Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Instruction Delusion

We cripple our young, possibly for life, when we tell them "You need an instructor to learn" or "You need a teacher to learn."

Learning takes place all the time in nature. Humans live in nature, even a nature that includes television, computers, iPads, iPhones, video games, etc. So humans learn all the time. A tiny portion of that learning includes explicit instruction. A tiny portion of that explicit instruction involves professional instruction. Yet, our young people today believe with all their hearts that learning takes place only with instruction, that instructors make us better at things. That's a delusion.

Three recent anecdotes from my tennis coaching life illustrate this delusion.

I still consider myself a tennis coach to some degree. That is I organize and participate in tennis practices. I encourage kids to play and to play better. I occasionally offer suggestions and offer my opinion as to how I think players should hit certain shots, position themselves, attack various opponents, and so forth. I also drive players to matches. Of all my coaching duties, only the van driving has measurable value.

However, I do not call myself a tennis teacher and I try to offer as little formal instruction as possible.

I want the kids to play the game on their own terms. I want them to take ownership of their own games. It's their hobby after all. They should play the game in a way that gives them pleasure. I want them to learn to play using the ample feedback that the game and their own bodies provide. For me to override or replace those sources of feedback with the sound of my voice seems profoundly wrong.

So I'm not your typical professional instructor.

I pointed this out recently to a kid I used to teach and he was dumbfounded. We were hitting together and he asked me for some advice about a particular shot. I told him I didn't have any advice to offer.

"Don't you teach tennis?" he asked.
"I try not to," I replied.
"But don't you teach in the groups you run?"
"I try not to," I replied again.
"Then how do kids get better?" he asked.

Then how do kids get better?

Now this kid isn't really a kid any more. He's in his early twenties. He's been fooled into thinking kids only get better at something through instruction. A lifetime of schooling and lessons and teachers has blinded him to the way people learn, the way people get better at doing things. He no longer even considers the possibility of improvement absent teaching.

He's not alone.

The word on the street is that a certain college tennis program "has so many players that nobody improves because players don't get individual attention." This statement is wrong on so many levels. The only part that's true is that the program does have a large number of players – a sign that it's good and popular, obviously. But nothing else in the statement is true. Players do improve. Players do get individual attention due to an extremely dedicated coach.

But I'm not writing about this statement to clear up a misconception about a particular college tennis program. I'm writing about it here because of what it says about the kid making the statement and about the kids perpetuating the message. They have all been fooled into thinking that in order to improve tennis players must receive individual attention. What a hideous, needless handicap.

Finally we have the case of a fifteen year old boy I know. Alex has improved tremendously in tennis over the last couple of years. He only plays a few times a week and has other interests, especially school, but he his very athletic, has good eye-hand coordination, and seems to enjoy playing.  How has he improved? Mostly by watching others and copying what they do to see if it works for him (I overheard him explain this to some kids a few weeks ago). If it works, he adopts it in his game. If not, he skips it. This is called rational trial and error and it has served humanity well for thousands of years. It serves him well, too. Unfortunately, he's continually bombarded by instructions from his parents and from the instructors they pay to instruct him. He comes from a culture that highly values rote instruction and formal schooling. Recently he's been conned into making a change by a professional instructor. "Bill changed my backhand," he told me the other day. Bill is a professional instructor. Note the phrasing, "Bill changed my backhand."

Bill changed a light bulb. Bill replaced my alternator. Bill fixed my water heater.

 Is Alex's backhand like a machine to be fixed? Inanimate? Inorganic? No. Only Alex can change his backhand. Alex has been experimenting with and changing (or not) every aspect of his game for the last couple of years. On his terms. Trial and error. Listening to the feedback from the game and from his own body. He's improved tremendously. Now he's abandoning this process and surrendering to Bill, the professional instructor. Now Bill will change one of his strokes to a form that Bill deems better. The new form may or may not be better. Time will tell. But Alex has become clay for Bill to mold. Alex is now inert, an object to be changed. He has bought into the belief that instructors cause positive change.

We know only one sure winner, or maybe two, in Bill's change of Alex's backhand. Bill. And Bill's banker.

As I said above, we are handicapping children for life by indoctrinating them with the view that all learning must come from teachers, that instruction causes learning. This is a relatively new experiment. Until the late 19th Century, schooling was not compulsory in most of the United States. Formal schooling was uncommon. Children played together and learned from each other (see Free to Learn for more). Formal instruction in hobbies was unheard of. Apprenticeships, watching and learning, were common when it came time to learn a trade, often at fairly early ages. Schooling and formal education were luxury items consumed by the rich. Now we think that schooling and education cause people to become rich. We have the causal arrow backwards. (See the book Antifragile, by Nassim Taleb for discussion of this point).

I find it ironic that this era of hyper-instruction coincides with the internet age. At no time in human history has it been so easy to learn any topic on your own. So while I'm pessimistic about the prospects of generations of people brainwashed to believe they must pay for instruction in order to learn, I am optimistic that instruction and teachers will be essentially free in the future via the internet.

Perhaps this century-long experiment with instruction, teaching, and especially schooling will end thanks to the internet and the worldwide spread of information outside of formal channels.