Sunday, June 10, 2012

Tennis Anyone? Lessons from Tennis Lessons

I remember watching a tennis instructor giving a lesson and being impressed with the way he was able to get kids progressing very quickly. And then I thought of my daughter's dance, skating or swimming instructors and it was similar. So I started to observe and try to figure out why they were so successful, so I could get the same results in my classroom (because it was humbling to see the kind of progress kids in tennis, dance, skating, and swimming were making compared to the modest gains I was making in my elementary classes).

Here were some of the differences:
  • The instructors were all really young, like under 30. Hey, wait a second! Shouldn't my years of experience count for something? Apparently not.
  • The classes were all on the small side. Dance was the largest at 15, and swimming was the smallest, 3-8 (which is comforting because smaller groups descreased the chances of pupils drowning).
  • Students attended once or twice per week in half hour to hour lessons. Maybe having large breaks is a good idea for freshness. Mind you, if I count the number of subjects I teach then maybe this is not going to work or the students will be about 40 when they graduate.
  • Students were grouped by ability, not age. 
  • The instruction all seemed to be the same pattern. 1. Get everyone together at the beginning for an overview. 2. Do only two or three things per lesson, but with a tremendous variety of ways so it doesn't get stale. The teacher gives a brief demonstration of each variant. 3. Students go off and try each variation while the teacher goes around and gives BRIEF feedback or fine-tuning to each student. 4. The lesson ends with something fun like a game.
  • Almost the whole time the students were DOING following brief instruction.
It is the last two that I keyed in on in my own classroom as the rest were out of my control (barring a change in policy and a time machine).  I try to run my some of my classes this way, but I've come to realize that the tennis lesson approach does not work well across the board.  It is great for anything physical or that uses discrete skills such as long division, hand writing, learning phonics, art skills, memorization, etc.  Anything that is progressive that can be broken down into a series of advancing skills works with the tennis model.  However, it does not work well with anything conceptual, such as problem solving, critical thinking, creative writing, debating, why we use long division, etc. 

Extrapolating further, I think I could probably teach in a class of 40 kids if all I had to do was teach them to memorize and regurgitate a bunch of facts, or have them do math calculations (but not know why or how to apply them).  I could teach a big class if they only copied what I did.  I could teach a class like that if they didn't move or didn't talk to me or each other.  I could teach 40 kids if they only learned skills instead of concepts.  I could teach a class in this way if I didn't want to treat students as individuals.

Actually, I couldn't.  I probably wouldn't teach if this is what schools were like.

I use the tennis approach in appropriate circumstances, but not as the overall model for my teaching.  I am trying to create an atmosphere where we go deeper than the lockstep series of discrete lessons.  Learning should be more holistic, applicable, imaginative, and conceptual.  Lecture halls and desks in rows facing the front is a perfect venue for factory-driven lockstep teaching.  Maybe that's why my classroom looks like an odd circus at times: lots of action, wonder, interaction, and fun.  We need our students to go beyond individual skills and work collaboratively, cooperatively, and creatively.

Using the tennis approach is indeed useful.  But not for everything.

No comments:

Post a Comment