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Up to Par: How Life Imitates Golf

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It's midafternoon and sunlight is flashing on the water hazard of the 17th hole. The past two Saturdays I have tried to drive over it and onto the green, but each time the ball fell just short of the far bank and into the water. This time I make the decision to try to slice around it. My shot is good for me (120 yards, landing to the left of the water). With a chip, I'm left with a 12-foot putt to sink. I study the roll of the green and aim accordingly. I sink the putt for a par and my husband shouts, "Great!" This time he's right. Most of the time, though, I take his praise with a grain of salt. He tries to encourage me by saying "good shot" when I hit 120 yards off the tee, while he's unhappy when I call his 180-yard drive a "good shot."

Last week as I basked in the glory of my first par while sipping a soft drink at the "19th hole," my thoughts turned to the real world, which for me is the world of education and school reform. Golf and education, I thought, have much in common. As we consider how to foster the improvement of education, we can be guided by applying what we know about golf. While the similarities between the two may not be immediately apparent, I am struck by several analogies.

Self-esteem, standards, assessment, learning strategies, practice, and learner-centered teaching methods are issues in lowering one's golf score and handicap as well as raising one's academic test scores.

Just as I reject uncalled-for praise on the golf course, so, too, are there dangers in too easy praise and educational goals that are too easily attained. On the other hand, disparaging criticism or lack of reception for one's efforts can cripple a developing sense of capability and pleasure in trying to master a task. Learning to play golf has reinforced my belief that true self-esteem comes from a student's own sense of accomplishment. When I par a hole, I know what I've done. It's good to be praised for it, but my pride comes from the par, not the praise.

Golf is unique in the clarity and variety of its standards. Every player knows what par is for every hole and can evaluate his or her own game by that standard, independent of the competition. Perhaps if more educators had taken up golf, we would not still be fighting to develop the national standards for the various disciplines and grade levels. Just as the ability to measure successful performance on the course provides gratification to the golfer, meeting standards can provide a true sense of achievement and assessment for the student of mathematics, reading, or geography.

When I step up to address the ball, in my head I repeat the mantra that helps me focus--"Head down, left arm straight, follow through," my strategy for a successful drive. It's similar in education. When students address a mathematical problem, they need to tell themselves, "Read, plan, solve, and look back." On the golf course and in the classroom, students need a repertoire of strategies to help them meet their challenges.

Learning, whether it is golf, algebra, or reading, requires focus and concentration on the part of the learner. But it is still the teacher who must help the learner focus. Teaching fails if there is no learning, and there is no learning if students can't perform. I've often told my husband that any success on the golf course depends in large measure on his coaching me in the appropriate stances and his motivating me to want to be successful. Only good coaching will develop effective performers. Therefore, teachers, whether on the golf course or in the classroom, will help students achieve by analyzing individual needs, giving immediate feedback, modeling, and helping students want to succeed. High expectations by teachers are an absolute necessity.

While it is not true that everything about education can be learned from golf, anyone who understands the game has the necessary knowledge to help make excellence par for the course. And because of this common experience, golfers in the business community can feel especially comfortable in establishing working relationships with schools.

However, after several years of not being able to lower my own handicap, my husband and I have decided that I should change teachers. I'm now going to the golf pro for playing lessons. (Not unlike the research that shows teachers' professional development must be followed up with support at the school site.) Students in school should have such options, too.

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