“Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow” or as Geoffrey Chaucer (1374) wrote “"as an ook cometh of a litel spyr" [a spyr, or spire, is a sapling]”. In short, before an oak was mighty it was lots of other things, including very vulnerable.
Models-based practice – with a loud, plural S – is just the same. It has the potential for many futures but, like the oak, needs a firm dose of Mother Nature’s luck. Growing up is not an easy thing and nor is growing a models-based practice approach but it is hugely rewarding (at least in my opinion). One of the keys is to take the time to see what you have achieved. To look around and find ways to consolidate and move forwards. In the words of Ferris Bueller, “life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Vicky Goodyear and I coined the term “the honeymoon period of pedagogical renovation”. By this we meant that when you first start with a new model or seek to renovate your pedagogy everything is euphoric. You’re excited and apprehensive. The kids are excited and apprehensive too and everything seems to be starting well. Units are planned, lessons are planned and this is, no questions asked, going to be the best thing you’ve done for years.
And it is.
But then it isn’t
I remember my first unit of models-base practice. It was a hybrid Cooperative Learning and Tactical Games unit and the euphoria was there. It was seven weeks long and it was going to be brilliant.
But it wasn’t.
Not in the first week at least.
The kids simply didn’t get it. They couldn’t follow my best laid plans and they simply didn’t understand how to be students in this new system, let alone how to learn. This is where I came up with the idea of lesson zero. A lesson to teach the kids how to learn when I was using a new pedagogical model.
So, we did that. We started again. I taught a lesson zero and then the first lesson again. And it got better. But the honeymoon period of pedagogical renovation wasn’t pure euphoria. It was frequently challenging. I was challenged (and so were the kids). Sometime in little ways. Like not making myself clear in the worksheets they were using or forgetting to ask the questions inherent in a tactical approach and instead bulldozing my way in and giving definitive answers.
Sometimes, though, I was challenged in big – potentially MBP ending – ways.
I remember one such seminal moment. We were using a new (to me and the kids) student peer assessment sheet from Mitchell, Oslin and Griffin’s (2006) book on tactical games. The small, mixed ability groups (4-5 students) I’d picked in this hybrid model tennis unit were using the Games Performance Assessment Instrument (or GPAI) to peer assess decision making, skill execution, and base (the player’s ability to return to their base [which was designated at the centre of the baseline] after each shot).
On the surface everything looked great. I was patting myself on the back – I was on my honeymoon of pedagogical renovation after all – for a job well done when not only did the wheels fall off but the steer column snapped and the doors flew open.
‘Jack’ (let’s call him that) suddenly hurled his racquet down, said some angry words to his group, burst into tears and stormed off. His group look baffled and when I came over said that Jack had put as many ticks as he could in the ineffective box on the GPAI for the player he was accessing and then broke down and stormed off.
It turned out that Jack (a low achieving tennis player) had been accessed as inappropriate by his group every_single_time he played a shot and he wanted them to know how it felt. I felt dreadful. Had I been teaching this directly I might have noticed this before it blew up in my face. Had I used teacher assessment rather than peer-assessment then, surely, I could have helped Jack and his group. It was hard to deal with and it made me re-think my euphoria.
By changing my tactics. By insisting that the kids used shorter, age appropriate racquets and low compression, slow bounce tennis balls and by educating them about the nuances of making the right decision before executing the skills etc. etc. I pulled it around.
But the truth is that’s teaching. Isn’t it? More so with MBP because it’s new teaching and new learning. Both for the teacher and the students.
Anything new needs nurturing. Every acorn that falls on fertile ground still needs a lot of things to go right for it and over a long period of time. There were so many Jack type moments in my teaching that I lost count. There were as many during my developed of a MBP approach as there were in my solely direct instruction days. This didn’t change. What did change were the number and the nature of those wins. For every Jack moment, there were umpteen other wins. Big wins, little wins. Those moments where I needed a fist pump or “yeah” or maybe to dance a little jig. The key was noticing them.
So, as you plant your acorn, and as you enjoy the honeymoon period of pedagogical renovation, don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Stop and look around. Reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. My advice is don’t plant another acorn immediately but think about how you can nurture the one(s) you already have. What can you do better? How’s that pedagogical fluency coming along? Can you think in the language of your chosen model and react in the cultural manner of the model?
If you’re using Sport Education, for example, are the kids developing their enthusiasm, their commitment and their literacy about and around sport? Are they taking on roles other than that of performer and are they celebrating the wider ideas of sport or are they still (predominantly) just becoming better games players?
If you’re using Cooperative Learning, or Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility, or Teaching Games for Understanding are they developing as you hoped or do things still need to change. If you put knowledge and content first in your choice of a new model how’s that working out? Is it still first in your pedagogy?
If it is, then maybe you’re ready to take the next step and introduce a new model (remembering to nurture all your approaches – both old and new).
But if it isn’t then you need to continue to nurture your “litel spyr" and give it the best opportunity possible to become “an ook”.