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What if Classes Were Called Teams?

Posted by 
Mitch Weathers
 on 
February 18, 2021

Just as I realized in my K12 years (and undergrad for that matter), many students approach their education, with no plan. They have no strategy because they lack agency. If you’ve never sat in a classroom with that feeling that everything is going on around you, or happening to you, but you don’t quite understand how to engage in the process, I bet it can be hard to truly understand. 

It makes no sense to teach a student content if she does not yet embody at least some of the skills and habits needed for success. In other words, we have to help all students create their game plan if we’re going to help all students succeed. That game plan is the executive functioning and/or noncognitive skills, habits, and mindsets that are the foundation for academic success. The way I have come to understand it is this:

Game Plan = Executive Functioning
No Game Plan = Executive Dysfunction

Team Instead Of Class

In light of developing a “game plan,” I like to pose a question to my students each school year: “How would a classroom change if we did away with the term “class” and replaced it with “team”? Following this discussion we create a list defining what characteristics embody teams and those that describe a class. One characteristic of teams that always surfaces in these discussions is that they practice. Teams routinely practice so individuals can learn their strengths and weaknesses. They practice so the team can learn to play together; to develop a strategy and get better. The foundation of any successful team is routine practice. One important characteristic of practice is that individuals can fail. Maybe better said, failing in practice is the part of the reason teams practice. Failing in practice highlights areas of weakness to focus on so that individual plays, as well as the team, can get better. It is a no-stakes effort. 

No Stakes Practice

If we follow this analogy then the classroom is the playing field. The class is the team, the students are the players, and each player’s game plan, the factors that must be practiced, are the suite of executive functioning skills. If each player does not have competency with these skills and habits they are less likely to engage with the learning community - their team. Therefore, we need, as my friend Bonnie Nieves exposes, no-stakes practice in school just like any team practice. If we do, students will be free to take risks and fail - which we all know is part of the learning journey. 

Of course we need practice at school - both for individuals and teams. For individuals to gain competency with executive functions like goal setting, retrieval practice, metacognition, time and task management, organizational skill, and study strategies, routine practice is required. For classes to work as a team they need practice with what my friend Dr. T.J. Vari calls 5 Important Aspects of an Effective Learning Environment: sharing, thinking, moving, talking, practicing, and goal setting. It all takes no-stakes practice that engages students without the fear of failure.

Teaching Executive Functions

We must take the teaching of these skills and habits as seriously as the teaching of content if all students are going to succeed. But these executive functions are not taught in the traditional, didactic fashion. They are learned when students see them modeled followed by practice employing them. If the teacher is the coach then it is the responsibility of the coach to model skills before students can attempt using them. 

“In moving to college and career readiness for all, we must now teach some skills formerly learned by students on their own. All students need lessons and modeling of study and work skills like time and task management, note taking, and assignment completion strategies...”

Robert Belfanz, Putting Middle Grades  Students  on The Graduation Path 

Embedded Into The Learning Routine

The question is not if students need modeling and practice with executive functions it’s how, and the challenge is when! This is where our analogy breaks down a bit because we actually have another role as coach, we need to teach our subject. How can we possibly find the time to deliver lessons on goal-setting, time management, study skills, organizational skills, etc. and still have enough time left for the subject. However, like an effective coach, if we don’t, then our team and its individual players are less likely to win. The key for this to be successful is to embed “practice” into our daily learning routines and rituals. If students get this practice through the rhythm of the school day then they will be more successful whether they are in a classroom, a hybrid schedule, or distance learning at the dinner table. 

“One of the biggest ironies…is that many of the tools likely to yield the strongest classroom results remain essentially beneath the notice of our theories and theorists in education. Consider one unmistakable driver of students’ achievement: Carefully built and practiced routines…”

Doug Lemov, Teach Like A Champion

By embedding no-stakes practice into the way our school day functions we give students the chance to develop their game plan while reserving precious time to teach the content of our class.

Be well,

Mitch

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