Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Shrinking the Field: The Importance of Targeted Practice

It seemed like an easy task. I wanted my soccer players to work on 1-on-1 defending.  We had struggled with it in the last game, and like a good coach, I was going to focus on our biggest need.  So I partnered my players up, started them at midfield, and said go. After only five minutes I was beyond frustrated. Though I had told them the purpose, they weren’t getting it.  Some attacking players simply drifted from side to side and some whacked the ball by the defender into the 50 yards of open space and made it a foot race. I had made my purpose clear and had designed the drill to address the purpose, so why weren’t they getting it? 
My problem? I hadn’t shrunk the field.   If I really wanted to work on 1-on-1 defending, I needed to make sure the space I was using matched my purpose.  Of course half of a soccer field was a disaster; there was too much room for kids to make other choices and in essence change the drill. I needed to shrink the field to a size that allowed my players to efficiently and precisely practice the skill I intended them to practice.

The same principle holds true when working on academic skills. Our “practice field” needs to match our purpose and allow for precision and efficiency. So often we assign tasks that are too big, tasks that are sure to provide too much open space in which students can get lost, get distracted, or change direction. By shrinking the field we can help isolate skills for students which will lead to more efficient and effective learning. (feedback gets distracted or off base too)

Here’s an example:

One of our learning targets this year is about supporting ideas with evidence. Our scale (see below) shows the progression of this skill, differentiating between evidence that relates to the purpose, evidence that supports the purpose, and evidence that helps prove the purpose. The distinction between levels is subtle, particularly between levels 3 and 4, and students were having trouble seeing how to improve. We had just done an activity where we had asked students to do some research and to decide whether aliens exist. They needed to develop their thesis and then find the best evidence to prove their position. They had a great time and came up with some good evidence on both sides of the argument…but overall, the activity did not help them improve with the skill. They were unable to see the difference between levels of evidence, and we were unable to determine whether they had stumbled upon good evidence by chance.  

3 (target)
(ESL 2.3e)

I can support my ideas with evidence that relates to my purpose.
I can support my ideas with multiple credible pieces of evidence that support my purpose.
I can support my ideas with varied, vivid pieces of evidence that work together to help prove my purpose.

While the alien activity was a fun way to introduce the importance of good evidence, it was not a good way to instruct or assess the target skill. It was clear that we were asking them to do too many things in the initial activity, so we (and they) were unable to isolate the skill we had meant to focus on. Some of them struggled to come up with a thesis, some got distracted by bad you tube videos, and some ran out of time and picked the first evidence they could find.

So we shrunk the field.
We provided students with a thesis, gathered the evidence they had collected in the initial activity, and created a chart with about 20 pieces of evidence.
The next day in class we asked them to evaluate each piece of evidence in relation to the thesis. For each piece they had to check whether it was “good” (related), “better” (supported), or “best” (helped prove), and then provide the rationale for their choice. Then they had to choose the three pieces of evidence they would use if they had to convince someone of their thesis, and explain why they chose these.

When we shrunk the field and narrowed the scope of the practice to focus precisely on the difference between good, better, and best evidence, students got it. And we were able to see—specifically and precisely—where they struggled with the skill, which allowed us to design more practice for some students.

A week later, we set them loose on the larger field again, asking them to research the Mongols, determine whether they were civilized innovators or savage barbarians, and support their thesis statements with the best evidence.  This time, they nailed the evidence. Shrinking the field during practice allowed us to target--and them to hone--the skills necessary for success in the big game.