Learning from Sports Coaches and Charter Schools: From Differentiated Instruction to Differentiated Conversation

By Toby Barg

Coaching is about teaching, and the more effectively you can teach, the more complexity players can handle. As technology has gotten better so has the teaching, which has had a direct effect on the quality and complexity of the strategy we see on the field.
Chris B. Brown

Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Jake Lamb was having an unimpressive season on a mediocre team when he overheard the sports commentators on TV discussing a MLB hitter who had demonstrated the most improvement in a specific skill and, to his surprise, it was himself. The stat that they were referring to was exit velocity or speed at which the ball comes off a bat, which—along with stats like launch angle and spin rate—are revolutionizing the sport of baseball. For Lamb, a player who had shown no interest in stats and was reluctant to, in his own words, “clutter his head with information,” the stats provided him with something he hadn’t expected. You see, he had been working on a new swing for weeks and was not necessarily seeing a jump in his performance level on the field, but this information was confirming for him that he was indeed on the right track in his training and that would have a valuable impact on his mindset.

Benji K. was what we would call a struggling reader. Benji had spent years being pulled out of class by well-meaning interventionists only to stumble during his time in class on content-area assignments that were too long and arduous for him to master. No words of encouragement or pats on the back would change the fact that Benji had decided he was never going to be a reader and that it didn’t pay to try at all. Then, in seventh grade, Benji’s school implemented an online adaptive ELA program that would allow the teacher to assign the same content to all her students but at 12 different reading levels. This would have helped Benji plug into what his class was doing, but, again, Benji didn’t think it paid to try.

Knowing this about Benji, his teacher planned carefully for her first 1:1 conference with him on his data. She chose to share only one stat, the superscript. The superscript (a tiny #2) is a lesser-known stat that only appears when a program has assessed that a student may be guessing his way through the answers, not spending a reasonable amount of time referring back to the article and choosing the correct response. In the conference, Benji’s teacher acknowledged his past struggles as a reader and encouraged him to try, just for a couple of weeks, to “make that little number 2 go away.” She reminded Benji that the material was adjusted for his reading level and that he would need to be familiar with it in order to help his team complete an upcoming science challenge that included a design and build (two things Benji loved to do). With a few more on-the-fly reminders during Benji’s online work and a clandestine talk with his parents about how to coach him at home, Benji built up his reading stamina and the superscript magically disappeared from his data. By the time his team began the design challenge, Benji knew as much about the topic as everyone else on his team and, while he was not prepared to call himself a “reader,” Benji was now willing to try.

The Elephant in the 21st Century Classroom

The fields of pro sports and education are each undergoing a revolution driven by data. Coaches across the leagues are leveraging this data to develop their players and teams. And while parallels between the two professions have been drawn before, on this new, rapidly changing “playing field,” sports coaches have an edge over teachers. Coaches are used to “getting in their player’s ear” on the fly when needed and working with them in strategy sessions. By contrast, teachers—even the most experienced and dynamic among them—are not used to the exponential increase in “coaching time” that the new instructional models are bringing to the table.

Data is just the beginning of the challenge they now face. Teachers are now regularly guiding small-group discussions in longer blocks of instruction, meeting in 1:1 conferences or mentoring while students work on personalized learning platforms and serving as guides on the side during increased collaborative time. Less experienced co-teachers who previously would have worked as assistant teachers are now leading small-group instruction and conferring with students, too. It’s no exaggeration to state that the playing field has changed dramatically. Day school administrators should be proud of their willingness to implement change and provide PD opportunities on blended learning, project-based learning, rotational models and personalized learning, but they may be ignoring the elephant in the 21st century classroom: communication and coaching skills.

What are some takeaways that teachers can take from their peers in pro sports, and what can school administrators do to support them? The starting point should be honing our communication skills in this new coaching environment. Charter school networks are a bit further along on this arc of rapid change and regularly include training in “discussion protocol,” “classroom talk,” and conferencing skills. They provide PD and resources on coaching techniques for both teachers and their supervisors. They know that using data to drive differentiated instruction is only as powerful as the differentiated conversations that will occur in interactions between teachers and students. Teachers who are skilled in the art of differentiated conversation will create classrooms with a shared language and will model that for students when they lead a small group. They will provide focused feedback in conferences and encourage students to do the same in their peer teams. They will also hold small group strategy sessions pre-, post- and “on the fly” mid-assignment to target areas that require intervention, whether in skills mastery or procedure.

Discuss the Decision, Not the Skill

One area in which charter schools have developed solid protocol is process praise. Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, advises soccer coaches “to discuss the decision not the skill.” After a win, for example, a good soccer coach should share a stat like number of touches per game so that players could learn to differentiate between a 2–1 victory and a 2–1 victory with more touches. Lemov explains that, as all coaches understand, “In the end, it’s the decision-making that is probably harder to learn than the touch.” Dr. Lee Hancock, a sports psychologist, says that good coaches will “set up the cones” in a postgame coaching session to have players reenact the plays that impacted the game—for good or bad—and then ask the players to discuss the decisions they made during those plays.

