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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
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I have the greatest respect for coaches; not every coach of course, but those who care more about their players than about winning. I include those who coach drama, choir, band, and all those who spend so much of their time and energy on helping children far beyond the confines of the classroom. Good coaches make great teachers.

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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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Tony Clark's picture
Tony Clark
intermediate classroom teacher, previously HoF for Art and Technology

An interesting article Richard. I run and coach a school soccer academy at the intermediate school in which I also teach. I have appreciated that many of the positive relationships established in the academy have carried through into the classroom and around the school. I haven't yet made the link with the way I teach in the academy and the classroom, only recognizing them as seperate entities.
I will now look at what is common to both of my practices and what can be improved either way. once again, thanks for the prompt.

Kudzai Percy Sachinda's picture
Kudzai Percy Sachinda
K-12 physics teacher

Good stuff. However if you are from the old school, it's so difficult to change the teaching methods to embrace these wonderful ideas.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

I find the metaphor of teacher as coach very appealing in general, but this is the first time I've thought of it particularly in regards to social behavior. It clarifies some of what bothers me about the current popularity of "anti-bullying" programs: schools fill up with signs saying "no bullying," teachers exhort students not to bully, and so forth, but relatively little emphasis is given to teaching students what they ought to do, as opposed to telling them what they shouldn't do. What if, instead of anti-bullying programs, we created programs to cultivate kindness, trust, and respect?

Joanne's picture
Educational consultant, homeschool mom, columnist and author

So many people say "you are so lucky that your kids don't fight." They then look at me in horror when I say that no families have to have children that fight. Little do they realise that it has been 10 years of them being coached! We have had to daily, minute by minute practice and practice showing consideration to one another, we re-run confrontations in different ways and we "try again" or "pause - replay," every time we strike out at another in frustration. Yes we still have upsets and arguments but as they are daily trained I love seeing the great relationships of love and compassion growing between them. Thanks you for writing this great article!

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Thank you readers for your comments. They really do mean a lot. Let me say one more thing. As we try to change our behavior in the way we teach children, we need repetitions, too. Changing our own behavior is almost, but not quite, as difficult in changing that of children. Change is never easy. Have a great holiday, one and all

Kelley Hazen's picture
Kelley Hazen

Human interaction is about more than correct technique. Repetition of an action we've been told to do is just the next step past 'telling.' The missing ingredient is teaching choice and providing mentoring that will hopefully lead to the kind, connected choice.

Using the drama metaphor - repetition in rehearshal of acting is done not to insure 'correct technique under pressure' but to provide a layer of support & the environment where organic, authentic choices can be made, vital to the success and enrichment of the moment of participation.

Perhaps we should endeavor to create an environment where our children are allowed to consider and choose and discover for themselves. Repetition without inspiration is a hollow victory.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Thank you for your reply. In a personal way, I admit it made me feel old. I have been one of the pioneers of advocating student choice for about 30 years. All of my books are centered on it. Most of the criticism my work has received over the years was from people who thought I was way to radical in giving students too much control. Now there is a new generation, who is unfamiliar with my work, suggesting more student choice, a concept I helped introduce to the education community. This is my way of telling you how much I agree with you.
Still, nothing you say contradicts my point that telling a child to change is insufficient. I can choose to do (fill in the blank with anything) but if I don't know how to do it, Then I can't. Teachers cannot expect to change behavior by telling, because telling is not teaching.
Keep fighting to give students power through choices. We need to counter the accountability/test mentality.

Tom S's picture

I am a high school special education teacher in a Community Skills class and i am a tennis coach. First, let me say how much I enjoyed this post and the great parallels drawn between solid coaching and effective teaching through teaching how. However, when working with students with multiple and significant disabilities, there are major differences between these students and the kids that I coach in tennis. Many of my students in class have not been taught 'how' to perform everyday skills since kindergarten and are still learning now. Many times, it is hard for me to teach these students in the same way that I coach my players because I have to start completely from scratch and progress is extremely slow in learning a skill that is 'easy' for us. In tennis, I can tell a player what to do without saying how to do it, and they know what is expected. I think that there are many situations where student or athlete motivation come into play as well. Athletes tend to be motivated to want to know 'how' to do something, whereas many students with disabilities are prone to a failing cycle in school and do not care 'how' to do something because of a lack of motivation. I would say that coaching athletes is much easier in this respect because of these intangibles and factors. Students with disabilities are not as easily engaged or motivated to learn and it is much more difficult to tach these students 'how' to do something, even with significant time and multiple practices.

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