Core Teaching Techniques: The tennis analogy.

In my training I often find that a tennis-stroke analogy is useful to communicate a range of issues .

The analogy is simply that, in tennis, players use a set of well-defined strokes in the same way that in a typical lesson, teachers use a set of well-understood techniques:

Tennis: forehand, backhand, serve ++++

Credit as ever to Oliver Caviglioli for the graphics

Teaching: cold calling, think pair share, show-me boards +++++

How does this analogy help? Here’s some ideas:

Common Language: Most immediately, it’s just so useful for everyone to know what you mean when you name a technique. With well defined teaching techniques, we can focus on how to do them well and when to use them appropriately, rather than reinventing them every time we have a training session.

The power of mastering core techniques: The main benefit of the analogy is in stressing that teachers use some techniques all the time. They are core to their practice. This is different to saying they are ‘basic’ in the sense of being easy – something only beginners need to worry about. Every tennis player will think about improving their core techniques all the time because they use them routinely throughout every match they play. I think it’s helpful to identify core teaching techniques with the same status: a core set.

Roger Federer and Serena Williams don’t moan to their coaches about having to talk about their backhand again! ‘Seriously, we did backhand training last year….!’ They’ve been working on them since they started playing and continue to work on them all the time, getting better and better – not because they are easy or basic, but because they are so central to the game that, despite their expertise, they can become better still. This is the same attitude we need towards core teaching techniques.

Techniques in combination; decision-making: Another key element of the analogy is that we don’t use techniques in isolation. In tennis, a key aspect of a player’s skill is to make the right stroke selection at the right time and to use techniques in a sequence for greatest effect. This is also true of teaching techniques:

All the techniques above are easier to do and more effective in combination than they are on their own. It’s the judicious blend and sequence of techniques that allows you to keep in touch with the understanding of everyone in the class, ensuring everyone is thinking, focusing their attention and providing everyone with opportunities to practise explaining ideas verbally, developing their communication skills, hearing themselves think and so on. You could run a room all day with these core techniques (at least in terms of questioning and checking for understanding).

Individuality: Even though every tennis player uses the same core techniques, they are all individuals – many have very clear on-court personalities and distinctive styles of play. In the same way, teachers are all at liberty to express themselves and, from what I see, they always do. Techniques don’t inhibit – they liberate. With strong techniques to rely on and strong core habits, you have the confidence to drive the learning process forward, to be creative and bring your character to the fore, supporting every child to learn whilst being yourself.

Responsiveness: A key aspect to the analogy is that tennis players have to respond continually to what their playing partner does (I’ve avoided opponent in this context!) . You have your techniques sorted but then you have to respond to what happens on the court – in every point and over the course of the match. You need contingency plans.. if that happens, then these are my options. Part of the training is to develop a good repertoire of responses; you don’t set out to busk it on the day, even though very often you have to!

The same is true of teaching. You don’t go into the classroom and bang out a ready made routine… you have to respond in the moment to how your students respond. Instructional teaching is highly interactive and responsive.. what you do next depends on how well the last bit went.. so you need feedback coming back to you about how well things are going across the class; then in turn helps you can make the best next-steps decision. This is the essence of real-time formative assessment. (It’s obviously more complicated in teaching… but the analogy holds).

The training sequence: You don’t get good at tennis simply by playing endless matches. You need to break down the process into practisable elements that you run training routines around. You might do a lot of serves, a lot of repeated backhands.. over and over.. during a practice session. Then you weave it all together in match situations. Even then your main focus might be on one particular stroke, while you are also using a range of others. That’s the same for developing teaching techniques. It makes perfect sense to focus on say Cold Calling – to make the steps more effective with more embedded routines and better default habits – even while you use many other techniques. It can be the focus but it’s never the only thing you do.

The coaching context: Finally, there are some parallels with coaching a tennis player and coaching a teacher. Depending on the skills, confidence and experience of the player, you flex your approach. You are always mindful of the fact that as coach you personally will never hit a ball – it’s always the player. They are going to make all the decisions on the court so they can’t rely on you telling them what to do – you need to build their capacity to make the best calls. A tennis player has to internalise any feedback their receive to form a mental model of what they’re trying to achieve and develop that into the mental and physical actions needed to drive towards those goals. The player’s psychology, motivation and sense of self is a big factor. Within the analogy is also important to get the weighting of the importance of external feedback right. A tennis player will get feedback form the match about how well they are playing – but they can also benefit from insights from a courtside coach who can see thing they can’t and can offer alternative perspectives.

All this plays out with teacher coaching too. See my latest post on this;

Obviously analogies have limits but I’ve found this useful. We don’t just dip into one technique after another. We don’t do CPD on one thing and then assume everyone can do it or that it’s beneath people to refer back to it repeatedly. We build a repertoire of core techniques that people work on continually. Some need to focus on one or other specific technique whilst others are at a point where it’s the combination and sequence that is more of the focus- the decison-making is all important and changes from class to class, just as a tennis player will vary things depending on who they’re playing with. .

Game, set and match.

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