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Have you taught a golf “Einstein?”

by   |   November 26, 2012
Image from josh-b.com

MY BACKGROUND:

I have been active as a professional educator for approximately 14 years. In that time, I have engaged in teaching at a lot of different levels. I started out as a public school music educator in Maine, where I taught grades K-12 (including instrumental, general/classroom, and sometimes choral methods). I have also been a college instructor – lecturing at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the University of Maine at Fort Kent I was also an instructional assistant at Florida State University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A large component of my university teaching experience involves pre-teacher education (mentoring and instructing undergraduate education majors how to be teachers).

I am an admitted degree “ho,” having earned four degrees in music and professional education (including a school administrative certification), and am now earning a fifth degree; a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction; curriculum and instruction being the “what and how” of the educational sphere. A current research interest for me is how issues and considerations in public school education transfer over into golf instruction, which serves as the premise for this writing. This interest comes from a very new experience for me – becoming the golf coach for Hampden Academy in Maine while I finish my doctorate.

Please note: this article is geared mostly for those involved in golf pedagogy and instruction, including golf coaches, PGA professionals, golf educators, students and even parents. That said, I feel there is content here that may be relevant for a wide range of individual interest. Feel free to comment and I will respond to any and all questions to the best of my ability.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

MY QUESTION:

Let me begin by asking all the golf educators a simple question, “Have you ever taught an Einstein?” Maybe not a literal golfing Einstein like a Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus, but maybe a player you would put up against the best in their category, or even one who exceeds everyone else in that category. Some of you might say yes, others no. For those who answered in the affirmative, how did you qualify such a determination? Were you thinking about a particular student and the qualities he/she displayed? Did these qualities include any of the following (?):

  • That student was the best player you ever had.
  • Exhibited personal maturity above and beyond his/her peers.
  • Appeared to learn quickly/was easy or fun to instruct.
  • You liked him/her and maybe that student’s parents.
  • That student showed great enthusiasm for your instruction.
  • He/she beat everyone who played against them.

If any or all of these were your reasons for describing your student as an “Einstein,” then…you might actually be wrong. Sorry!

SOME CONTEXT:

Let me share an old rumor with you about Mr. Einstein when he was in grade school. As the rumor goes, young Albert was labeled by his teachers as only average or even a slightly below average student, was somewhat defiant, and unengaged and rather quiet (yet another rumor was that he began speaking relatively late). Hardly genius material here, many might think.

Okay, this was just a rumor, and Einstein later clarified how it came about. Despite being the most gifted mind in the room (my words) Einstein found it difficult to work within the rote instruction process that characterized education of his period. Unfortunately, it also characterizes our period as well, but I digress.

Rote learning is a concept nearly all of you know well, even if you are unfamiliar with the term itself. The short of it as it pertains to education is: everyone showing up on time, sitting in orderly rows, silently listening to the teacher, remaining constantly focused (no talking!), “open your books and do examples 1-40 till the bell, and 40-70 for homework due tomorrow” … wash/rinse/repeat. Essentially, many of the things you might have hated about school are directly related to a rote approach. This highly structured (perhaps mundane) paradigm was an old European staple and made its way to the United States as it was looking for international recognition as a valid power prior to the second World War — kind of like OEM competitors copying the technology of whichever brand is leading the industry at the time.

While I taught public school, I was approached by a number of parents to take on their children as private students instead of enrolling them in band classes; their reasons including that the mainstream music program was not appealing to the child, though musical instruction, in and of itself, was highly desirable. Kind of crazy when you come to think about it, because I was also the music educator at the school! What these parents were actually telling me is that there was something about the structure I used when teaching many children was not right when it came to teaching their child.

There was no elitist mentality coming from these parents either; they weren’t the richest, they weren’t the most highly educated, etc. They simply realized that the traditional (rote) learning structure of the school was not what their child needed, despite his/her interest in music. I submit that the same kind of thing can happen in golf instruction.

Here is an interesting fact: the most accomplished music students I have ever taught never participated in my regular school music program. There was nothing about the approach I was forced to use in school that appealed to them. Of the students I am thinking of, one had her own solo recording career by age 14, and the other was a former Miss Maine, having competed in the Miss USA pageant. A number of other students went on to have successful (though minor) careers in New York and Nashville.

