March 30, 2015

By Chase Davenport, Managing Director, The Alvo Institute

I don’t generally find classroom to sport comparisons relevant.  Yet, the common language of sports, I think, helps to illustrate the potential of blended learning and importantly, the need for more sophisticated, robust performance based assessment. That said, I promise that what follows is not a call to make classrooms more like athletics. Bear with me.

Imagine a place that has all the drudgery of sports practice (including the weight room) without the challenge of the game. To some degree that’s the traditional classroom. More importantly, imagine trying to observe strengths and weaknesses of athletes without the opportunity to see them perform in a competition. That’s a fairly common problem teachers face.

My daughter plays competitive softball which includes frequent off the field fitness training activities. Obviously during this time, she never touches a glove or a bat, does not practice catching pop-flies, fielding grounders or stealing bases. Like most off the field training, hers starts with a warm-up, moves onto instruction in a new motion or review of proper posture and then to the meat of it – a series of high intensity mini-workouts at stations throughout the training facility. With her peers, she quickly rotates through these stations. The coach is present only to keep the rotations moving and to provide quick, immediate remediation for individuals. Sessions end with a warm down and some team cheer or other acknowledgement of achievement.

It’s a great blended like approach. Professional athletes have been pioneering this for a little while now. In fact, such focused training may have helped Germany’s world cup success.  New York Times profile, ”Train Like a German Soccer Star”, (By Gretchen Reynolds, July 16, 2014) Following Germany’s World Cup victory, The New York  Times published an interview with the team’s  trainer.

Asked to describe a typical training session, the trainer provides a historical perspective:

“… we’d often divide the structure into four stations, a mini-circuit, with a different exercise at each station.. We were ridiculed in 2004 when we had players exercise that way… People don’t laugh about it now.”

When asked about how his approach differs from the past, the trainer replied:

“There was more emphasis then on the technical and tactical elements. The physical training was very general, with lots of long runs. Now the players still spend lots of time working on technique and tactics, but their physical training is more focused and individualized. We constantly assess players’ movement patterns, for instance, watching as they perform every exercise.”

Recently, New York Times ran a profile on Atlanta Hawk basketball team’s unexpected success, entitled “Key to Hawks’ Team Play: Nourish the Individual.”  As the title suggests, the piece highlights the individualized focus of their practices. The author summarizes, “In Atlanta, he [Coach Budenholzer] has his players spend as much time working one-on-one with members of his staff as they do in traditional team practice settings.”

Explaining their unique approach to practices an assistant coach compares them to a classroom: “I think the league is really trending toward shorter practices and more quality individual time,” Atkinson said. “It’s the difference between being in a class with 30 other kids and getting one-on-one tutoring for 20 or 30 minutes.”

KIPP Courage Belnded MathIf fact the comparisons to blended learning throughout the article are quite direct including reference to maximizing limited resources, complicated scheduling, individual communication, etc. It is worth a quick read:

The parallels to blended learning are again obvious.  Ironically however, the comparisons end here, at the practice stage. Unlike athletes, students are preparing/training for an amorphous somewhat intangible “event” of post secondary success. Frustratingly, students do not get many opportunities to “play” in the post-secondary environment before they enter the game, so to speak.

To be more direct, what is too often missing from the classroom is the transfer and application of skills, knowledge, intuition – “the technical and tactical” – that the German athletes are working towards. That is, the culmination of differentiated activities in a highly collaborative, problem-solving exhibition otherwise known as a soccer match.

The lack of challenging, culminating activities in the classroom or within the school as a whole undermines the potential of blended learning. This is not an argument for a highly competitive academic arena. Instead, it’s an argument for creating opportunities to apply learning in a collaborative setting that is rigorous, sets high expectations and includes opportunities for analysis, revisions and reapplication. Absent this, even the most well intended blended or personalized instruction curriculum is just an endless cycle of isolated practices.

Obviously, project-based learning, creative group based problem solving, and other challenging open ended, group based activities can be the “match” of the curriculum. Just keep in mind a sports season has multiple matches before the end-of-season tournament. While each match provides a detailed snapshot of team ability they also provide a rich formative assessment of individual contributions from which to set goals. That’s not a bad analogy for teaching and learning: practice, prepare, play, reflect, practice, prepare, play, reflect, etc.

The benefits of differentiation/personalized instruction that The German World Cup and the Atlanta Hawks discovered, the education world has know for a while.  Where the education world needs continued practice is in establishing fluid, complex, dynamic opportunities for students and teachers to practice and demonstrate their learning.

So, here’s a challenge:

1) Create, find a performance-based assignment such as a project. Visit the Buck Institute, High Tech High, Da Vinci Learning Or Envisions for ideas.

2) Identify the specific skills, content and attributes students will need to participate and complete the project effectively.

3) Create an environment where students can develop, reinforce, practice those discrete skills, learn/master the specific content and foster the necessary attributes in high intensity but relatively short activities.

4) Monitor students progress in each activity and further refine based on individual student need.

5) Declare game day or week and release students to the project. Take the role of coach and let students “perform”. Capture demonstrations of applied skills, content, attributes, etc

6) Don’t stop. Schedule another “game day/week” project and create practice opps for students based on their previous game day performance….

Good luck and keep us posted.

The Alvo Institute Copyright © 2015

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