The late John Wooden was a highly esteemed coach who built up the UCLA Bruins into a powerhouse team with 10 National Championships. The Sporting News named him “The Greatest Coach of All Time” in 2009, and he wrote several books about his principles of coaching, success and leadership. There is a lot we could learn from him, but the wisdom I’d like to borrow from him today is about the way he taught athletes during practice.
He used what is known as the whole-part-whole framework: first introduce the big concept, then break it down into smaller parts, then put the parts back together after they are mastered. Wooden carefully planned all of his practices, using 3X5 cards to keep his drills and teaching points in order. He was adamant about the fundamentals of ball handling, and took the time to teach his players exactly how to do each move, routinely demonstrating first the right way, then the wrong way, then the right way again. His feedback to the players was short, concise, and packed with useful information related to the task at hand.
He also kept his practices moving along, keeping the players focused and alert, with the first half devoted to new material and the second half devoted to repetition of previously learned skills. He believed that his players must be able to perform the fundamentals so well that they don’t need to think about them. Then, during games, their attention could be focused on the dynamics of the court.
John Wooden’s methods worked spectacularly well in basketball, and I think they could work equally well in any teaching environment. But the thing to remember is that he didn’t teach his skill drills in isolation. He taught them within the context of something the players cared about – basketball.
A lot of the skills that students are expected to learn in school, such as reading, writing and multiplication, are indeed fundamental and require lots of practice. However, teaching them in isolation, with one workbook for every subject is hardly ideal. Teachers are then forced to find some external motivation such as bribes, praise, or punishment to keep the kids’ attention.
The better way is to teach basic skills within the context of something your kids already care about or have an interest in learning. This is really pretty easy when kids are little. Have you ever used the “Five in a Row” curriculum series developed by Jane Claire Lambert? They are an excellent example of using something a child cares about, in this case a wonderful storybook, as a starting point to teach various skills or concepts. My family LOVED using these books, and I was sad when we outgrew them.
Another thing we used were certain Scholastic math skills books because my kids thought they were fun. They loved outlandish word problems, riddles, and games. Educational software games were a hit too.
It gets harder to do this as kids get older because you probably won’t find prepared lesson plans full of advanced skill-builders in the topics that your kids most want to learn about. In this case, you might have to come up with your own 3X5 cards with ideas for practicing the fundamentals – this is the virtue of “Unit Studies.” You might be able to find pre-packaged unit studies that suit your student, but be wary. I’ve seen a lot of dull stuff out there, clearly written by people who don’t have a passion for the topic.
Better yet is to work with your student to craft your own unit study. Take whatever they are passionate about, say fashion, and brainstorm ways your child could practice some of the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. Along the way, there will undoubtedly be a smattering of history, geography, sociology, critical thinking about media and pop culture, and who knows what else.
John Wooden was able to keep the same stack of 3X5 cards and use them over and over again because he always had students who were interested in the same thing: becoming better basketball players. You will not be able to do that because your kids will all be motivated by something different. But you can use the same framework of whole-part-whole.
Can you think of ways to teach skills within the context of something your child is already interested in learning?