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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Telling Isn't Teaching: The Fine Art of Coaching

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Coaches understand that telling a player (or singer, actor, etc.) what to do is not enough. No drama director or soccer coach asks students to sit in the room and explain what to do. They go to the playing environment, demonstrate correct technique and then put the students through multiple repetitions; practice, practice, practice. Repetition ensures that correct technique will become close to automatic when the game is on the line, emotions run high and calm under pressure is required. Coaches are fully aware that knowing what to do is not the same as knowing how to do it.

The same model needs to be used when changing student behavior if we want to successfully improve the choices students make. Incentives, threats, discussions, contracts, consequences, punishments, removal from class and every other technique we use to change behavior are 100% useless if the student does not know how to do something else.

Practice Makes Perfect?

Most interventions are based on letting the student know why his or her choice was inappropriate, and usually what to do instead. "Issac, fighting is wrong. In this classroom we resolve problems by talking, not hitting. Do you understand?" This is telling, and it is insufficient. Even if the teacher showed Issac one time how to talk when angry, and then had Issac demonstrate the technique, also one time, it would still be insufficient. What is missing are repetitions; practice, practice, practice. When emotions run high, Issac will hit again; not because the threat of punishment wasn't strong enough or because the incentive wasn't big enough, but because the new behavior wasn't learned in a way that makes it close enough to automatic. Ask any coach how many repetitions are required for a player or actor to use correct technique in the game. You will never hear any number less than ten, and it's usually a lot higher.

Sometimes we ask a student, "Issac, what are you supposed to do when someone calls you a name?" "I should say I don't like it and walk away." This interaction does not mean that Issac will walk away. He knows the words, but that does not mean he knows how to do it. I can tell you how to shoot a foul shot in basketball, but under pressure I can't always do it. Knowing what is not the same as knowing how.

Transferable Skills

This issue gets confusing because we assume that students know how to do the right thing and simply choose not to do it. And in many cases, this is true. Other cases depend on circumstances. Telling a student to sit down seems on the surface to be pretty straightforward. But in some cases, it is not quite as simple as it seems. How does a child sit down when he was just bullied, learned his parents are getting divorced, found out his brother has cancer, or any of the myriad of possibilities that make sitting down hard to do?

My best suggestion is to teach by the coaching method starting from kindergarten: demonstrate with repetition how to make the right choice in different circumstances, and keep teaching it through high school. Starting early is best, but not starting at all is the worst. Individual student consequences should include a teaching component that goes far beyond telling. It can't hurt even if the child knows both what and how to behave correctly.

And to all the wonderful coaches who give so much to children, I offer my thanks.

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