Ronald GallimoreEveryone's a teacher to someone (John Wooden)

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John Wooden Taught Concepts Too

Many stories about Coach John Wooden emphasize his use of repetition as a key teaching approach. It’s true that practicing until certain actions were automatic was part of his approach. But it is not true that this was the foundation of his approach. He focused on development of players’ conceptual understanding that in combination with lots of practice led to a level of performance seldom equal in athletics.

A key goal of Wooden was the development of players who were creative, confident problem-solvers. As games progress, teams change tactics, presenting new problems by to force the opponent to play in a way it might not want to. In response to changing tactics by opponents, Wooden wanted …to be as surprised as our opponent at what my team came up with when confronted with an unexpected challenge (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, pps. 89-90).

Wooden’s goal was to teach the underlying concepts of basketball, so that when opponents surprised his players with new and different challenges they in turn surprised their coach and the other team with creative and effective solution methods.

To develop his players' capacities to “surprise” him with their solution methods during games, Wooden used a systematic pedagogical approach that he describes as the “whole-part” method.

I tried to teach according to the whole-part method. I would show them the whole thing to begin with. Then I’m going to break it down into the parts and work on the individual parts and then eventually bring them together.

(Wooden, personal communication, February 12, 2002).

There’s an interesting parallel between Coach Wooden’s pedagogy and contemporary views on teaching mathematics. It is not a perfect analogy because the subject matters are different in fundamental ways. Consider Coach Wooden’s hope “ …to be as surprised as our opponent at what my team came up with when confronted with an unexpected challenge.” The desire to be “surprised” by his players is surprisingly analogous to contemporary ideas on teaching mathematics. If students are only taught to memorize solution methods, any deviation in problem structure or form may stymie them. If they were taught to understand conceptually the underlying mathematics, they are typically better prepared to devise solution methods as the need arises.

Learning the “basics” is important; however, students who memorize facts or procedures without understanding often are not sure when or how to use what they know. In contrast, conceptual understanding enables students to deal with novel problems and settings. They can solve problems that they have not encountered before.

(National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2005) ).

Coach Wooden emphasized repetition of fundamentals so that his players would be resourceful, imaginative, and creative, not because he wanted them to be robots mindlessly relying on rote memory. For him, repetition is a means to an end; he firmly believed that when students understand what they are doing and can connect the ideas they are taught, they are better prepared to solve new problems as they arise in the future. He teaches that understanding and conceptual knowledge, supported by automatic mastery of fundamentals, prepares students to tackle problems of all kinds, like those they had encountered before, and novel ones, too.

For more how Coach Wooden taught concepts and used repetition to build automaticity, see Nater and Gallimore (2010), Chapter 6.