots on the court. A scenario that comes much closer to what occurs during an actual game. Random practice tends to gain greater transfer.
How does this apply to the classroom?
Think about mathematics. We frequently isolate a single math skill for instruction giving students a few days, and often homework, practicing the skill in isolation. Then, we test on the skill in isolation. Later in the year or the following year, when that concept is embedded in a different setting, the previous learning doesn’t connect. Learning didn’t transfer.
Often, student writing skills are practiced as isolated skills in an English class. We later find grammar, punctuation, or writing skills that a student has practiced not showing up in a social study’s report. Trevor Ragan writes that the real power of being successful as an athlete lies in the ability to read, plan, and do. In other words, the athlete reads the situation in the game, plans an appropriate strategy, and then executes the strategy. For me, those words really connect to the ability of the student to read a learning situation, plan a strategy, and then execute.
Again, if you consider mathematics, the student approaching a word problem, reads the problem, develops a plan, and then executes. When the student is practicing in isolated block practice, it’s just rehearsal of execution, giving insufficient opportunities for the student to practice reading and planning, which means in effect, practicing problems solving and critical thinking.
Live Event Learning
At PLS3rdLearning, we use the term “live event” to create random practice in the classroom. Joe Hasenstab, my early mentor and the founder of PLS 3rd Learning, frequently suggested that students might be better prepared for life after school if we held extracurricular activities all day long and academic courses after school. What Joe meant by that was that it’s in those extracurricular activities, “live events,” that students have opportunities to read, plan, and do. It’s where the decision-making and the consequences of those decisions are being driven by students rather than imposed by an adult.
An example of a live event might be students identifying a community problem such as the lack of space and facility for student skateboarding. The students investigate the need. They explore availability of property within the community. They identify resources and grants and end up presenting a proposal to their local city council.
Live events are multi-sensory because students are engaged in the real world. All the senses are present. They give students an opportunity to practice real-life processing skills of negotiating, and critical thinking, communicating, etc.
Live events have a relevance due to the real environment in which they take place. There’s a meaning and a purpose behind the hard work that the student takes on in tackling the live event. That relevance tends to bring forth emotions that we know are critical to impacting student learning. There is a real consequence from the work that the students do. The way they communicate to the city council. The depth of the research that they’ve conducted will impact the outcome.
Rarely do grades or feedback from a teacher get to the level of emotional engagement present in the real consequences of live events. When are we providing the opportunities for students to play and do as part of their learning? When are they getting opportunities to read a situation, plan a strategy, and execute? How much time is spent practicing only repetitions of execution, making the transfer of their learning less likely?
Coaching should give teachers the opportunity to reflect on their decision-making. Much like the way athletic coaches and performing arts coaches create the opportunities for their performers to reflect. Teaching is a live event! While learning activities are planned, much of teaching requires the teacher to read, plan, and execute on the spot. Having opportunities following a lesson to debrief the teachers’ skills and decisions in reading and planning on the spot as well as being coached on the execution are critically important.