Podcast: Play, Do, Learn | Steve Barkley

Podcast: Play, Do, Learn

In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve ponders how playing and doing can connect to learning in the classroom.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTAnnouncer: Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud is sponsored by the AAIE Institute for International School Leadership. Preparing educators for the unique challenge of international school leadership through online courses led by international school leaders. Learn more at aaieinstitute.org.


Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels of nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading. Thanks for listening it.

Play, do, learn. I was intrigued to record some of my thoughts today, after reading an article written by Carlo Celli and Nathan Richardson. It was in the USA Today editorial section. It was called Why the United States stinks at soccer. The subtitle was We need less practice and more play.

Celli and Richardson are professors at Bowling Green State University. They’re the authors of the book called Shoeless soccer: Fixing the System and Winning the World Cup. Here is a couple of their comments that cause me to think about the structure of some of our activities for learning in school. “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 go on to mention the great soccer player Pele, and the first team that he played on was called the Shoeless Ones. As they played with no cleats, cone drills or hectic soccer parents carpooling to tournaments. Pele’s ball was a sock stuffed with rags.

Richardson and Celli go on to talk about our soccer playing students in the US, who are generally participating “in ever-more tightly organized practices.” Our kids travel for hours, often across state lines, and even across the entire country in search of ‘outstanding’ competition, sometimes spending more time travelling than playing. Perhaps the skill they’re learning is how to sit in the car. They describe this setting where “adult-driven system has prevented the kids from developing skills, instincts, and creativity to master the beautiful game.”

As I read that, I pondered what that might look like in our schools, as more and more of student’s time is often structured in drills and activities designed by the teacher, and directed by the teacher. In some of my other podcasts and blogs, I’ve mentioned the work of Trevor Ragan, whose website entitled Train Ugly, you can find them at trainugly.com, often connects sport’s learning metaphors that I think carry very well over to our understanding of learning in the classroom. One of their items that he explores is the difference between what has been labeled as “block practice” versus “random practice”.

He explores those two items as they connect to transfer. In his exploration, transfer is “Do the skills that appear in the athlete at practice show up during the time of the game?” If I look at that from the classroom, it’s “Do the skills that students are learning in the classroom show up in what we might call real life?” Or a quicker component for us to look at is “Do we find the skills that students are learning in one subject showing up when the student transfers to work in another subject area?”

The sport’s research has identified that while block practice, which is a person getting lots of repetition on the same skill over and over, like shooting 50 fire shots from the fire line, or having a set of tennis balls and practicing the same serve or practicing the same return over and over. Block practice tends to get greater performance during practice but tends not to show up in transfer in the game the way that random practice does.

Random practice is practice that looks more hectic. If you think about it in basketball, the student would be practicing different shots, one right after the other from different spots on the court. A scenario that comes much closer to what shows up during an actual game. As I read that, the piece that really jumped out at me was thinking about mathematics, where we frequently isolate a single math skill that the student is learning and working on, and they go through an entire unit for several days, sometimes weeks practicing that same skill. Then they get tested on that skill again in isolation. Then we frequently find the student’s skills not showing up later in the year or the following year, when that concept is now implemented all of a sudden in a problem that the student needs to solve or approach.

The other piece that jumps out at me is thinking about student writing, which is often practiced as an isolated skill in an English class. Then finding that grammar, punctuation, writing skills that a student is practicing not showing up in a social study’s setting. 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. Those words really tie over for me in the ability of the student to read a learning situation plan, and then execute.

Again, if you consider that applied to mathematics, the student approaching a world problem, reads the problem, develops a plan, and then execute. When the student is practicing in isolation block practice, its constant practice and rehearsal of the execution, giving insufficient opportunities for the student to practice reading and planning, which means in effect, practicing problems solving, a critical thinking skill.

At POS third learning, the term that we’ve used to described what would closest fit this concept of random practice in the classroom is the term real-life learning or practicing life skills. 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 these “live events” where students have that opportunity to read, plan, and do, where the decision-making and the consequences of those decisions are being driven by the students rather than imposed by the teacher.

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. There are several items that are present whenever students are engaged in real-life learning that increase and positively impact student learning outcomes. 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 those real-life processing skills of negotiating, and critical thinking, and communicating.

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. A real key of the motivation is the fact that 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. Often the concept of grades or feedback from a teacher doesn’t get to that level of emotional engagement that is present in the real consequence of students taking part in live events. As you look at students day and week in school, consider when are we providing the opportunities for students to play and do as part of their learning and when are they getting those opportunities to read, and plan, and execute versus spending their time practicing only the repetitions of execution which makes the transfer of their learning more and more difficult.

As I was recording this podcast, it occurred to me why coaching is so critical for teachers to have the opportunity to reflect on their decision making, similar to the way athletic coaches and performing arts coaches create the opportunities for their performers to reflect.

In effect, teaching is a live event. While a lesson can be planned instructionally, much of teaching requires the teacher to read, plan and execute on the spot. Having those opportunities following a lesson to debrief the teachers’ skills and decisions in reading and planning as well as being coached on the execution becomes critically important. Thanks for listening.

Thanks for listening folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

[00:16:27] [END OF AUDIO]

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