This past week, I had the great pleasure of taking my 8 year old onto a real golf course for the first time. Over the past few summers, he has developed a swing on the range, and has learned some golf etiquette at the local pitch and putt; but this was his first chance to tee it up for real. As we worked our way around the course, I found myself reflecting on the way golf is naturally differentiated for players of varying skills. By the time we'd finished, I had 9 holes worth of reflections to share.
Hole #1 Differentiated Challenge
I usually play the blues, hitting my tee shots from tees just in front of those reserved for professional golfers. Students on the golf team at our school, usually play from the whites; my wife starts at the reds; and the new golfer in the family, played his first round from the yellow tees. For each hole, the game of golf is differentiated, allowing player with varying levels of experience, to choose an apt challenge. I found myself thinking that school could be a much more engaging place if we could provide custom starting points for each of our students.
Hole #2 Modern Tools
While design and innovation lead to the introduction of new clubs and new learning technologies every year, the goals of both golf and school remain relatively unchanged. Many golfers find comfort in well-worn tools, like a familiar wedge or putter that just feels right; while teachers and students may be comforted in the familiarity of pencil or chalk. Those who ignore innovations in club design or developments in learning technologies, may struggle to produce their best work. It remains my opinion that hickory shafts and chalk, belong in the same place... the museum archives. We've got more effective tools to leverage.
Hole #3 Acing the Test
Through a combination of luck and skill, I was rewarded with my only hole-in-one on May 26, 1990. It was the 17th hole, a par four at Oakwood G. & C.C. where my tournament ace, keyed my foursome's victory. I remember many details from the experience, including the fact that I had to delay hitting my shot until two young golfers walked through our fairway; that I used an orange Top Flight golf ball on the tee; that my 5 wood drew in a right-to-left arc, landed on the green and rolled into the hole. Which leads to the question: What do you remember most vividly about the last test that you aced? The perfect performance on a written test may be more common, but is it far less memorable. How critical can either ace be, when you realize that given the opportunity to replay a hole you've mastered, or re-take a previously aced test, most of us are unlikely to again realize such perfection.
Hole #4 Practice as an End in Itself
As in learning, there is work to be done if you are to achieve to your best potential on tournament day. Whether practice takes place on the range where different aspects of the game are practiced in isolation; or on the course where you practice skills in the context of the game, most players find enjoyment in the practice. And the enjoyment happens in spite of the fact that many players, spend significant time on the weakest parts of their game. Knowing that every student in a classroom has a unique skill set, I'm left to wonder: Why it is common for every student to practice their way through a common set of experiences? How might the teacher discover which types of practice would be most apt for a given individual? Can choice, context, and varied practice lead individuals to enjoy the practice of academics?
Hole #5 We Play By Rules
The rules in golf may seem unfair at times, but wherever possible, you 'play it as it lies'. It's a game that relies upon the honesty of the competitors, even when the rules don't seem to make sense. In the world of school, many students look for ways to bend the rules or to outright ignore those that may seem unjust. The parallel seems to be that both school and golf tend to outlaw tools that make the 'game' too easy. Golf balls that go too straight off the tee, or those that travel too far in the air, or clubs that provide the advantage of extra spin are deemed to be illegal equipment. In the classroom, calculators were once seen to provide an unfair advantage; but today, tools like Wikipedia are deemed untrustworthy, while smart phones that provide access to the 'sum of human knowledge', are banned from exam rooms.
Hole #6 Handicaps Level the Playing Field
In golf, once you've been involved in enough 'assessments', your performance becomes predictable. The resulting golf handicap gives each competitor an equal opportunity to win an event. In a handicapped golf tournament, one has to turn in a performance that is better than his or her normal performance, in order to be rewarded. In contrast, handicaps in the classroom appear as challenges that result in an imbalance. Adaptive technologies, varied learning strategies, and universal designs may offset a learner's identified disability, but most of the time, learners are assessed using identical performance scales. As a result, the education system tends to reward the same kids over and over again, just for doing that they've been successful at doing throughout their school careers. As more and more educators embrace differentiated assessment, the practice may be seen as one to reward learners with 'assessment handicaps'.
Hole #7 The Team 'Scramble'
Occasionally, golf and school offer opportunities to learn and play as the member of a team. In golf, the scramble tournament allows a team of competitors to take advantage of the best shots of colleagues. Whether a long ball specialist or an expert putter, being a part of a foursome is most rewarding when your teammates brings different talents to the course. In the classroom, the best parallel I can think of, is when rich performance tasks allow learners to play unique roles in designing solutions to compelling problems. At their very best, both learning and golf are social experiences that bring out the best in the participants.
Hole #8 Data Driven Assessment
In golf, knowing exact yardages to fairway bunkers, water hazards, and pin placements, gives the player a tremendous advantage in making appropriate club selection. Whether using a laser range-finder, a GPS tool, or an iOS solution, players with the right information, are far more likely to make wise decisions on the course. In the classroom, it is the pre-assessment that offers a teacher similarly useful data. Knowing what your students know, and what they need to know, the informed teacher is more likely to plan an appropriate and productive range of learning activities. So, why is it that educators are far more likely to give tests only at the end of a unit of study? Experienced teachers know that gauging the strengths and weaknesses of their students, allows them to play 'target golf'.
Hole #9 What Did You Score?
Ultimately, golf is a game against yourself, and perfection is unattainable. Just as report cards attempt commonly boil down and individual's achievement to a number, so too does your scorecard . Whether or not you have rich stories to share about amazing experiences on the course or in the classroom, that final grade how success is ultimately measured. Yet, after every round, we take the time to celebrate our on course adventures with fellow competitors. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we paid more attention to the affective experiences of learners? We commonly share assessment data, and report our findings to parents, but what about sharing the anecdotes that make learning in your classroom more than 'a good walk, spoiled'?
Photo Credits: danperry.com, kazamatsuri, VancityAllie, jc_091447