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A Coach With the Heart of an English Teacher

By David Perrin — February 24, 2015 6 min read
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The reliance on testing is the latest round in a generations-old conflict between the forces of product and process within education. The proponents of product, traditionally politicians and business leaders, claim to be able to distill educational results into universal and quantifiable measures of success and failure. Our cultural adherence to product can be traced to the educational arms race of the Cold War era and the influential Nation at Risk report of 1983. The advocates of process rely on individual choice, exploration, and the “whole child” in the journey of learning. Among these are 20th-century reformers like John Dewey who view education as student-centered, and teaching as an art.

I began to view this tension between product and process in a new light recently, after reading Wooden: A Coach’s Life, Seth Davis’ 2014 biography of the legendary college-basketball coach John Wooden. Wooden had always mesmerized me with his philosophy and approach not only to basketball, but also to the classroom. In truth, for him, there was never a distinction between the two.

John Wooden began his career in education as a small-town high school English teacher and basketball coach in Depression-era Indiana. He steadfastly adhered to modest principles, such as his four laws of learning: demonstrate, imitate, correct, and repeat. Wooden was a meticulous planner, orchestrating his practices with detailed lesson plans handwritten on index cards to make them easily accessible, so that he wouldn’t have to waste time between drills. One of his favored aphorisms was “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Even after helping transform the Bruins of the University of California, Los Angeles, into a national basketball powerhouse, Wooden eschewed the pageantry and limelight of college athletics, preferring the quiet concentration of the practice floor. Although he is known mostly for his wins and championships, Wooden considered these merely the byproducts of his true focus: the process of teaching the game. He was obsessed with process, meticulously teaching his players everything—from how to correctly put on socks to avoid blisters, to his famous full-court zone press. In an interview last year on National Public Radio, biographer Seth Davis said that Wooden “was a high school English teacher and, to the day that he died, that is how he thought of himself.”

Wooden’s UCLA teams were an abundance of talent, the collection of which was improbable for a coach who loathed recruiting so much that he rarely personally participated in it. In 1965, in the days before big-time college recruiting, when even the most talented players chose to play close to home, an African-American high school player named Lew Alcindor traveled from his native New York to visit UCLA. Possibly the most talented high school recruit ever, Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was attracted to the liberal racial climate of the university. It was Alcindor’s teams that would begin a string of seven straight championships for the school from the mid-1960s to the early ‘70s, luring additional talent and setting the tone for a dynasty.

But many people forget that Wooden won his all-important first championship with an unheralded and undersized team, and without any marquee players the likes of Alcindor and fellow All-American Bill Walton. Before the 1963-64 season, at the behest of assistant coach Jerry Norman, Wooden implemented a defensive strategy called the 2-2-1 zone press that was the catalyst for this team to go undefeated and claim that first championship. He saw the potential of a group of players and found a way for them to succeed. Had he had a narrower view of potential, he wouldn’t have adapted his process to maximize his players’ abilities. Wooden recognized that not every basketball player needed to be 7 feet tall and preternaturally athletic to play well in a team sport. And that a one-size-fits-all conception of potential, such as that promoted by standardized tests, fails to account for the varied ways that students can succeed.

A one-size-fits-all conception of potential, such as that promoted by standardized tests, fails to account for the varied ways students can succeed."

In a humanistic way, Coach Wooden understood that the true aim of teaching, whether English or basketball, isn’t about attaining a predetermined product. As his biographer observes: "[Wooden] never mentioned the word ‘win’to his players. His whole attitude was if you maximize your potential, then you have succeeded.” In other words, the product was far less important than the process.

Our current educational environment, with its emphasis on common-core testing and value-added teacher assessment, is myopically focused on a product (test scores) that narrowly defines educational success in terms of multiple-choice questions on tests that rank some as winners and others as losers. Regardless of their stated objective, standardized tests often assess students’ educational development in a narrow way. What is more, these tests happen regardless of poverty, despite the fact that students learn at varying rates, and in the face of myriad mitigating factors contributing to many students’ not being ready for tests that are beyond their current interests or abilities.

Writing in an op-ed essay for the The New York Times in April of last year, a Brooklyn public school principal, Elizabeth Phillips, described her state’s tests as “confusing, developmentally inappropriate” and “ambiguous.” As an example, she cited that “children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those best connected to a fifth paragraph.” Many students are developmentally overmatched by such tests, and the end result is often their being labeled as failures, which leads to discouragement and disengagement.

Standardized testing has drawn criticism such as this from many quarters, for many years. The writer Alfie Kohn, for one, finds that testing often measures “superficial thinking,” and that variances in scores can mostly be attributed to “noninstructional factors.” But a more insidious problem may be the extent to which this trend encourages teachers to teach to tests that often ignore, or even undermine, genuine learning.

Process is what education fundamentally (and etymologically) is, an “educing” or drawing forth of intellectual potential through the cultivation of habits of mind. Habits of mind can be fostered in a variety of ways, such as writing, researching, using project-based learning and cooperative learning, connecting new learning to personal interests, generating multiple solutions to problems, playing devil’s advocate, finding joy in discovery, and recognizing the integral roles of metacognition, and even failure, in the learning process. This list is nowhere near exhaustive, as all of these processes, and many others, are vital to education. Yet few of them register well, if at all, on a standardized multiple-choice test.

The processes of teaching and learning can be messy and nebulous—if not impossible—to quantify. They are also unglamorous; they will never grab headlines the way that national sports championships, or even educational test results, do. As long as politicians and society insist on reducing “success” in education to the product of test scores, dedicated teachers, like Coach John Wooden, will have to block out the noise of “winning,” so that they can focus on the quiet yet vital processes of teaching and learning, regardless of what the scoreboard reads.

A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as A Coach With the Heart of an English Teacher

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