It Takes Two to Play Catch
Have you ever thought about playing catch? I was thinking about classroom instruction recently and the idea occurred to me that teaching was analogous to playing catch. More specifically, it is like showing someone how to play catch. Playing catch is deceptively easy; one person throws a ball – the other person catches it and throws it back. What could be more simple that that? Or is it as simple as it first appears?
Catching is an obvious skill that must also be learned in order to play catch. Just as in throwing, we have to define what object is being caught. As before, catching different objects shares some skills and has some unique differences. If we all think back to our childhood, we might remember that learning to catch is also a very different experience that learning to throw. Learning to catch is scary. Catching also has an emotional component that is often overlooked. If we really think back, learning to throw was fun compared to learning to catch. A poor throw seldom has any consequences for the thrower. Catching is quite different. The consequences of a poor catch can be a black eye, a busted lip, or a painful bruise. If we are honest, we all may remember our fear the first time we played catch with an older, more experienced player. We were afraid of the ball, afraid of being hurt, and probably afraid of being embarrassed.
It should be clear by now that playing catch is actually a complex game. It should also be clear that throwing skills and catching skills are separate, even though we learn them together as children. It is also not hard to imagine that an individual can have differing abilities between the two skills. Some may throw well, others catch well.
Now we need to examine how this has anything to do with classroom instruction. To define the analogy, teachers are the throwers, students are the catchers, and the different content areas are the different types of balls. An obvious and important nuance of this analogy is that there is a distinct difference in the skill level between the teacher and the student. I believe this analogy represents very well the way we approach education today. I also believe it identifies some mistakes we are making in education as well.
The analogy between throwing a ball and delivering instruction is fairly obvious. For many years, that is what teachers have done – stand in front of students and throw out information. Teachers spend a tremendous amount of time and effort in developing their skill at delivering instruction. Tests measure how well the students “catch”. One of the mistakes we make in education is illustrated by this analogy. In today’s environment we measure the effectiveness of a teacher by how well the students perform on standardized tests – how well they “catch”. I believe this reveals our greatest error in education today. We believe that by focusing on instruction, we can turn our students into good catchers. Teachers certainly need professional development. We always need to improve our skills in delivering instruction. We also have to start teaching kids how to catch – how to receive and process the information we are giving them. We must do a better job of teaching literacy.
There is not a teacher in the business that has not had the following experience: They have designed the perfect lesson, using all of the latest research based pedagogy identified by the current guru of education. They begin the lesson expecting the heavens to open and enlightenment to rain down on their classroom. Ten minutes into the day, they discover that the lesson they hoped would earn them teacher of the year – just ain’t working. I know I have had these types of lessons. Time and experience have taught me that these lessons are often really good – just incomplete. It’s not that I didn’t “throw” well; I just left out teaching the students how to “catch”. I did not include in the lesson a strategy to help the students absorb the information and construct knowledge.
The critical thing to understand is that catching/ learning is a skill possessed by the student – one we have to teach them how to do for themselves. We cannot afford to spend all of our time as educators teaching content – throwing. We have to spend more of our time teaching literacy – teaching students how to catch. There is always a loud howl that teachers don’t have time to teach literacy; there is barely enough time to cover all the material. To anyone that thinks that, consider this – what good is the greatest quarterback in the NFL if his receivers always drop the ball?
Teachers who embrace literacy instruction will be surprised that it saves time in the long run. In the beginning, teaching literacy strategies is time consuming. You have to deliver content and you have to show the students how to handle the material. Students are also reluctant to use literacy strategies. This seems counter intuitive; who wouldn’t want to be a better learner? We have to remember that literacy skills are the responsibility of the learner. Not all students are willing to take responsibility for their own learning. In the past, it was the responsibility of the teacher to fill them with knowledge – if they failed it was the teacher’s fault. In this new model, learning is a partnership and the student has an important responsibility in the process – a responsibility not all students willingly accept.
This reluctance on the part of students can be frustrating for the classroom teacher as they begin teaching literacy strategies to their students. At this point it is important to remember how scary it was to learn how to catch back when you were a kid. We have to be the trained professional at this point and continue to show students how to construct knowledge through different literacy strategies. We must have some compassion for the learner. We have to remember that these are often new skills for students and that it takes time and practice for them to become proficient.
The payoff for the classroom teacher is that as students learn different literacy strategies and how to employ them, they become better students. Suddenly school is less confusing, less scary. As students learn how to absorb the material we present, school becomes more fun. That being said, we must acknowledge that not every student will become a wide receiver in the NFL – some students will still struggle with school. As we recognize this reality, it should also be equally clear that struggling students need literacy instruction more than anyone.
The last point to be made relates to the difference in the skill level between the teacher and the student. Teaching literacy does not have to be a daunting task. All that is required is to think about how we ourselves learn – how we learned to catch. As we prepare our lessons we have to consider ways to help our students absorb and retain the information we deliver. We have to then explicitly explain to them what their responsibilities are as the learner. Instead of giving students “something to do”, we have to explain that we are “coaching” them – showing them something they can do to be a better learner. This is a subtle but enormously important point – the student has to see the literacy strategy as their responsibility – not that of the teacher.
Classrooms that are only about instruction are frustrating for teachers and students alike. No student enjoys being frustrated or failing. It is no fun for the teacher either. Content delivery must be accompanied by literacy instruction in the classrooms of the 21st century. If we do that, we can enjoy a nice game of catch. What’s not fun about that?