What can teachers learn from high-performance sport? Plan for injury!

Posted on 29-11-2015

Yesterday I went to a brilliant day of professional development at Ark Globe Academy called Teach Like a Top Athlete: Coaching and Mastery Methods. I went to a workshop run by the amazing Jo Facer on Mastery Planning, and one by the equally amazing Dan Lavipour and Michael Slavinsky called What Can Teachers Learn From High Performance Sport? Dan is a former Olympic coach who now works in youth sports performance; Michael is a former French teacher and the Teaching and Learning Director at Researchers in Schools. Dan and Michael formed a great double act, as Dan talked us through some principles of high performance sport, and Michael drew out some of the analogies for the classroom. And there were tons of analogies. I think a lot about the links between sport and teaching, but these two took it to another level. There were dozens of things I could have chosen to blog about – deliberate practice, the theory of self-determination, the links between the conjugate periodization of training and linear exam courses – but the one that I am going to restrict myself to for now is what Dan and Michael had to say about planning for injury. In sport, injury happens. Netballers get ankle and knee problems; fast bowlers get stress fractures; footballers get hamstring issues. When you plan for injury, you work out what the common injuries are in your discipline and set up training plans that attempt to prevent such injuries.

So is there an analogy with teaching here? Obviously it’s not perfect, but I think there is. In our subjects, we can work out what the top 10 most common misconceptions or errors are, and set up our schemes of work to try and anticipate and prevent them. Here’s an example: I once did an analysis of recalled GCSE scripts in English which showed that ambiguous pronouns were a  major weakness and a real impediment to understanding. Pupils used ‘it’ and ‘they’ a lot, without always being clear who or what those pronouns were referring to.  Some targeted work on pronouns and antecedents could have helped improve clarity.

How can we identify such common misconceptions? In many subjects, we’ll already have a good idea, and in maths and the sciences, there are plenty of great resources out there listing them. But Michael suggested another profitable method: analysing examiners’ reports to see what issues seem to crop up again and again. This is something I started doing when I was researching my book, Seven Myths about Education. I included one example in the book: an examiners’ report which explained that many pupils thought a glacier was a wild tribe of humans from the north. In the report’s words:

Given the current interest in environmental issues, and the popularity of a particular type of film and television programme, it was surprising that a number of candidates seemed unaware of what a glacier is and some seemed to be convinced that the glaciers were some sort of tribe, presumably advancing from somewhere in the north.

There are other examiners’ reports which helpfully list the common writing errors made by pupils. This one, for example, from OCR:

Common errors included not marking sentence divisions, confusion over its and it’s, homophone errors (there/their/they’re and to/too), writing one word instead of two (infact, aswell, alot, incase, eachother) and writing two words instead of one (some one, no where, country side, your self, any thing, neighbour hood). A surprising number of candidates used capitals erratically: for example, they did not feature at the beginning of names but did appear randomly in the middle of words.

These reports also have interesting things to say about the use of PEE paragraphs, and mnemonic techniques like AFOREST. But my favourite type of  examiners’ reports are the ones on unseen reading and writing exams.  The unseen reading texts can be on any topic, and often, the examiners’ report ends up lamenting the students’ lack of knowledge about some crucial aspect of thet ext. They provide perfect examples of how reading is not a skill, and why background knowledge is crucial for comprehension. Here’s just a few examples of what I mean.

Most candidates were able to gain a mark for the next part of the question stating that the whale shark eats plankton. However a number of candidates offered no answer, perhaps they did not recognise plankton to be food, although the context should have made this clear.

The first part of the question simply asked candidates to note the distance Mike Perham had travelled on his round-world voyage. Most selected the correct distance: 30,000 miles, though some over-complicated the response by confusing the distance the report said Perham still had to cover on the final leg of his journey with the total distance. This led to some candidates saying the whole journey was 30,300, whilst others reported the voyage to be just 300 miles. (WJEC)

I thought that I might be apologising for how embarrassingly straightforward this question was but it proved to be inexplicably difficult as many of the candidates just could not focus their minds on the reasons why the Grand National is such a dangerous race. I know that comparison has always been difficult but this question was set up to make things as straightforward as possible. Still it seemed like an insurmountable hurdle, the examining equivalent of Becher’s Brook, at which large numbers fell dramatically. I cannot really explain why so many candidates got themselves into such a tangle with this question. Many of them went round in circles, asserting that the race was dangerous because it was dangerous. (WJEC)

However, what was very noticeable was that many candidates had very little idea of what was in these places or why someone might want to visit (except for Alton Towers of course). Specific attractions were often in very short supply and usually were just mentioned in passing before the article got to the serious business of shopping and eating. I have to admit that the idea of making a day trip to London or Manchester to shop in Primark or eat in KFC did not appeal massively, although it is true that teenagers may find such things irresistible. More seriously, I think a better sense of audience might have helped here, although the lack of knowledge about places is not easy to remedy. (WJEC)

Lack of knowledge in general is certainly not easy to remedy, especially in the short term when you are preparing for an exam. But if we took it back a couple of steps, and started to ‘plan for injury’ in schools, not just on the sports field, how might we try and address this lack of knowledge? What would we need to change? When and where would be need to begin? When you think about it like this, the advantages of a coherent and sequenced knowledge-based curriculum become very obvious.