Plenty of data is available that indicates the ideal learning environment is when the current skill or knowledge boundaries are pushed to the edges. UCLA professor, Robert Bjork, termed the process of challenging the student “desirable difficulties.” According to Dr. Bjork, one of the keys to a productive learning environment is testing. The ability to recall information is a key component of retaining information.

Dr. Robert Bjork-UCLA

The late Anders Ericsson, who studied the practice habits of champions, detailed the components of what he termed “deliberate practice” as an essential component of achievement.

Ericsson listed key ingredients of deliberate practice.

  • Near maximal effort, student is continually taken out of your comfort zone by a teacher or coach.
  • Practices are not always “fun.”
  • Well defined, specific goals, not aimed at “overall improvement.”
  • The athlete devotes full attention and conscious action.
  • Feedback and constant slight improvements, modifying efforts in response to feedback.
  • Building and modifying mental representations.
  • Focusing on building and improving specific skills by focusing on aspects of those skills and improving them.

If teachers and coaches are serious about the quality of instruction, using desirable difficulties or deliberate practice is vital for productive learning. Unfortunately, the educational process seems to be heading in a different direction. Might coaches be the last line of defense for creating a quality learning environment? If they are the last line of defense, they better dig in because it will become more challenging.

In recent weeks, the governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, signed a bill that drops high school students’ requirements in Oregon to demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing, or math before graduation. Yikes!! Most people are familiar with the 5 Whys of Problem-Solving. Unfortunately, Governor Brown is not!

The criteria for graduation that mandated proficiency in essential reading and writing was not the problem. Instead of finding a solution to the problem, which would take intense labor, analysis, and an aggressive plan to address, Governor Brown chose to go the easy route of lowering the standard for graduation. The approach equates to “if the mountain is too high to climb, let’s find a differnt mountain.”

Over the past year, multiple universities have dropped the requirement of the SAT exam for admission. The reason provided was generally under the umbrella of “cultural bias.” Is there a bias on the exam? Perhaps, I don’t know. Statistically, white students scored 177 points higher than black students and 133 points higher than Hispanic students in 2018 results. Asian students scored 100 points higher than white students. The children of wealthy and college-educated parents outperformed their classmates. Is the test biased, or is the test reflective of other social and educational factors? Again, pursuing the 5-Why’s might be in order?

But if you drop one criterion for university admission, what will be the replacement? Especially when you have an entire state saying that you don’t need to read or write with proficiency to graduate? Supposedly, the high school grade point average will become more of a consideration, along with a student essay. Hmm, is this the solution? A new paper from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis shows that “essay content”—that is, the quality of admissions essays—”is more strongly associated with household income than is SAT score.” The Stanford researchers ran nearly 60,000 student essays submitted to the University of California in 2016 through a computer program. The computer identified the essay topics and “linguistic, affective, perceptual, and other quantifiable components of essay content.” The essays predicted the student’s family income better than SAT scores. So, we are replacing one test with a supposed bias with a written essay that might also offer bias.

Anyone with a modicum of common sense knows that graduation or admission standards are not the problem. The problem lies in the urban public school systems and the inability or unwillingness to prepare students for the challenges ahead. The challenges to upgrade the academic environment in public schools are daunting, but lowering the standards for graduation or college admission is not a serious effort to address the problem.

How might this impact coaches? Coaches do not operate in a bubble. Students that enter their program might be coming from an environment of low expectations devoid of significant academic challenges. The nature of most coaches is to establish an environment of high expectations. It would seem the potential for conflict await both the coach and the athletes.

I encourage all coaches to urge their athletes to pursue all the positive components of playing a team sport. Demand they be a good teammate. Require exceptional effort daily. Work with them to be a good communicator demonstrating both positive listening and speaking skills. Build a team culture of enjoyment of the activity while pursuing excellence. My hope is the coaching community can promote excellence inside their programs. Keep the standards high despite what might be crumbling around you.