Thursday, May 25, 2006

The value of "Play" versus "Drill"

Lately, I've taken to listening to NPR on the radio while in my car. The other day I heard this broadcast about new Youth Soccer guidelines. It really caught my attention, and not because I have a deep interest in Youth Soccer. While the story itself is about soccer, I think it hits on bigger issues in our general approach to learning in America.

The basic summary is that soccer coaches need to coach less, and let the kids play more. Don't force the kids to play set positions, don't run drill after drill, just let the game flow more like a pick-up game. I couldn't agree more.

In today's world, everything is optimized, prioritized, and streamlined. The basic theory seems to me to be: look at how things are best done, come up with goals and/or milestones for moving from novice to this "expert" level, and then drill, drill, drill - always focusing on reaching the next milestone.

While this may make sense from an analytic standpoint, it's really boring. As they point out in the audio, a large portion of kids drop out by 12. In my case, my passion was computers. If I had learned computers this way, I'd probably be managing a McDonald's somewhere. Instead, I was fortunate enough that my parents bought me computer and let me "play" with it.

Which is what they also point in the audio, the best soccer players just learned by playing. The advantage of this is that you learn what works, and what doesn't work all on your own, without someone telling you. And I think these self-taught lessons mean more, and "stick" more than just learning it in a theoretical sense. There is another even better advantage: you don't know what you can't do. You bring a fresh perspective on things, new ways of looking at it, you push the envelope. You think outside of the box.

I'm not saying that there doesn't come a time when refinement and coaching come into play, but even so, leaving some wiggle room for "play" will always be important.

Another concrete example of this fallacy of this teaching method is "whole language." Traditional "phonics" reading education taught kids to "sound out" words that they didn't know, and try to deconstruct their meaning. Whole language teaches kids to read the way many adults do. We look at a word, and instantly see the word as a whole, not individual letters, and move on to the next one. If you don't know exactly what a word means, you can figure it out by context and remember it next time. The problem with this of course is doing all that takes lots of practice. And in the beginning, when the kids don't already know much about reading, they are lsot. This is in essense saying, "Children eventually need to move around. We move around best by walking! Therefore, we will teach these children to walk upright first, there's no sense teaching them to crawl, because it is an ineffecient method of moving around."

In other words, teaching to the end goal (or test) is not always the best method to get there. Sometimes the best road is not always the direct one. Or even the same one for everyone else. And people get there better if they think they just having fun than it being some required milestone.


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