“Not only is unguided instruction less effective, but there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge. Teachers should provide their students with clear, explicit instruction rather than merely assisting students in attempting to discover knowledge themselves.” -Paul Kirschner
I’ve had many inspiring mentors during my coaching career—all-time greats such as Haley, Beal, Liskevych, McGown, Shondell, and many others have impacted my coaching development more than they realize. However, a teacher without name recognition inside volleyball circles might have been the most impactful. Dr. Paul Kirschner is a Professor Emeritus at the Open University of the Netherlands and a distinguished scholar and researcher in Educational Psychology.
Kirschner probably doesn’t know a thing about volleyball, but he made me a better coach. He devoted his life researching the best methods for students to acquire knowledge. Based on his writings, I wonder if he would agree with the standard methods for teaching our young athletes to play volleyball.
There are two general approaches to how we instruct our players. The first, which school systems, teachers, and many volleyball coaches have been bludgeoned into using, is “constructivism.” The underlying theory for this approach is if a student is placed into a learning environment, they will “construct” their learning experience. The teacher should be on the proverbial sidelines and allow self-discovery to occur. The teacher or coach takes on the primary role of facilitating a learning atmosphere. I’m constantly taken aback by the interest in new drills by coaches. But, if the role is designing activities and allowing the athlete to “figure things out,” then the activity is more important than the instruction.
The alternative to constructivism is a knowledge-based learning environment, termed “direct teaching.” In a direct teaching environment, the teacher leads the instructional process. Learners of all ages can improve their knowledge and skills if they operate from a foundation of information. Kirschner feels that putting the learner into an environment where complex problems need to be solved (a live volleyball game) without the necessary preparation will lead to unproductive learning.
I look at the current trend in age-group coaching, where the emphasis is on lots of play, with the quality of instruction being secondary. I am dismayed at this approach to teaching. It is like building a house and deciding to start construction on the second floor. We ask players to play a complex game when they need a better foundation of skill and an increased understanding of the game. Coaches do not have to be in one camp or the other. It is not an either/or proposition. You can play while still focusing on learning; it just takes planning and understanding how people best learn.
Learning is a result of processing that which you encounter. The goal of good learning and instruction is to optimize this information processing. According to Kirschner, the teacher (coach) is responsible for,
- Knowing how to prepare learners for learning (e.g., prior knowledge, feed-forward).
- Knowing how to facilitate that process (e.g., via dual coding, scaffolding, cognitive load theory, employing study strategies such as spaced practice, retrieval practice, and variability of practice).
- Knowing how to follow up the learning experience (e.g., feedback, feed-forward, assessment for learning).
A few definitions might be in order as you read Kirschner’s keys.
Feed-forward – Coaches are familiar with the various forms of feedback which evaluate past events. Feed-forward is the reverse of feedback. Coaches supply critical aspects of the learning agenda in advance of the activity. The key points might include technique, systems, a specific shot or serve to be worked on, etc. By doing so, the coach provides direction for the learning process and the events of the upcoming practice, quite different from the coach merely organizing unfocused game activities.
Dual Coding – Allan Pavio discovered that our memory has two codes (or channels) that deal with visual and verbal stimuli. While our memory stores them independently, they are linked (linking words to images). These linked memories make retrieval much more accessible. For the coach, incorporating the use of written words (text) and visuals (diagrams, video, etc.) will make expedite the retrieval of information (reading the off-speed attack and moving to defend).
Scaffolding – is a method where teachers support students as they learn and develop a new concept or skill. In the instructional scaffolding model, a teacher presents new information via written material or video demonstration, or the coach will demonstrate how to execute a technique. The teacher initiates the learning process, then gradually steps back and lets students practice independently. It also can involve group practice.
Cognitive Load – Relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold simultaneously. Since working memory is limited, instructional methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning. The takeaway is that so many things are going on in a live-action sequence that it is difficult for the young player to process and retain the items of importance.
Retrieval Practice – The learning process is improved if the athlete is asked to recall information that has been presented. After presenting information, ask the players to recall that information by asking questions the following day or giving a verbal or written quiz.
Spaced Practice – The opposite of the “cram” session we did in college. The desire is to learn the material over time with constant returns for review. For optimum retention of information, the coach must consistently return to the material for review.
Practice Variability – Incorporating other aspects of the game into the learning process. For example, incorporate multiple skills into the activity when working on an attack rather than just focusing on a single skill.
Many coaches already use these learning keys but do not have a name attached to their routine. How might “direct instruction” impact the practice sessions for coaches? The most obvious is you need to coach! Having players participate in volleyball activity in an unfocused manner might be fun for the players (Queen of the Court), but don’t count on it to have skill or knowledge development value.
Incorporating the items listed above into your practice sessions might resemble these items.
- Front-loading the keywords or areas of emphasis in advance of practice. Many coaches use a whiteboard to list agenda items for practice (drills, teams, scoring, etc.). Although not without value, if the focus is teaching, more emphasis on the essential items relative to skill development is in order (feed-forward).
- Incorporate written and visual teaching keys. Have the players write down these keys, then observe a demonstration of the skill done correctly. (dual coding)
- Rather than immersing your team in activities focusing on the scoreboard and winning and losing, start slowly, have the coach demonstrate, or work in small groups, then proceed to a team activity. Rather than the player blindly trying to figure out a specific aspect of the game, the coach or a better player offers suggestions and constructs activities that provide a framework for the learning process. The process starts slowly, then the coach gradually steps back and allows the athlete (or team) to move forward. (scaffolding and cognitive load)
- Even when working on a single skill, space out the repetitions. For the volleyball coach, the learning will be better if the player passes five sets of ten with a break between sets (the player becomes a target or a server, etc.) than if they pass fifty consecutive serves. (spaced practice)
- The coach might incorporate a mid-practice Q&A to review the points of emphasis before continuing with an activity. (Retrieval)
- Vary the practice format and allow the player to connect various aspects of the game. If attacking is the focus, have the player go from pass to attack, dig to attack, or block to attack. (practice variability).
Incorporating these items into your practices is possible for coaches at every level. Coaches should embrace the concept that magical drills do not exist. For the players and team to improve, your practice sessions must be organized, provide quality feedback, provide lots of opportunities for repetition, and create a challenging, positive, and productive atmosphere. The bottom line is that the coaches must stop leaning against the wall and actively participate in the learning process. I don’t get judgemental about the teaching methods that coaches incorporate into their training sessions. I encourage coaches to learn as much as possible about the learning process and plot their direction based on their beliefs and experience.