Anyone who has golfed knows that learning to hit a golf ball consistently straight and where you aim is really hard. There are too many untold variables in each swing that can make striking that little white ball with that little club sitting at the end of a long flexible shaft almost impossible to do consistently for the recreational golfer. Most recreational golfers learn by watching others, maybe some instructional videos, and tips from friends or playing partners—but in the end, mostly learn by getting out on the course and just playing. It is a game after all and just practicing hitting a golf ball on the driving range isn’t really that fun. With some practice, many individuals develop enough consistency to (mostly) enjoy the game. At least initially.
As the recreational golfer plays more and more, invests more in better equipment, memberships, more green fees, etc., his or her expectations also increase. For most however, there is a point at which his or her consistency in their swing plateaus and cannot be improved upon without a drastic increase in coaching, training and practice. With additional coaching many discover flaws in their swing resulting from being relatively self-taught. So engrained in muscle memory are these flaws, correcting them might take more practice (and therefore money) than he or she can afford. Not wanting to quit, most recreational golfers accept those limitations and adjust his or her strategy in playing the game to compensate for the flaw.
The most common flaw compensated for, but not corrected, is a slice. This is when the angle of contact with the ball creates significant side-spin causing it to arc away from the hitter (so right-handed golfer slices to the right). The harder and farther you hit it, the greater the slice. He or she learns how much slice to expect and aims to the left. Imagine this scene. You are standing getting ready to hit off the tee and right in front of you is a narrow fairway with a lake on the left and woods on the right. You’re right handed and slice a bit to the right. So you aim to the left (out over the lake). And wouldn’t you know it, this swing is perfect. Your ball sails perfectly straight and far—and plunks down in the middle of the lake. You tee up a second ball and, out of frustration, grip a little tighter and swing a little harder. Anyone who has golfed knows the result. Now you really slice it and lose the ball in the woods off to the right.
In teaching, I propose that we are slicing it into the woods. Despite whatever training most of us have had, we are like the amateur golfer, and rely on what feels right. This is especially true when push comes to shove (and with pressure to increase math and reading test scores, decreasing budgets, full classrooms, increased social needs of students, etc. there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on) the teacher falls back on his or her muscle memory. In the case of teaching, that means teaching something the way that you learned it—even if that conflicts with what you intellectually know research says about how the brain constructs meaning, what works best for motivating students, and is the most effective assessment methodology.
While we have learned a great deal about how children learn and how to meet their needs socially as they mature, the infrastructure of the physical, curricular, and organizational layout of most schools really has not changed that much in the last 100 years. So now imagine yourself as a new teacher who knows all the research, but is surrounded by colleagues primarily using didactic teaching methods, relying on a traditionally-written textbook, and pressured to “cover” a long list of standards, in this system that does not reflect the changing nature of our society and current research about children and learning. Or imagine yourself as the building administrator looking at declining math and reading scores for your elementary students—these are the things we test for and these are the scores that get reported in the paper. We all know we should be taking the time to allow students to do authentic inquiry-based projects and assessments. We all know that we should have fewer students per teacher to allow for more individualization and authentic assessment. We all know that all 12-year olds aren’t at the same point in their maturation and learning to be treated the same and lumped together. But this takes more time and resources. And the spring math and reading tests are looming.
So what do we do? We increase the practicing for the math and reading at the expense of the other subjects. We increase the pace at which we teach the content (meaning more didactic stand-and-deliver instruction to at least cover the content) and eliminate the time for using individualized techniques for the students struggling to keep up, or bored students that understood the concept two months ago.
To use a golfer phrase, we “grip it and rip it.” Out of frustration we grip tighter and swing a little harder. We do what we have always done, but just faster and with more intensity—because that is what muscle memory tells us to do and what we know we can do to get through the curriculum in time for the test with the number of students we have in class. Of course it doesn’t work. Test scores stagnate or even drop despite the increased focus on those two subjects. Student frustration and boredom increases and behavior management issues arise.
We can either continue to compensate for our “slice” and aim a little more to the left (hoping we never actually hit it straight) so that the ball will hit our target at least some of the time, or we can re-assess the fundamentals of our swing, forget the muscle memory, and re-learn to swing properly. Fore!