Focus on Learning Series: A Coach's Perspective on the School Reform Battle

This article was originally posted on the Connected Consulting blog by Dr. Billie McConnell.

There is a battle in our society between school reform with technology and doing a better job with our traditional practices. We all believe that we must do a better job of educating our students, but while we argue, our kids are losing.

Should we have standardized tests?

Should we develop “21st Century Skills”?

Should we implement technology?

Should we change the way we teach?

. . . the list goes on and on.

My concern is what each side uses to argue their point. Many instructional technologists argue that technology is the key to real change and traditionalists argue that the “research-based” methods we have been using to teach for decades are effective. Then, of course, we have a lot of people that don’t know what to think. From what I have seen in how both sides are implementing their beliefs in many schools today, they are both wrong. But coaches may have the answer.

As a basketball coach, I have taught five year olds to high school students. As a teacher, I have taught elementary, middle school, high school, undergrads, grads, and adult professional development classes. As I think back to my days of coaching, I realize how much of what we did as coaches was what I have been working so hard to do in my classrooms and professional development workshops.

As a coach, we would spend every day teaching and practicing fundamental skills and then working on using those skills by playing the game. Sometimes we taught the skill and then used it in a game situation and sometimes we used the game situation to teach the why and how of a new fundamental skill. We then evaluated our players on how they were able to play the game and use those skills in the context of playing the game, either in a real game or by simulating a game in practice.

We never just taught fundamentals and then assessed the fundamentals. That wouldn’t make any sense and it would also be very boring to the coaches and the players. Who would want to practice dribbling or passing over and over and never do anything with those skills for 21 years? Everyday we worked on fundamentals, rules, communicating, thinking, working together as a team, reading the situation, and understanding why we were doing certain plays or techniques. We wanted our players to understand the game, to have basic fundamentals, and be able to think in a game situation. It is the game (real or practice) where everything makes sense for the player and it is the game where coaches can assess real player progress.

As coaches, we also wanted the best equipment. We wanted the best shoes to be able to run, jump, and cut. We wanted the best gyms, so that conditions would allow for high achievement. We wanted the latest training tools, so that we could help players develop skills in ways that we never could before. But, we didn’t believe that buying the coolest shoes or the most expensive tools was going to improve the play of our players without effective coaching. They were just tools.

How does this relate to academics?

Research will tell you that traditional methods of lecture, memorize and regurgitate are an effective practice. But, an effective practice for what? Well, in many cases it is an effective practice for passing tests that are assessing what we were told to memorize.

Yes, if my goal as a coach was to assess my players ability to dribble and pass the ball correctly, then all I needed to do was drill those fundamentals over and over. The players’ ability to use those fundamentals to successfully play the game would not be in question, because that is not what we were assessing. So, if the same is true in academics, then it doesn’t matter if students are able to understand why they are learning the fundamentals or how to use them to solve real problems, in real careers, in their real life.

On the other side, we have been buying technology for decades thinking that it will change education, but it doesn’t. It is not the technology that increases learning, it is what we do with the technology that makes it important in our efforts to improve. I see too many schools that rush to buy technology without a real vision or plan, so the teachers continue to teach the way they always have, but with a more expensive tool.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have been told of a great innovative classroom, but when I saw what they were doing it was nothing more than learning the basics, the same way, with a fancier tool. Everyone raved about the great classroom, but nothing had really changed. Having fancier “chalk” boards, electronic worksheets, and trying to go paperless is not going to change anything when it comes to learning. When researchers say that teaching with technology is not more effective than traditional methods, they are correct. Doing the same thing with a fancier tool is not going to create a different outcome.

I am both a proponent of technology and of learner-centered practices. But, I am not a proponent of technology because it will do a better job of teaching, nor am I a proponent of learner-centered practices because we should let the students “run the show”. I still believe that many traditional methods are effective when used in context. I am all for technology when it is used for learning in ways that we couldn’t do before. I am a proponent of preparing students for the world that they will enter. That includes using technology and allowing students to learn in the context of how they will use the information and skills they are learning.

Our students will enter a world that is constantly changing and we must prepare them for it. Perhaps we need to talk to all of our athletic and performing arts coaches for the right answer. Is the goal for students to simply learn the fundamentals and that is what we assess? Or is our goal to assess whether our students can be successful in “playing the game” of college, career and life? If it is the latter, then we need to re-think our practices, our tools, and our assessments.



Dr. Billie McConnell and Drew McConnell of Connected Consulting are experienced Vision & Learning Facilitators and Atomic Learning collaborative partners. Looking to make a shift in your district? Check out this free workbook that helps pinpoint areas for consideration and further development.

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