The June 2007 issue of Wired Magazine includes some great articles. The cover article “Elon Musk Is Betting His Fortune on a Mission Beyond Earth’s Orbit,” suggests our present age may be an even more exciting one for true rocket scientists (and those aspiring to rocket science) than the space race decade of the 1960s.

The article which has captured my attention most recently, however, is Jennifer Kahn’s piece “Wayne Gretzky-Style ‘Field Sense’ May Be Teachable.” I’ve quoted Gretsky’s famous quotation about “skating to where the puck is going to be, instead of where it is” via Angus King several times. Most recently (back in May) I extended this hockey metaphor to technology in schools in the post “Schools need to respond to the technological power play.” I’ve heard several speakers in the past year refer to Gretsky and this idea of having the vision to anticipate the future with accuracy, including Stephen Harvill in February 2007.

The ability to quickly and accurately interpret a complex context and respond appropriately is called “field sense.” In the article, sports researcher Peter Vint says:

In any sport, you come across these players. They’re not always the most physically talented, but they’re by far the best. The way they see things that nobody else sees — it can seem almost supernatural. But I’m a scientist, so I want to know how the magic works.

Are some people “born athletes” or “born leaders?” Certainly some people have physical characteristics which give them a decided advantage over others. Basketball or volleyball players over six feet tall clearly have advantages over shorter teammates and opponents. Michael Jordan, Martina Navratilova, Wayne Gretsky, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, and Tiger Woods didn’t rise to the top of their respective games by sitting on their laurels and letting their “natural talent” win the day, however. Each of these individuals played and trained for years, working hard to continually improve and refine their skills.

I think coaches of young sports players, as well as many classroom teachers, may fall prey to a similar trap in thinking about cultivating excellence on the playing field or in the schoolhouse. Their mistake is to oversimplify and overstructure. The mistaken thinking often goes something like this:

If we break the complex activities of our sport or other performance goal down into simplistic, basic drills, and repeat those over and over again, then our players (or students) will be able to perform well when it is game (or test) time.

Practicing so that responses become instinctual is certainly important in many contexts. In military training, as in many types of athletic training, a key goal is conditioning both the mind and the body so each respond in unison as desired even under tremendous stress. Without training and conditioning, responses cannot become ingrained or instinctual.

It is no secret I am a big fan of recess in schools. Time for unstructured play is in short supply in many of our U.S. schools, in large part because teachers and administrators have become myopically focused on test scores rather than learning and development. I find the following quotation from this article about “field sense” by Kahn to be particularly insightful as it relates to both coaches and teachers attempting to cultivate excellence and high performance in youth:

Learning these skills is difficult, however — particularly for older players with established habits. So Farrow is also thinking about how young athletes can develop field sense before their coaches make them believe it’s impossible to acquire. To figure that out, he recently began interviewing elite players about their early life in sports. One factor is backyard games, or what Farrow calls unstructured play. Playing soccer with 30 other kids in a dusty village plot turns out to foster the kind of flexible thinking and acute spatial attention that pays off in high-level competition.

“We should be modeling our programs on that,” Farrow says emphatically. “And what do we do instead? We put children in regimented, very structured programs, where their perceptual abilities are corralled and limited.” Farrow recently made a poster of Wayne Gretzky and gave it to several AIS coaches. The Great One, he points out, spent thousands of hours scrimmaging with friends and neighbors on the homemade rink behind his family’s house.

The lesson here for teachers is that instead of teaching vocabulary lists out of context and diagramming sentences, students should be writing and creating digital stories for global publication on YouTube, Uth.tv and other websites. Instead of writing (and often plagiarizing) essays about topics at the knowledge and comprehension level which already exist on sites like WikiPedia, students need to be CREATING original knowledge products which require and reflect higher order thinking skills. Instead of taking spelling tests, students need more unstructured time to READ in environments rich with diverse texts. (Krashen) If an assignment can be done by a parent (like a written essay,) teachers should substitute a performance-based assessment which cannot be “faked” by the student, like an interactive debate.

The other key lesson is we need to provide BOTH our students and our teachers more UNSTRUCTURED PRACTICE TIME to work, learn, collaborate and create together. The textbook, the pencil, and the worksheet defined most K-12 educational experiences in the 20th and 19th centuries. Access to digital tools can transform the learning landscape in schools ONLY IF WE both provide learners with digital tools AND ask students as well as teachers to answer and ASK different questions. Dr. Robert Marzano quotes research that if teachers in schools were to attempt to teach all our current national standards with the depth they require, we would have to change our K-12 school system into a K-22 system. We do NOT, right now, have enough time in the school day or the entire year to “cover” all the content we have been told as teachers to address.

The lists of required standards DO need to change, but our expectations of high quality learning environments need to change as well. We need parents to stop expecting an endless rain of worksheets issuing from the classroom, and instead expect authentic learning opportunities about complex issues. Learners of all ages, in schools as well on the fields of friendly strife, need more TIME for unstructured practice. If excellence is our goal, perhaps we should more carefully study the habits and histories of those who are considered “the great ones” in their respective fields and sports. In all cases, I think we’ll find “traditional drills” had a minimal impact on their successes. Actually PLAYING THEIR GAMES, with all the inherent messiness and complexity which comes with REAL interaction and competition, is a much more powerful, engaging, and fun tutor than the simple minded coach or teacher with a whistle in his mouth or piece of chalk in her hand.

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