LEARNING STROKES – The Learning Lessons Series


When a student is ready, the teacher will appear. Seldom a day goes by, that I, as a teacher do not say this phrase. If you teach, I suspect that the same may be true for you too.

The time-honored phrase, while simple, powerful and oft repeated, is, nonetheless incomplete. It represents one half, the student portion, of the student-teacher relationship. The other portion, as the events of yesterday now remind me, are of equal importance. Read on to learn why.

Standing over a teed-up golf ball, driver in hand, I am just about to swing when the starter yells, “Hey big fella, stop!” Walking toward me, after breaking my concentration, he says. “You can’t play the course alone,” he says. Then nodding toward the tiny, raisin-like, grey haired woman walking next to him, he says, “Play your round with her.”

As the starter walks away, she stands there. Looks at me through tired, watery eyes she says, “I’ve never golfed before, but it’s on my bucket list. I haven’t much time left, so here I am.” The student appears. Wanting to get on with my round, I accept the challenge of teaching her to play golf.

I start by showing her how to put a ball on the tee. Then show her what club to use, how to grip it, the way to stand, and how to swing. She takes a few practice swings. After which, club in hand, standing over the ball, she looks to me for further guidance.

I point down the first fairway. “See the spot 265 yards out there?” I say. “Hit the ball there.” She proceeds to swing, just as I had shown her. Whack! Her ball sails low and straight. Landing right on the spot 265 yards from the tee.

Standing over the ball, in the fairway, club in hand, I say, “Hit the ball so that it goes way high in the air, lands on the edge of the green, and sticks.” Smack! Lo and behold, the ball goes high then sticks on the green’s edge. Just like I told her to do.

At the edge of the green, I tell her to put the ball so that it rolls along a barely distinguishable ridge and stops one foot from the cup. She gently taps the ball with her putter. The ball, following the ridge rolls, 33 feet across and around the green, stops one foot from the cup.

At the ball, one foot from the cup, I say, “Tap it in.” She taps. It goes in. She shoots par. I say,”Congratulations for being average.”

After which, this tiny wisp of a person, throws her putter skyward, stomps off the green. Then proceeds to use her itsy bitsy arms to snap every club in half, one at a time. When finished, she looks at me and says, “Hit the ball in the hole! Why didn’t you tell me to do that in the first place.” Then, she walks off the course and out of my life.

Stunned, I stand there, on the first green, pieces of golf clubs strewn about me, knowing that she is right. When she appeared I was not ready to teach her. I should have told her to hit the ball in the hole, but did not. I forgot to start with the end, tell her the overall objective, and how each step comes together to form a whole. She did what I told her to do. Followed through from tee to green, waggle to stroke. All the while believing that the game was the steps I was teaching her. Only, after putting out, to realize that the game was about putting the ball in the hole in as few of strokes as possible.

Today, reflecting on the events of yesterday, I think about how my teaching of `the steps and parts—while ignoring the end goal—of golf was unfair to my student and deleterious to me. Every student, regardless of ability, in every classroom deserves to know the goal of each lesson. Not at the end, not at the middle, but to understand the goal at the beginning of each lesson.

Every student, after attendance, a heartfelt “good-day-class” welcome, deserves to hear something like this, “Here’s what you will learn today. Here is how you will learn the lesson. Here’s what I will do. Here’s what you will do. And here’s how you will demonstrate that you have learned the lesson.” A teacher, as I proved yesterday, who cannot articulate where their instruction is going cannot hope to get students to where they need to be.

Yes, knowing where a lesson is supposed to end up, what students are going to learn, is the perfect, and respectful, place to start each lesson. As professionals, we widely acknowledge this point. Visit a school. Go into any classroom there. Learning goals are on the walls, and written on white boards. While there, take time to talk to teachers. Chat with students. They will report that learning goals and success criteria are prime foci of district and building committees and work groups. Yesterday, shame on me, I did not tell my student to “hit the ball in the hole”.

Reflecting deeply, I see that starting a lesson with a learning goal is not enough. If it was, then, with all the goals written on all the whiteboards in all the classrooms all the students in those classrooms should be learning at high levels all the time. This is not happening. Why?

Again, I reflect on my teaching yesterday. How my teaching of ‘the steps and parts’ of golf enable my student to hit her ball smack-dab in the middle of the fairway, onto the edge of the green, and up to the cup for a tap in par. How my scaffolding of concepts and structuring of tasks help her achieve an average score for the hole. Realizing this, I understand that me not telling her to ‘hit the ball in the hole’, at the beginning of the round, deprived her of an opportunity for making a hole in one. That is the lesson of yesterday. One for which I gratefully thank my student.


Note: This is the 16th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.


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