Monday, December 7, 2015

The Endless Practice: A Fable of Modern Education

Imagine this: One summer you take your grade-school son to a professional baseball game, and he takes it all in—the sights, sounds, smells of the ballpark. He watches the game intently, standing on his seat when those in front of him rise to see a close play at the plate, trying to make sense of this new, fascinating world called baseball.

All of a sudden baseball becomes all he can think about. He begins following the local team on the sports channel and in the newspaper. He’s out in the backyard, throwing a tennis ball against the back of your garage for hours on end, and whenever he gets the chance, he’s playing pickup games in the street with his friends. It’s all you can do to get him to change clothes after school before he races out with glove and bat to practice. He lives and breathes baseball.

Not needing any more hints, the next spring you sign him up for a youth league in town. When you drop him off at practice, everything seems normal. Several groups of players are clustered on different points of the diamond, each led by a coach. One coach guides his group through a bunting drill, another group practices running the bases, yet another catches fly balls. Bodies move in the ordered chaos of a youth sports practice. When you pick up your son, he seems happy, his face flush, as he talks about how he worked on his batting stance and fielding grounders. You take him to several such practices, and each seems the same. At one practice he learns to turn a double-play, at another he learns the infield-fly rule, and so on. With each practice he grows in his skills and knowledge of the game.

After the fourth or fifth practice, you ask him when his first game is. “I don’t know,” he says. “The coach didn’t say anything about it. At the end of each practice he just tells us when the next one is.”

“Okay,” you say, but after April has turned to May and a dozen practices have gone by, you begin to get curious. Your son, you notice, has grown less and less enthusiastic about playing baseball. He no longer gets in the car and tells you what particular aspect of the game he worked on that day; now he sits in the passenger seat, sullen, offering nothing. “What did you do at practice today?” you ask, and his response is curt—“Running the bases” or “covering home on a passed ball”—and he returns to silence and staring out the window. Gone is the boy who would run from the school bus to change into his baseball clothes and race outside to play.

Now you have grown concerned, and at the next practice you decide to linger for a while and speak to the coach. To start conversation you ask him how things are going with the team, and he replies, “Great! They’re learning so much and improving with each practice. It’s very exciting.”

“Great,” you reply, “when do they start playing games?”

The coach smiles. “Actually, the league isn’t playing any games this year. It’s a new policy.”

Confounded, you give him a quizzical look. The coach continues. “You see, we’ve decided to do away with games, and just run an entire season of practices. Each coach has a list of skills that their team should be working on, appropriate to their ages and abilities, and at the end of the summer each team will test its players on how much they’ve improved in the various skill areas. For example, we’ll be able to see how quickly your son can run from home to first, or how many grounders he can field cleanly, or whether he can throw it to the right base in a given situation.”

By now your mouth is fully agape.

“It’s great,” the coach says, either ignoring your expression or mistaking it for enthusiasm, “because now we can actually measure player progress. The unfortunate thing about games is that they depend so much on circumstance and situation. A poor player might reach base on a fielding error, or get a lucky hit off of a sub-par pitcher, so there’s no real objective indication of how well that player is doing and what kind of a baseball player he’s becoming. Now we have quantifiable data that clearly shows how much your son has gained from a season playing baseball. You can’t argue with it.”

Actually, you do start to argue, but the coach hasn’t finished.

“This new method really works well. We’re able to isolate the skills needed for success and give the kids something concrete to work on every minute we have them. When we break them into groups we rotate stations every fifteen minutes so they don’t get too bored with one task—you know how short their attention spans are. No more sitting on the bench, waiting for your turn in the lineup. No more nerves when you’re in a pressure situation in the late innings. It’s a controlled environment, and much more efficient than drawn-out process of playing a head-to-head game. We don’t even run our own scrimmages, because they’re so ineffective in developing and charting players’ growth.”

Now he’s finally done. Understanding that arguing won’t work here, you thank him quietly, and take your son home. Your next move, of course, is to withdraw your son from the league, and your son does not object, because the endless practicing had already killed his enthusiasm for playing baseball.

I'll end, rather cryptically, here. But I hope in this hypothetical baseball league I've shown what can go horribly wrong, in any attempt to educate, when desire and beauty are cast off in mad pursuit of what is quantifiable.

More on this soon, I hope...

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