To further elaborate on this idea, nearly all of those private students had issues in school. They ranged from fighting with classmates, disrespecting teachers and other adults, truancy and below average academic performance. When they came to me for after school lessons, however, I rarely saw any of this. They were focused, almost always on time, and were upbeat and conversant; in stark contrast to how their other teachers described them. I am not taking credit for this change, rather I am pointing out that these students were ALWAYS that pleasant – it was the structure forced upon them that promoted the negative behavior and lack of motivation … most of the time. They were “diamonds in the rough,” or “Einstein’s in disguise,” if you will.

*2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson has a unique learning style — he’s never taken a lesson.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

FIRST HALF SUMMARY – YOU HAVE REACHED THE MID-WAY POINT!

Here is the thing: the best minds and talents in golf, music or any other endeavor think and perform differently from their peers as a matter of course. It is logical to conclude that they might learn differently as well. Why then, do most instructors use one general methodology to teach ALL students? If you want a “different” result (discovering those rare talents who might simply be hidden behind a “misfit” image, like in the Einstein example), you can’t keep on with the status quo, expecting that different result to magically manifest.

Whew! That is a lot, right? This is where we bring it back to golf instruction…

AT THE TURN – HOW TO THINK DIFFERENTLY:

Here are some thoughts for the golf coaches and educators to consider based on the experiences I just shared:

Be prepared for the “best and brightest” to not always look the part

I see it all the time. “We” like teaching the students who are the easiest to teach and who are the most fun to be around – subconsciously recognizing them as being most consistent with our own personal standards. This doesn’t make you a bad person; it is just human nature to enjoy the company of, and interactions with, those who we view to be most like ourselves. However, it may make you a better golf educator to realize that the students you feel yourself naturally gravitating toward (while worthy of your time as well), may or may not have the most potential in the game of golf, apart from being no more worthy of your attention than any other student. Don’t be one of the teachers who fall easily into this trap.

We must never look for the “easy button” when it comes to teaching others, especially the young ones. Look for the best qualities every member of the group displays and take time to get to know every student in your charge personally, as appropriate. Sometimes (many times) all that it takes for a student to come out of their shell and step up their performance is for someone important to take an interest in them. Further, if there is one student who is not fitting in with the rest of your students (like on a golf team or junior practice), what might change that is you showing the group that you “accept” him/her by showing equal interest. The group followers the leader, which is you. Set the best possible example.

You won’t always find who you are looking for. Rare talent is … rare!

I want you all to know that I am NOT saying that every “ugly duck” will turn into a swan (or Einstein golfer) with a little love and attention. I am also NOT saying that every underperforming or unmotivated student is a victim of an educational structure or mismatched instructional model. Sometimes children just act like punks, even older ones – I just think these children represent a minority viewpoint. A good teacher learns to take the good with the bad and keep offering opportunities despite a lukewarm reception or occasional middle finger. Regret is an awful thing, and anyone who has been teaching for any period of time can look back on at least one situation and say,

“Man, I wish I had done more for that kid.”

We don’t mean for things to turn out poorly, but sometimes it’s hard to keep working with a kid who never responds to what we are saying, or wants to think they know better than us, or may just appear to “not get it.” Our frustration comes from the subconscious notion that this is a reflection on us, when it may not actually be so.

The best instructors will keep trying, ask for help, research solutions, talk with parents, talk with the student, talk to your deity of choice; whatever it takes to get through to a kid. Poor behavior reflects on the student, but a lack of effort just because things are tougher than we would like reflects on you. Strive to have a teaching career with as few regrets as possible – they get worse with time, trust me. Even if you don’t find that one super student that comes around once a career, you will help a lot of others who might not have otherwise had the same attention.

It may be beneficial to reevaluate the instructional models you teach with

Some students DO actually need the rote learning approach; it isn’t totally irrelevant. In golf, there has to be a degree of repetition as a matter of course, and that isn’t likely to change soon. I just want to clarify that this repetition should focus on the performance of the golf swing, and not as much as it pertains to a golf educator’s analytical teaching presentations.

