“This is easy. Watch me again. This is how you do it.”
It was getting more difficult to mask my frustration. I had been trying to teach my 11-year-old son how to do long division for about 45 minutes now, and my patience was wearing thin. I had shown him a dozen different example problems. We’d walk step by step through how I solve them. He would do it alongside me. He would seem “get it”, but the moment he tried to do a problem on his own, from his homework sheet, it all went south.
He’d start off correctly, hit that snag, struggle, and I’d sigh heavily…
“I can’t do it this way!” He finally yelled and slammed his pencil down on the table with a loud thud.
I wanted to say “Challenge Accepted No Takebacks” or “yet”, but all that came out was, “I have been teaching you this way for 45 minutes, you can do it”.
My wife put her hand on my shoulder to bring me back to the moment. My son looked at me with tears in his eyes. I thought “how can he not get this, I have been teaching it to him all this time?”
“That’s not how I learn.” He said softly, pleading with me to see it from his perspective.
The world stopped. My mind raced. I was having an epiphany (that or a stroke). My eyes welled with tears as I realized not only was I failing my son in this moment, but how many others had I failed? How many children were we all failing?
“You okay, dad?” He asked.
“No. No, son. I am not, but more importantly, you are not okay. What do you need? How do you see the problem? What will help you learn it better?” (This wasn’t about me. It was all about him.)
We sat for ten minutes as my son explained the algorithms he had already learned for solving the problems. He also “showed” me how the problems looked in his mind, what he thought about how to solve them, how his brain worked. He went in-depth on what he needed to better understand long division and what I could do to facilitate the learning.
I sat and listened quietly to him as he showed me the way. An eleven year old boy showing a grown man, with nearly 30 years of coaching experience and a Master’s degree in Childhood Education, how to teach him. Then he explained to me how my words and my demeanor, and my lack of “getting him” (read empathy and connection) led to him going “red head”. The little booger used one of my terms against me.
He was right again. Eleven years old with no formal psychology training telling me, who also had plenty of psychology training, how I was causing his anxiety. This was his math homework and I was being taken to school. I listened, we discussed strategies, we laughed, finally, and I walked away understanding how we have failed a nation of children. All of us.
You see, we teach children from how we learned to play sports. We mimic what our coaches did, we recreate the scenarios we had in which we learned, and we use the methods that make us comfortable as coaches. We teach the game to the kids from our perspective and then we get frustrated when they don’t learn it OUR way. Maybe, how we teach it is not how they learn.
The world evolves. The planet changes, animals and humans alike adapt, science expands, knowledge about how things work diversifies, and yet we still coach the way it has always been done. And maybe worse, we coach for us, not the kids. We don’t enter their learning environment, adapting like water to a container, we expect them to enter our teaching environment and adapt to us.
Our frustration grows, their anxiety rises, and we both walk away feeling burned out and down trodden. We blame “kids these days” for not being coachable, for being snowflakes, and parents for making them lazy. Kids Blame the sport for not being fun, coaches being mean, and adults not caring.
What’s to blame is not the adults. What’s to blame is not the kids. What’s to blame is the way we are approaching the problem. My son could not approach the problem in a way he could solve it using my methods. No matter how long I sat there teaching, he was NOT going to learn. He finally gave me the solution. Don’t teach him the way I learn, teach him in the way he learns.
We need to change the way we coach from the way we learn to the way they learn. It does not matter how much we teach the game, it only matters if they learn it, and many are simply not learning it the way we coach it.
Change the way we coach. Adapt the coach training to include brain science, learning theory, childhood development, and communication (among others) so we understand how our kids learn. If they are not learning, we are not really coaching.
Change the way we coach. Alter the communication process and patterns to fit their world. Instead of making kids understand what we are saying, maybe we should understand what they hear and say and teach in language that makes sense.
Change the way we coach. Shift the focus from showing them how we want it done, to asking them how they would do it. Educators seek to find out how a child thinks so they can show them how to use the tools they have to solve the problems. If we started making our kids self-reliant to find their own solutions, only guiding the process and not dictating the terms, what kind of development would we see?
Change the way we coach. Move beyond supreme ruler of the field to being servant of the child. Instead of acting like we know it all and they are mere vessels into which we pour our knowledge, what if we saw them as those we serve and our goal is to help them unlock their own knowledge? It is not about us, it is about them. It is not to show them how smart we are, it is to help them become smarter. It is not to replicate the player we were, it is to unlock the player they will become.
Change the way we coach. Instead of the stoic, stand offish, brooding expert who cares about the game, what if we were the engaged, fun loving, connected person who cares about the players. Imagine how much more we could get from our players, all of them, if we learned to connect with each one as a person first. They would play longer if we had as much fun as them. They would be more intrinsically motivated to try harder if the person who coached them actually showed he or she cared. They want love. We think they need “tough love”.
I have spent the better part of the last month trying to tell everyone how the system is broken, but I don’t believe it is now. There are adjustments we need to make to structure, mission, vision, procedures, yes, but it is not the system that has failed our kids.
It is the software we are using to run the system that is failing us – how we are teaching them not what we are teaching. The kids need us to stop focusing so much on the X’s and O’s (the hard skills of the game). They need us to stop trying to teach them the way we want. They need us to use the soft skills it takes to connect with them, understand them, guide them, and truly teach them. That’s when we start teaching them they way they can learn.
As Dr. Ron Quinn says “no lines, no laps, no lectures”. Let’s create a dynamic learning environment where kids are moving, trying, solving, trying aging. Where they at the center and the way we teach is focused on exactly what they need in the way they understand it.
My son said, “That’s not how I learn”, so let’s figure how they actually do learn and coach them that way.