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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Olympic Gold in the Classroom: RTI

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Missy Franklin not only won the gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke, she also set a world record of two minutes and 4.06 seconds. I was swimming on my back the other day -- certainly not nearly as fast as Missy -- and I wondered how she was able to swim straight without being able to see where she was going?

Fortunately, someone else had thought about that before I did, and prepared some help for the swimmers. The obvious danger of running into the wall headfirst is a concern, so a string of pointy warning flags is hung before the ends of the pool. The first thing backstroke swimmers do before swimming is to make sure that they know how many strokes they take after passing the flags before they get to the end of the pool.

So that keeps the swimmers from bashing their brains in, what about keeping on a straight course in that fifty-meter pool? Not a thing was provided. So how do the swimmers do it then? Well they do it the same way I did it the other day. Looking up at the ceiling, I saw lights, air-conditioning vents, and fire sprinklers. I also saw ceiling tiles. I found that if I concentrated on keeping directly under a line of ceiling tiles, that I could stay out of the lane lines. I learned that if my concentration strayed, that I would wander into other lanes, collide with other swimmers or smash into the sidewall, neither of which is very pleasant.

I also learned to read the ceiling pretty well so that I knew when I was getting near the end of the pool (my pool didn't have pointy warning flags). You might ask, why bother, why not just turn around and look? Well, in the Olympics, they are disqualified if while swimming on their backs they swim on their bellies (except in the flip turns). Another reason is that constantly looking destroys the rhythm of the stroke and slows the swimmer down.

Classroom Connection

Teachers have students swim on their backs all the time. With learning, there is no clear picture of where the students will be or exactly how to get them there, but there are signs on the ceiling that the students can follow without having to stop and take a good look at where the they are and where they are headed by taking a standardized assessment.

Educators all over the US are complaining that there are already too many "assessments" intruding on instruction that destroy the rhythm of learning and slow the students down. The signs that I am talking about are as regular as ceiling tiles: curriculum-based assessments (i.e. formative assessments) that help students know where they are and what direction they are heading. And the periodic summative assessments identify the end goal progress just as the various vents and sprinklers reveal progress in the pool. Students need this constant feedback because it is easy for them to get off track.

Even slow swimmers need feedback and need to see progress. The No Child Left Behind legislation mandated a research-based practice known as Response to Intervention (RTI) when a student begins to lag behind in the pool. This is a simple concept that every swim coach and teacher should know well. Using the data of the last formative assessment, a student/swimmer is observed floundering in a few concepts or skills. Left to himself, drowning is likely. So, the coach/teacher intervenes helping the student/swimmer accommodate for the misunderstanding, helping the student/swimmer learn the basics, or provides additional practice.

Then the coach/teacher tests the student/swimmer to see if the intervention worked. If it did, then the student/swimmer continues the regular workout. If it didn't work then the coach/teacher intervenes in more direct ways, extra conditioning, strength building, and personal coaching after practice. Then another test to see if the intervention worked. And so on, until the student/swimmer either succeeds or they seek more professional help like a medical doctor to fix the tinnitus in the shoulders, or a nutritionist to help improve the diet (or a special education teacher to help with dyslexia).

Acting on Student Needs

The key to successful RTI is quick turn-around between noticing the problem, intervening, and testing the effect of the intervention. Six weeks or nine weeks and especially a semester is often too long to wait to take corrective steps in helping students. The classroom teacher has to act quickly to help students before they get too far behind and especially before the students get discouraged and want to throw in the towel. Interventions could be just a few days, and then assess the student again to see if it worked.

This requires that the teacher/coach be constantly watching the student/swimmers and taking record of their progress. It also requires that the students/swimmers constantly look up and watch their progress too, and listen to the coach/teacher in order to improve.

Just like swimming on your back to get a gold medal, learning successfully is hard work and takes dedication and practice on the part of the swimmer and the coach.

Tell me about your successes with RTI.

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