My last blog entry offered a perspective on learning using, as a case study, fighting sports. But the basic principles apply to any skill learning situation.
In a nutshell, my argument was:
1) The best way to learn how to do something is to do it.
2) The closer practice activities resemble the full activity the better.
3) Just because you teach something does not mean that students will learn it.
The most frequently asked questions by commentators on the article was "so what does this mean in practice?" I'm planning to return to this question a number of times over the coming months. But now, I offer just six practical ways in which learning can be pushed to the forefront of sports lessons.
1) The warm up should be a part of the learning, not a preparation for it.
Too many sessions begin with meaningless calisthenics that do not resemble the movements that will follow. Effective warm ups need to prepare both mind and body, and consequently need to contain the same characteristics. In other words, they need to be specifically related to the main activity.
My own observations suggest that many sessions begin with activities that could be transplanted into any number of different sports.
For example, hockey warm ups that do not involve a stick and a ball will not properly prepare the body, and will not engage the mind. They will simply waste valuable time for practice and play.
Similarly, tennis/badminton/squash exercises that do not involve hitting a ball with a racquet do not work well because they do not exercise the relevant muscles, and do not focus the mind on tennis/badminton/squash.
Of course, I am not suggesting that players should dive into a full game at the start of a lesson. That could be very unwise! But it is perfectly possible to devise simplified, appropriate activities that gradually warm the body and wake the mind.
2) Effective learning builds on previous learning
There is considerable evidence showing that learning is most effective when it builds on previous learning and understanding. However, it is too easy to begin each lesson from scratch, ignoring what has come before.
This can be another valuable function of a good warm up: it can be an ideal opportunity to remind learners of lessons learned in previous sessions by practising adapted versions of previous activities.
The same activities allow you to observe and assess the learners, to identify their different needs, and provide teaching/coaching that is more suitable.
3) Start with the game
By far the most common error made in lesson planning is to begin with extended technique or skill practices. The assumption is that these practices will be applied later in the full game. However, as I argued in my previous blog entry, there is no reason to believe this actually happens. Instead, there is a danger that learners are simply going through movements without a strong sense of their purpose.
One way of understanding learning, I have argued, is as problem-solving. Giving a learner a skill or a technique without first letting them develop an extremely strong and compelling understanding of its purpose is like giving somebody a solution to a problem they do not have!
So what should the teacher/coach doing? The solution is simple: start with the game.
If you want a footballer to learn to keep the head down when shooting at goal, do not start with a drill. Start with a game, and introduce techniques and drills if (and only if) a problem arises. That way learning happens because you have offered a solution to a real problem.
Exactly the same logic applies to developing a golf swing. My own research with golf coaches showed that approximately 50% introduce a novice to the game on the driving range. In some cases, the beginner stays there for weeks, and only ventures onto the actual course once the coach has judged that the basic swing has been learned. But this approach is problematic because the practice is meaningless. The swing only has a function in the context of a golf course.
Starting with the game, or an adapted version of the game, creates meaning, purpose and context. It helps the learner understand the point of the activity, and (vitally) the reason why he or she is learning these techniques. This understanding should improve performance, and will certainly improve motivation.
The quality, not the quantity of practice is the determining factor of skill early. According to some books for teachers, skill learning should take up to 3/4 of lesson time. As far as I can see, the only outcome of this approach is that learners switch off, and end up simply going through the motions. Effective practice activities should be relatively short, intense, and highly focused. They should also be immediately followed by an application in a meaningful game.
5) To err is human and good
The great basketball coach John Wooden once said, "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes." He was a wise man, as all learning necessarily involves errors and attempts to overcome them.
It is understandable that we would rather perform a skill well than badly, but from the perspective of learning, mistakes drive learning. If we never make mistakes we would not develop, we would simply reinforce what we already do. It is only when things do not go according to plan that we are forced to rethink, and to devise new ways of acting.
Learners need to become comfortable with their mistakes, and to enjoy the new opportunities for learning and development that they promise. And coaches/teachers need to step back to give learners the time and space to experiment and to create their own solutions.
Learning is problem solving. So, mistakes are the motor of learning as they generate new problems.
6) Shut up!
Most coaches/teachers talk too much! I certainly do!!
The most important element in any lesson must be playing the game. The next most important factor is short, focused practices. In both cases, learners need to make the knowledge, skills, and understandings their own. This means that the teacher/coach needs to leave them alone and problems, to try things out, to make lots of mistakes, and to practice and play.
As a general rule: if you are talking more than the learners, you are doing it wrong!
I'd love to hear any comments on these ideas. Please share your thoughts in the comment box below. Or via Twitter (@DrDickB).