That said, there are a number of recent studies that show growing numbers of students are better served with mixed approaches as pertains to instruction. The good news is, early research is showing that greater numbers of students are displaying tactile learning preferences – those that learn from a more hands-on approach and by “doing.” This makes a bit of sense, if you consider all of the handheld “gadgets” children are using these days (iPods, phones, tablets, Xbox, etc.). All of these promote tactile expectations from learners, and to a lesser degree, visual ones. It is certainly good news for us, because golf itself is a tactile endeavor requiring implements (clubs), and greater numbers of students appreciating this quality of our sport is a very good thing, as it can be used as a selling point to bring more to the game.

What does this mean specifically for instructors? It means that you should be prepared to vary your methods and move away from lecturing students as a core, teacher-centered approach. Yes, there needs to be a certain amount of information conveyed verbally during lessons, but you should be willing to keep this to as bare a minimum as a given student needs, especially in-group lessons, junior golf practices and golf team practices. This is hard to do, because the measure of a “good” teacher has traditionally been judged by the accuracy and depth of their content knowledge, often expressed verbally. It is hard for those of us who have been trained in traditional methods to move away from a teacher-centered model (“Do what I say”) to a student-centered model (“What do you need?”).

Private lessons don’t mitigate the effects of rote instruction

Again, rote instruction is not inherently bad (for our purposes), but not knowing the appropriate time to use such an approach will cause problems for newer generations who learn in increasingly diverse ways.

Are your lessons simply “smaller” classroom situations? As a golf educator, do you spell out every aspect of a lesson and nothing happens without you prompting it? Do you tell a student to put in “X” number of hours of practice per week or to make specific changes to his/her gear specs?

-Or-

Do you ask a student what you both should work on that day, or ask what they are feeling when their swing reaches a certain point, present a couple different options to correct an error and let them choose or ask them which kind of swing “model” appeals the most to them?

The former example is closer to the rote approach, and the latter is more student-centered. Either approach can be used one-on-one, but will only work well for certain groups of students. If you are sincerely interested in addressing the needs of all of your students (and yes, even discover a hidden Einstein golfer), you must be able to identify which model is going to work for a given student, and have the pedagogical skill to switch modes as needed.

The really hard part comes when you are teaching groups of students and need to change modes constantly. This is called differentiating instruction, and is a concept that many public and private schools are having difficulty implementing, but is a hurdle you have to overcome in your own teaching studio/school if you want to avoid the inconsistent results that currently plague our school systems.

The easy part in all of this is that it can be fairly easy to identify which mode of instruction might work best for a student. In most cases, you simply have to ask. Think about it: you probably have already said to yourself, “Yep that’s how I learn best” after I listed some of the differences in approach. Older students will identify with a certain approach if you describe some of the ideas and differences I described above. I have also found that speaking with parents can identify the preferences of younger students – no one knows their child better, after all.

To close, I want remind you that this writing is intended primarily as a self-reflection piece for golf educators, though I feel the content is also relevant for golf students, and/or parents of students. I write from the perspective of someone who has realized that there is a LOT of hidden talent out there in any field that goes unrecognized because it doesn’t fit into the “bins” that are created by schools and instructors in an effort to teach to the middle (or majority). None of what I am suggesting is easy, especially if you have grooved a particular teaching approach.

I suggest a good starting point might be taking advantage of local resources: asking around at local universities or public schools about conferences including specific educational content. Also, use your local library (and reference librarian!) to gain access to research articles addressing the subjects I mentioned. Those of you who are PGA Professionals might look for opportunities for professional development through your organization that deal with instructional delivery.

If you have any further questions regarding the content of this writing, please leave your comments below – I will be happy to discuss!

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

About

I am a professional musician, educator and researcher, in addition to being a golf coach for Hampden Academy in Maine. Currently, I am pursuing a Ph.D., in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My past academic achievements include a Bachelor's degree (in music performance) from the University of Maine, a Master's degree (in jazz performance) from Florida State University, a second Master's degree (in education) from the University of Maine, and K-12 teacher and school administrator certifications in Maine.

My current research interests include overlapping content points between music and golf, as well as studying/comparing/contrasting how people learn in both endeavors.

I have worked in education for 12 years, including public school education and university instruction. I have taught in the Maine public school system, and at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Florida State University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

My main area of musical endeavor is drumset performance with an emphasis in jazz, where I have performed with Chuck Winfield (of Blood Sweat and Tears), Dr. Billy Taylor (of the Kennedy Center), Yusef Lateef (jazz legend), and numerous local and regional groups in the New England area.


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