Bringing the Locker Room Into the Classroom

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 07, 2014

I am no sports enthusiast. As a child and young man, I balked at my father’s well-meaning attempts to involve me in team sports. For most of my adult life, I haven’t worried much about this gap in my skill set. As a scholar and educator, I have found the boundary between collegiate learning and athletics to be pretty clear. But recently I’ve begun to question this separation and to wonder whether there are ways of bringing the lessons of the locker room into my classroom at Drake University.

Over the past couple of years, I have come to see what a classroom dynamic of engaged participation and collaboration might have in common with the fast-paced give-and-take of a basketball game. The excitement of March Madness this year has reminded me what I have learned about teaching and learning from my colleagues in athletics.

My awakening to the educational value of collegiate athletics began when two of my students, members of the varsity women’s basketball team, asked me to be an "honorary coach" at one of their games. (Luckily for the team and the fans, no actual coaching was involved.) In the locker room before the game, I noticed that the head coach’s approach to preparing these student-athletes for the game departed from the rants and speeches common to film and TV depictions of sports locker-room scenes. Instead, I witnessed questions and answers, discussion and debate, part Socratic dialogue, part collaborative problem solving.

The players identified tactics their opponents would probably rely on, linking their predictions to precise moments of video they had examined. They discussed scenarios they might encounter, asked questions, and offered one another advice about how to capitalize on their own strengths and the visitors’ weaknesses. They were engaged in what we professors might call problem-based learning, working together to solve a problem to which they were deeply committed: How do we win this game?

Participation in my classes has always been robust, with participants reliably raising their hands to answer questions or offer insights. But almost invariably, my students direct their comments to me, relying on me to validate, synthesize, and articulate them in tidy explanations to be transcribed into notebooks and reproduced on exams and essays. I have often felt myself to be the center of their attention, sensing that it’s my job to demonstrate knowing and thinking, and to dispense wisdom while they observe and record. In doing so, I offer my students the impression that the best understanding is one that reflects what others, wiser and more experienced, already know.

In contrast to that locker-room exchange, my approach invites students into an inauthentic mode of learning. They aren’t investigating open, urgent questions essential to their understanding of our material. As one observer has noted, they’re "throwing darts," hoping occasionally to score.

In high school and college, I imagined classroom participation as a chance to shine, not an opportunity to share and collaborate, to learn from and to teach my classmates, and to fail openly in the hopes of improving. Harboring this attitude through graduate school, I found myself unprepared for the hard work of institutional citizenship that came with a faculty appointment. How much better at this work might I be now if, at some point in my young life, I had been urged to think of my successes as the fruits of a culture in which others must also succeed? How much more might I have contributed in the early years of my career if I had thought of myself as a member of a team?

The collaborative learning I saw during my brief career as an honorary coach prompted me to propose a program I called "Coaching in the Classroom" to Sandy Clubb, Drake’s athletic director. For a year and a half now, faculty members in chemistry, education, biology, anthropology, statistics, advertising, and theater have worked with our football, men’s and women’s basketball, soccer, and golf coaches, observing, asking questions, and applying what we’ve learned in our own classes and labs.

Lisa Grulke, an anatomist in the biology department, joined the program last fall. After observing a few football practices, she told me she found it remarkable how engaged the players were in their drills and how completely even the first-year students seemed to have internalized the rhythms of the practice. They coached and guided one another and exercised individual and collective leadership. When Lisa asked an assistant coach how he accounted for this level of independence, he told her that at the beginning of each season, the coaching staff would spend time "teaching the players the system."

This response named the very thing I had often neglected to do in my classes. What, I asked myself, is the system of reading and interpretation according to which I expect my students to engage with Shakespeare’s work? What are the moves, the routines, the preliminary habits of mind and practices necessary for making some sense of 400-year-old texts?

After hearing Lisa recount her conversation, I set about trying to make the literary-critical system visible in the Shakespeare class I was teaching that semester. When I did, I noticed that my students started responding directly to one another, asking questions and following lines of thought suggested by their classmates’ insights. They sensed that they had found a way into the text that gave them something to hold onto, some agency over the task at hand, and they took part enthusiastically and with genuine intellectual curiosity.

I can’t say for certain why this simple formula—"teach them the system"—had occupied a pedagogical blind spot for me. I suppose the work of recognizing patterns, formulating questions, and crafting interpretive responses had become natural for me. It took threading those moves through an unfamiliar context, a football practice, to make them salient again. The potential for such discoveries, small as they are, reinforces for me the value of our effort.

"Coaching in the Classroom" is still in its early stages. We haven’t quite found the formula by which to maximize our own learning as teachers. But we’re making headway. I’m convinced that the idea that faculty members can learn from coaches how to be more effective teachers and mentors will become a significant component in how we think about teaching and learning here. It will also offer us a compelling way to think about the significance of the four-year residential-college experience, one that can begin to account for the richly interactive, collaborative, and mutually committed environments we promise not just to our students, but also to their parents, potential employers, and even our own future colleagues.

Craig N. Owens is an associate professor of English at Drake University, where he directs the Center for the Humanities.