Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coaching & Teaching

Update - Many may wonder how the students in the high school exit exam prep class did, well I had 6 students and 5 of the 6 passed the high school exit exam.

The more I think about teaching and teaching methodology the more connections I find with coaching in sports. Coaching is to the physical domain what teaching is to the intellectual domain. We can learn much from the methods of coaching since sports programs are more developed in the US than educational programs. Some of the advantages of focusing on coaching programs is that coaching has been finely tuned over decades to get results, not just winning games, but producing good athletes and good students. Another advantage of studying coaching programs is that they are "holistic", in order for an athlete to perform at their peak, mind, body, and emotions must all be aligned to produce the desired result. So athletic programs developed entire systems of thought and philosophy to address nearly every aspect of the athlete. - If we can adapt these systems, these programs, to education I think we can great improve student outcomes.

Due to competitive pressures, coaching in sports has identified and analyzed every factor that could possibly have an affect on the athlete and the outcome of a game. Then these factors are finely tuned to produce good athletes and to win games. Unfortunately finely tuned factors are not enough, the way the factors are harmonized also has effect on the athlete and the outcome of a game. In other words harmonizing the finely tuned factors is also a factor. This harmonizing is what is known as a philosophy, a program if you will that guides not only what factors are used, but when and how they are used. Harmonizing the factors is an art and different coaches approach it differently, but this does not mean all approaches are equal, different approaches yield different results. So it is best to focus on the coaches that get the best results, not just winning games, but producing good athletes. - This is what is missing in current educational programs.

Most educational programs focus on certain very limited factors, namely explaining concepts, without regard for other factors that affect whether or not the student gains an understanding of the material. Even if other factors are identified and to some extent tuned, they are not harmonized with the environment. More importantly, many educational programs are reluctant to admit that not all approaches are equal, and that some approaches yield better results than others. In many respects teaching as it is currently practiced is trial and error. This makes it difficult for a teacher with a good intentions and a good heart to be effective at challenging schools.

Given the current budget crisis, it may not be possible to increase teacher salaries, so instead make it easy to be a good teacher and get good results - work on the altruistic side of teaching, as opposed to strictly the self-interest side. One way to make it easy to be a good teacher is to distill the practices, the philosophy, the tactics, the strategies, the behaviors, etc of the most effective teachers into a set of principles that are easy to follow. Not as a set of rules that must be followed rather as a set of guidelines to help the teacher. This way teachers don't have to rely on the painful process or trial and error, thereby leading to a more positive environment and increasing teacher retention.

Programs can be specialized to the area that the school is in, for example different programs may be needed for urban, suburban, and rural high schools. The most effective teachers from each category should be interviewed to determine every aspect of their "program" that yields good students and good results.

As any coach will tell you, the preparation, motivation, prior experience, and parental involvement make a difference in the way you approach a group of athletes. Athletes who have never played the game, are not motivated, and have no parental environment will need different approach from athletes who have played the game, are highly motivated, and have much parental involvement. Some people may interpret this as putting the athletes down, but no, rather it is being honest about factors that play a big role in the way you approach the program. The same thing holds true for student, admitting that the student may not be as well prepared, or motivated, or as disciplined as other students is not a put down, rather it is being honest about factors that will shape your approach to teaching them.

Preparation, motivation, and consistency, are aspects that every student can improve, it is not genetic, as such it is not a put down. A true put down, is claiming that students are incapable of learning, or that genes control their achievement, or that they are inherently incapable of abstract problem solving - these are the cruelest put downs. These are the put-downs that some people gravitate to when they don't see improvement in results.


Now there are differences between sports programs and educational programs. Participation in sports programs is usually voluntary, while going to school is sometimes involuntary. So we might need a different approach in motivating students to participate in the sometimes intellectually rigorous educational process. The solution may lie in marketing - if it is possible for businesses and corporation to "make" people want things they don't need, then it should be possible for educational institutions to "make" students want something they DO need - education. In other words, we should "sell" education - not as a ploy to get a student or the student's parents to spend money, rather as a technique to get the student and the student's parents to undergo the rigorous process of education. The teacher may have to use sales techniques to convince the student that education is important and to undergo the rigors therein. Salesmen and teachers have this much in common, sometimes both are placed in situations where the "sales" are difficult, hence you may have a high turnover rate in difficult "markets".

The Big Picture

I suppose the grand overarching philosophy is this: Every problem in education should first be identified and then analyzed. Then we should realize that these problems have already been solved and finely tuned by some other group or institution. Our goal is to adapt and harmonize them to education.

John Gonzalez


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