Sunday, April 24, 2016

What if school was like a sport?

What if school was like an athletic team practice?

I was in a Twitter chat yesterday morning on the topic of school culture, and one teacher said a positive school culture "feels like home, looks like an athletic team practice."

What a beautiful and powerful image! What if kids came in all fired up (and maybe nervous), asking what the workout was going to be? What if school was like CrossFit for the mind? What would that look like?

To begin with, it would be highly structured. As I've written before, I've gone through a paradigm shift since I've been at the Depot. I used to think the less structure, the better. I imagined an organic, self-organizing, project-based learning environment in which students would be naturally motivated to learn. I found out the independent learning process needs to be scaffolded. At the Depot, we give the students tremendous freedom and hope they'll engage in complex projects on their own, but they often don't, and I think it's because they lack skills and confidence. They need more structure at the beginning. Then you remove the scaffolding as they progress until they are ready for full-blown independent learning. (Click here for a rough sketch of what that might look like.)

That structure would include plenty of explicit instruction, drill, and practice in basic skills with tons of feedback. Students need to master basic skills--math, reading, communication, planning, time management, self-control, motivation, and a sense of self-confidence before they will be able to design and tackle complex projects on their own.

Complex tasks are, after all, made of of simple parts put together. You may be able to teach them in context, but there's a reason basketball practice is not all made up of scrimmages.

As a thought experiment, I tried to imagine applying a project-based learning approach to a skill like Olympic lifting: "OK guys, in order to get stronger and be able to lift more weight, I'm just going to have you guys build a barn!" Nope. Won't work. Olympic lifting is a set of very complex movements and skills. Check out this video of just one movement--the snatch. It's even harder than it looks, and barn raising won't teach you that. On the other hand, how about training in all of the Olympic lifting movements and then going to the barn raising. Now we're talking. You may need to be told what to lift, but I'll bet you won't have any trouble lifting it. In other words, extract the skills, drill, and then reinsert them into the context, and do it all deliberately and intentionally.

Students working on their planking challenge.
Finally, in a world where school is a sport, there would be lots of goal setting and tracking, and tons of motivation, engagement, energy and celebration of small wins, big achievements and effort. Some of our students have been working on fitness goals that they set a couple of months ago. One group is working towards a 3:30 plank. They meet every day to increase by 10 seconds. Imagine if students approached all of their learning the same way?

I used to imagine that just by doing relevant and interesting projects the kids would learn. Now I see that is wishful thinking. Instead, let's turn the equation around--give them a strong set of essential skills first--and then they'll be ready for the heavy lifting of complex and creative tasks. They'll have the skills and they'll be ready for the game... and life.

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