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Thursday, October 10, 2013

What we can learn from John Wooden III

One never knows who will respond to a blog post--imagine my surprise when Ronald Gallimore commented on the last post and then Roland Tharp emailed me yesterday, having heard about the post from a friend! A very nice surprise, indeed! Dr. Gallimore mentioned his continuing research and referenced his website (from which I got the link to the Psychology Today article--reminder, it is here). His website can be found here and if you're interested in this series, you'll want to explore it further.
As I said in my response to his comment, I've looked at most of the articles and plan more posts based on the book he wrote with Swen Nater, which is very interesting. Dr. Tharp mentioned his further research and some work he'd done with a horn player on the topic of Wooden's techniques and philosophies and I'll follow up on that as well.
But enough of that, back to the topic at hand!
Another interesting result of the 1976 study was the amount of negative feedback vs. positive. To quote from the article again:
The aspect of Wooden's teaching with the most theoretical value is his unexpected mix of social reinforcement and punishment. In direct contrast to the techniques advocated by most behavior modifiers, praise is a minor feature of Wooden's teaching methods. Total positive social reinforcements, verbals and non-verbals, constitute less than 7% of total acts. But scolds add up to 15.6% . . . Wooden scolds more than twice as much as he rewards.
Withering reproofs: Since this finding deserves explanation, we should be clear about the phenomenon itself. In no sense is Wooden mean or punitive. He almost always leaves practice with a light touch, a joke, an affectionate pat on the back for players on the tired trek to the locker room. He never uses physical punishment such as lap-running. He prefers to keep practice a desired activity. But between the whistles that open and close practice, he is a dead-serious teacher whose reproofs can be so withering that observing psychologists shrink in their seats. Example, "No. No. No. Some of you are just standing around watching. Play your man tight before he gets the ball. Goodness gracious sakes, use the head the good Lord gave you."
I'm not sure that today those comments would be seen as quite as withering as they did in 1976, but the overall point is interesting--how much praise is necessary and desirable? What's the best way to get results? And, the theme of this series, "what can we learn from John Wooden?"
Of course, Gallimore and Tharp also mention Wooden's almost fatherly relationship with his players. More from the article:
It is clear to the players that Wooden is truly concerned about them. He takes a group of young men, many with superstar potential, and convinces them that they can best serve their self-interest by subordinating personal pride to team effort. Fairness, almost an obsession in his autobiography, has unquestionably helped players accept Wooden's decisions they did not like.
Wooden's negligible use of praise is particularly instructive when you consider the motivational level of his students. There may be no more highly motivated groups trying to learn something than these young athletes for whom success can mean fame and fortune, plus more immediate social benefits. Under such conditions of maximum incentive, praise becomes virtually unnecessary. For students less motivated than Wooden's, social rewards may be necessary as incentive to keep them in reach of instructions, modeling, feedback, and other activities that do produce learning. . .
The majority of Wooden's scolds are loaded with information. His complex statements both simultaneously scold and specifically reinstruct. . . These scold/reinstructions are often shouted during a group activity when no one can be sure who is the offending member, and consequently everyone tries to put himself in order.
I find this fascinating. While Wooden was working with a group that is intrinsically highly motivated (more so than most of us do!), I think there's much that's instructive for us.
I use plenty of positive statements/praise in rehearsal, but there is a time for honest criticism as well. I've been known to tell my choir, "Well, that sucked!" at the end of a particularly mediocre or bad run-through. Now, it's said with a little smile, and the choir will usually laugh at my use of the term, "sucked," but they usually know just as well as I do that it did, in fact, suck. Honest feedback (not said in an angry manner) about what the choir's just done can be enormously helpful. I think that saying positive things when the effort wasn't great can often be seen though by the choir--and then that puts all your positive statements in doubt--they aren't trustworthy.
And the final statement in the quoted paragraph above is an important one: by making a general statement, not identifying who you're speaking to, no one in the choir knows if they were late, early, out of tune (or whatever), and may all work harder to make sure they've got it right. This assumes that your group already is motivated to do better--which is dependent on the relationship you have with them and the kind of work ethic and practices you've built into the way they work together (see here for more on that). By the same token, if the problem is clearly with an individual, sometimes it's best to be direct (but then you have to decide if a student can handle saying something in front of the choir or if it's best to speak to them privately).
I believe another important statement from the article is, "Such Wooden techniques have already influenced our classroom work. His scold/reinstruction device, which we think of as a "Wooden," has turned out to be very useful in teaching children at our experimental school in Hawaii. We get the best results from a rich mix of praise and Woodens."
We need to find ways to make our rehearsals more "instruction dense," and use a similar "rich mix" of praise, scolds, and feedback that keep our choirs on a steep learning curve. The nature of your choir will change the mix--for some groups almost everything may need to be positive.
And please understand me, none of this is to say that anger has an effective place in our rehearsals (perhaps on extraordinarily rare occasions). I've had teachers (not necessarily conductors) who "go off" every so often. After the first few times (when it's shocking), you learn to tune it out or wait out the tantrum (and I use that word deliberately--it's rare that this is effective and is most often self-indulgent . . . because the person doesn't have a better and more positive way to effect change). The model Wooden presents is of someone genuinely concerned about his students (and they know this), with extraordinary knowledge of his subject matter, supremely well organized and sequenced practices (rehearsals), great teaching skills (ability to model, and the ability to give instruction-dense feedback--an important part of which is the "Wooden," a scold/reinstruction). All of this combined can be a model for us as conductors to accomplish more.
Let me know what you think--I'm interested in how this fits with your own experience . . . or how it might change the way you teach/rehearse.
Much more ahead, including a re-evaluation of their 1974-75 research by Gallimore and Tharp in 2004--what lessons did they learn after the original study and what would they do differently?

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