If you listen in to the classroom talk in a charter school classroom, at any grade level, you will hear teachers use shared language in highlighting decisions made by students both in the teacher-guided small group and in collaborative groups. Teachers will demonstrate what is referred to as “careful eavesdropping,” circulating among the independent groups and pair shares to verbally praise good decision-making among the students. Teachers will then ask students to report back in “postgame strategy sessions” which decisions they made while grappling with a math problem or writing assignment and why they made those decisions. Other students in the group will then share in that conversation about process. Also, many teachers are now assigning groups with growth mindset in mind. They may purposely place two students who have demonstrated a strong growth mindset together with two students who struggle with that but have demonstrated mastery of content.

In the results-driven culture of our day schools, are we providing our students with enough “chances for choices” and verbal challenges to the automaticity of their answers? While many of us pride ourselves in referencing grit and growth mindset in our PD sessions, are we actively modeling for teachers what that in fact sounds like in the small group and how to carefully eavesdrop? Are we helping teachers build “postgame” strategy sessions into their instructional blocks so they can “set up the cones”—deconstruct an activity and revisit the decisions that were made? Are we working with teachers on how to provide process-oriented feedback?

Focused Feedback

For inspiration and demonstration on how to give focused feedback, turning again to sports coaching makes sense. Doug Baldwin, a gifted wide receiver on the Seattle Seahawks, used to struggle with inconsistent performance. Baldwin’s coach is Pete Carroll, a well-loved and celebrated coach known for his intimate coaching style. Carroll helped him create a “mental highlight reel” of moments where he had been successful in his career. Baldwin explained, “Every time I slip back into doubtfulness, I go back to those highlight reels and it puts me in a positive mind.” He visualizes what is going to happen, and it does.Teachers need to get to know their students as intimately as coaches do their players so they can supply those moments for students to include in their “mental highlight reels.” That takes strong observation and communication skills, a dedication to noticing many things in a variety of ways and recording them. It includes data, but isn’t limited to data. Teachers take notes as they circulate during independent work so they can give differentiated and focused feedback. They are often pulling students in intervention groups during a longer collaborative assignment based on the verbal and nonverbal cues they are getting from students on their comfort level with an assignment.To perfect the art of providing good differentiated feedback, teachers in charter schools are observed by peers and supervisors regularly and assessed on the skill. As part of their evaluation package, they are asked to provide supervisors with samples of the detailed notes they have taken on each student during conference time or during their “careful eavesdropping.” Then, in data review team meetings, teachers meet with their peers to share student data and notes on feedback so they can get suggestions from their colleagues on how to address the soft spots and reinforce areas of strength. In pro sports, where each team has a coaching staff comprised of multiple coaches, it is normal procedure for the coaching staff to meet and confer about the data so they can devise a plan for the team together. Are we providing time for that in our day schools?

Coaching the Player as a Member of the Team

In addition to developing the individual, both teachers and coaches must work on the ability of the individual to function productively in a team. The 21st century classroom is buzzing with STEM design and engineering challenges and long-term collaborative projects where students are being assessed and self-assessing on their collaboration skills. In his work with the Seahawks, Pete Carroll applies the American Indian concept of “long body” to his coaching, where individuals in the tribe develop a single consciousness. Carroll explains, “That connectedness is available to us at all times. You have to invest in it to make it come to life.” He understands that players “have to act with the team, but they can do that in a way that illuminates who they are. Most people think you can’t do that.”Teachers who are proficient in the craft of guided small-group discussion will model that kind of investment for their students. They will verbally acknowledge skills and traits of individual students not just to encourage those students, but also to highlight for their potential teammates the areas in which they excel. Teachers will then follow up on that during independent group work by “getting in the ear” of members of a team to help them notice the strengths of others in addition to their own. In sports coach talk, this is called “looking inward while you look outward.” This kind of team-centered focused feedback can make the difference between a productive PBL experience and one that may dissolve in frustration.

Tips and Takeaways

Now that we have revolutionized a student’s classroom, we need to revolutionize how he experiences it. What can day school administrators do to support their teachers in doing that? How can you coach teachers to coach?

Professional development. For every PD session that is scheduled on topics like differentiated instruction, designate a portion of the time for discussions on differentiated conversation: careful eavesdropping, process praise and differentiated feedback. Establish discussion and conference protocols. Work on how to choose the right stat to share with students and under which circumstances. Include video clips to illustrate the culture you are trying to create.

A community of coaches. Banish the “my classroom is an island” tone that exists in many schools, and schedule peer observation time within each semester of the school year. Provide common planning time and practice spaces for teachers to “try out” new coaching strategies and brainstorm together ways to use data to drive more meaningful conversations and connections with their students.

Looking outward. Plumb the free and available resources that charter schools provide on their websites, and schedule site visits to high-performing charter schools in your area. Plan “learning targets” for a site visit, and then share those with the host school’s administrator. Charter schools are proud of their accomplishments and usually generous with sharing their practice. Give them advance notice of what you hope to see and they will likely tailor the visit to your needs.

With the revolutions on their playing fields, coaches and teachers are seeing greater opportunities for growth in their development of players and students. Just ask Jake Lamb, who made the all-star team this year for the first time, and Benji K., who moved up two Lexile levels in six months. There’s a lot to be gained by looking inward and outward as we evolve and grow as professionals in this new landscape. Sports coaches are hustling to up their communication skills to meet the influx of data. They and our peers in the charter-school world are reinforcing good decision-making, focusing feedback with greater intention, and guiding those in their charge to win the games in their head as well as on the field. We owe it to our students to do the same.

This article is reprinted from the Fall 2017 HaYidion with permission.

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