A confession: I’ll admit to being rather fond of the sports analogy. Analogies in general are trenchant teaching and learning devices. They leverage shared prior knowledge and forge intelligible connections for efficient communication absent the condescension and sermonizing that can plague a standard presentation or article. They presume the speaker and listeners are equal, in other words, and inhabit the same world. In particular, the sports analogy relies on common shared experiences that, when juxtaposed with academic paradigms, provide a useful if imperfect comparison to the teacher’s role in the classroom. Most people have played sports, after all, and, even if they haven’t, the idea of learning something new — not memorizing, mind you, but actual demonstration — learning something new not for the sake of a test and a subsequent grade, but for the self-actual purpose of performing the skills in a real-world environment. People understand this, even if they don’t necessarily locate it as learning proper. In sports, you have practice and then the game. You don’t practice for the sake of doing well in practice, you practice to perform well in, and eventually win, the game.
So here it goes:
Given its popularity, I’ll assume it’s safe to reference The Last Dance, the documentary chronicling the rise and fall of the Michael Jordan Bulls’ six-championship dynasty. I’ll admit to never having seen the series, although, because I was a young Midwestern basketball player and fan in the 90s, this Bulls team effectively defined my childhood, so I more or less lived the content of the series. Late in game Six of the 1997 NBA finals, with the Bulls leading 3-2, arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, the sport-changing Michael Jordan, the game on the line, the team’s fifth championship in his sights, passes the ball to a wide-open Steve Kerr, a borderline all-around NBA player, but an ace shooter, who promptly drains the shot and wins the title for the team. If Michael Jordan were a student in a traditional school and the subject was basketball, he would score a 99%, A+, top of the class. Steve Kerr, on the other hand, wouldn’t top 60-65% — barely passable. But what everyone knew, what the Bulls knew, what Michael Jordan knew, was that while MJ was significantly better than Kerr in almost every single category, Kerr was the better long-range shooter. If single numbers on a 0-100 scale were the measure of a basketball player, Steve Kerr wouldn’t have even been in the NBA, let alone on the court during that decisive possession. The double-teamed MJ would have had no one to whom he could pass, and the game — the dynasty — might have ended differently.
But unlike the way we grade in schools, basketball is skills-based, proficiency-based, and coaches recognize the value of these skills and of players who can perform them in an authentic environment. Currently, schools assign a single number to the entirety of a student’s performance, but schools ostensibly teach immutable, translatable skills for when the student is released into the real world, skills that will differentiate them from others, skills they will use for the rest of their lives. School is supposed to be more important than sports, but schools, at least when it comes to authentic assessments and feedback, lag behind their athletic analog.
Now the sports-to-academics comparison isn’t perfect. For one, it’s often overplayed. Coaches wax poetically about their “classroom” where they teach “life lessons” in the form of whatever sport they coach: teamwork, perseverance, grit, determination, et al. Yet, these life lessons aren’t assessed in any way, so their assimilation can’t be the primary objective, which of course is winning. Any life lessons learned are incidental, correlated but not necessary to a successful team. Anyone can imagine a successful sports team full of self-centered individualists so good at their particular game, they outclass the competition despite their lack of previously mentioned soft skills. But because these soft skills are so often touted as necessary for athletic success, people imbue successful sports stars with positive personality traits those athletes haven’t necessarily earned. Winning the game means winning the game; no more, no less. There are more efficient ways of teaching “life lessons” in actual environments. Athletes are gifted skills they didn’t necessarily demonstrate. Actually, it sounds closer to the traditional classroom than one might think.
Secondly, and this can be instructive: the whole paradigm is askew. I discovered this during my first decade in the classroom when I doubled as a Freshman basketball coach. Coaches and teachers alike suggest a faulty analogy that class is to sports practice as a test is to a game. But a game against another team, often in public, is much more robust and authentic than the private tests teachers often give in the classroom. In fact, the “test” coaches give might better be compared to a scrimmage at the end of practice where the coach assesses each player and their suitability for the game where playing time isn’t equal. The game itself is the real world outside of the classroom, but the coach has the ability to assess whether or not the players — her students — have in fact learned the lessons of practice. Can the player perform in the game? It doesn’t matter if a player can perform drills in practice or run the plays from memory if that player can’t then do it effectively in the game. This, though, is exactly what we do as teachers. We give assessments that are so disconnected from what they should assess and what we claim they allow students to do in the real world, and then we turn them loose without validating whether or not students can actually perform these skills in society.
This was borne out on the basketball court where players who performed best in practice weren’t necessarily the most effective players come game time. Sure, these players could comprehend the intention of a particular drill and demonstrate the skill the drill was intended to hone, but too often, when the game tipped off, these players were unable to perform these skills. They passed the test, they could demonstrate the skill I wanted them to demonstrate in a drill designed for that purpose, but when it came to the authentic assessment — the actual game, the reason we practiced those skills — they couldn’t replicate the aptitude they displayed in practice. Now, if you asked me after practice which player was good at which skill, you would have a different answer than you would from someone who only saw the game. The conditions I created in practice were so divorced from those of the game that when the game started and the fog of war set in, the players who looked the best in practice looked slow and indecisive. They were so accustomed to the safe simulacrum of the drill that the reality the drill was meant to simulate overwhelmed them and they forgot everything.
If you make a simple shift to the analogy, the same thing happens in the classroom: practice drills and the classroom might be similar, but classroom assessments and the game are too often nothing alike. When in the classroom do students get to use in real-world situations skills they’ve honed during the course? Not until long after they’ve finished school and entered what we call the real world. We’ve created an entire system of practice players, so to speak. Our students learn to demonstrate skills (or memorize content, more likely) in environments so divorced from their eventual real-world application that by the time they encounter an actual application, they’ve either forgotten the skill or it’s been out of practice for so long that their technique is antiquated and futile. What’s more, college professors and employers send us this message regularly.
Traditional grading, of course, is the ultimate reason for this issue. Like Pavlov’s dogs, students repeat a behavior reflexively because of an unnatural external stimulus (grades, in this case), and then when that stimulus goes away — there are no grades in the real world — students find they can no longer demonstrate the skill for any real purpose. As a basketball coach, I eventually learned techniques for making practice more like the game — increasing intensity and speed in the drills, adding an extra defender during scrimmage — and the results followed. Our record improved over the seasons as players found themselves more prepared for the authentic environment they would be joining. If I continued to determine who was adept at a skill by who displayed proficiency in a controlled environment, I would have continued selecting the wrong players in the game and for the wrong situations where they could succeed.
As classroom teachers, we need to make our assessments more authentic — more applicable to the real world — if we expect our students to perform successfully anywhere outside the classroom. This means a transition from traditional grades to mastery-based feedback loops where the student sharpens the skill in the classroom and then attempts it for real before returning to the classroom for teacher and peer feedback. This supplants the traditional test that usually marks the end of learning with a growth mindset that engenders perpetual learning and the intrinsic motivation to do so.