Teaching and Learning

I am an avid golfer. One recent round in particular sticks out for me: my first 9-hole round with my son, just weeks before his 6th birthday. We played with friends, another father and his 11 year-old daughter. Both kids were beginners, yet equipped with the necessary ingredients for success: interest in the game, a positive attitude, and a fearless approach to making mistakes. Hole after hole, I witnessed the same process: address the ball, concentrate, swing, make contact (or not), and advance the ball toward the hole…mostly in the right direction. It was learning in action.

A few weeks later, I found myself rereading Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?, Hackley’s K-12 faculty summer read. In the midst of the book, I began drawing parallels between the round of golf with my son and teaching and learning, both at Hackley and as described by Willingham.

Problems need to be solvable. Humans are naturally curious, a fact verified by watching the youngest among us. At Hackley, our kindergarten students are excited and eager to learn from and with teachers who do a wonderful job of breaking down complex topics and skills — whether teaching them to read or create art — in ways that students will not become frustrated. While playing golf with my son, I made each hole more “solvable” by allowing him to tee off from the fairway, moving his ball up after a few shots, and allowing him to putt from a closer range. Just as in the classroom, if the challenge had been too great, he would shut down and the learning would not occur.

In the classroom, teachers encourage students with varying skills and interests to find the right level of challenge to promote growth, development, and learning. The choice of appropriately difficult learning situations for each student — often known as differentiating — is a regular feature of a Hackley classroom. On the golf course, each parent encouraged his child to find the right level of challenge by teeing off from the appropriate location on the course. Because each player differed in skill and strength, we customized this choice for each golfer. While this made each “problem” (hole) slightly different to solve, it also ensured that success was within reach and that the learning would continue.

Practice is key to learning. Golf, like most sports, requires a great deal of purposeful practice. Through drills, hitting balls, and practice routines, players can improve. Practice plays a similar role in the learning process as students work towards deeper levels of understanding. Research shows that continued practice leads to longer term learning. In Willingham’s words, “The only path to expertise, as far as anyone knows, is practice” (115). At Hackley, talented faculty create lessons that blend the introduction of skills and material with the practice and application opportunities for students. Practicing under the guidance of an experienced teacher is essential to the learning process, regardless of whether it relates to language acquisition, coding, or painting.

The most creative of lesson plans might not promote deep learning. Willingham issued a caution in his book that teachers should always be evaluating what students are asked to think about within a lesson. For instance, a project that demands a great deal of creativity or polish might have students focusing on the product, rather than the process and missing the true intention of the work. I saw this on the golf course as well. In the middle of the round, both kids became fascinated by the golf carts. After a few times helping to drive our own cart between shots, it felt like the round became more focused on driving the golf cart well, rather than on the golf. While this helped keep their interest in being out on the course, driving the cart (rather than the ball) quickly became the center of their learning.

Novices do not think like experts. Teachers often strive to help students think like an expert (e.g. scientist, historian, etc). While an admirable goal, Willingham points out that this is not a reasonable goal for novices due to the way they see the problems laid out before them. “Experts don’t think in terms of surface features, as novices do; they think in terms of functions, or deep structure” (p133). On the golf course, the two beginning players simply saw a tee box and a green, while I, as a more experienced player, saw the contours of the fairways, the hazards that would come into play on different shots, and the best place for which to aim on the green. I was thinking more like an expert because I was not focused on the more fundamental aspects of the game. My continued practice had made me more expert, and thus I approached each hole differently.

Praise effort, not ability. During our round of golf, my son hit several strong shots for a player with his level of experience. In those moments, I was careful to let him know that the shot was good and that I was proud of him staying with it, despite many errant shots. I would never have told him in that moment that he was a good golfer; he was not. As a teacher, however, I know I have been guilty of telling a student that he or she was “smart” or that they were generally “good at chemistry.” In hindsight, I should have instead offered that I could tell how much hard work my students were putting in outside of class tied to specific improvements. Reminding students that hard work and effort are critical to learning helps students persist in the face of challenges and failure, both part of the learning process. Framing their success in terms of effort puts the opportunity to improve and grow in their hands, rather than relating it to an innate quality.

It was great to have the chance to share this particular passion of mine with my son and to reflect on it later through the lens of education. The lessons of the day must have resonated in some way with him, because as we were leaving, he wanted to stick around and practice putting. And so we did.