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Lessons from a Legendary Coach

I was recently forwarded an article on famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden that ran in Education Week a few years ago. The article, by Ronald Gallimore, is resonating with me now as effective teaching continues to be at the center of our education debate.

Wooden was one of the most successful coaches in history, not just in college basketball but tin any sport. He won with talented teams, and he won with teams that many though had little chance. Wooden was often referred to as "The Wizard of Westwood," but he rejected that label and referred to himself instead as a teacher.

Gallimore's article targets Wooden's teaching related to his basketball success. In many ways, the coach's principles and practices closely align with research on effective teaching:

  1. His first tenet was, "failure to prepare is preparing to fail." For five decades, Wooden kept detailed records of each of his practices that enabled him to determine what did and did not help his players to learn. Thus, he could anticipate players' mistakes and errors, and "make corrections" with information-rich suggestions. Coach Wooden was ready to respond immediately.
  2. He kept notes on each individual player for use in practice sessions. These notes on each player's development made it possible to prepare for instruction in advance of practice. He gave special attention to the less-talented players to maintain their active participation in the practices, and thus, in their continuous learning.
  3. Wooden emphasized repetition, so that players gained automatic response to fundamental situations. On the other hand, he also taught for understanding of concepts and encouraged players to provide unusual solutions to challenges.
  4. Every summer, Wooden selected an area or topic for study. He did library research on the topic, then surveyed experts in that field. Using these sources, he identified ways to improve his game plans and practices. He was a continuous learner, every year of his career.

Acknowledging the ever-present shortcomings of many instructional situations, Wooden believed it made more sense to concentrate on what could be done rather than focus on what couldn't. He studied young people: the way they react, the way they are motivated, the way they are frustrated, and the way they work -- this could help him discover the way they learn and then, as he said, "I'm halfway there."

As Gallimore notes in his article, "Wooden demonstrated that student learning and achievement are not the results of wizardry. They are the products of research, planning, continuous improvement, subject mastery, effective pedagogy, and the intangible example of a dedicated teacher."

Shirley Hord
Scholar Laureate, Learning Forward

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