April 8th, 2013 by Dan Meyer
SAL KHAN: You’re in tenth grade Algebra class. The teacher asks the student to do like six problems. “Oh my god.” They’re groaning. “This is the meanest guy on the planet.” And then three hours later we’re in wrestling practice and the coach says, “I want you to do fifty pushups followed by running three miles followed by another fifty pushups.” And they’re like, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Push me harder. I want to collapse.” I mean, literally, sometimes people would collapse, they were willing to work so hard.
CHARLIE ROSE: So what’s the difference?
It goes without saying that if you’re Sal Khan or anybody else in the drill-based math proficiency software business, you should give Charlie Rose’s question a lot of thought. Kids generally like sports practice a lot more than math practice so there’s huge risk and huge reward here.
I don’t think Khan’s answer is wrong exactly but it’s as though Charlie Rose asked him about the appeal of ice cream on a hot summer day and Khan enthused for a few minutes about the taste of the sugar cone. Sugar cones are tasty but there’s a lot more to say there.
So let me load the question up on a tee and invite you all to swing away:
What makes sports practice satisfying and how is sports practice different from math practice?
In short: Do quadratics for 3 hours a day and you are a nerd with no life. Hit batting practice for 3 hours a day and get the girl and go to the party on the weekend.
Sports practice leads to an actual game – a chance for the results of that hard work to be put to use. And that game will probably happen next week. The payoff for school math is far enough off – years – for most students to be forever. See what happens if you have a wrestler doing just pushups for 5 or 10 years without using it.
Speaking as a track coach / math teacher, I really think the biggest difference is that the kids signed up for it in sports. they knew what they were getting into, and if they want to quit, they are totally able to do so. Ask gym teachers if they have 100% participation in their classes.
A lot of us grow up watching sports with our friends and families. Not a lot of us grow up talking and doing math. For better or worse, sports holds a significant place in our culture.
Immediate and clear feedback. I can make that fade away basket now because I tried it 50 times from the same spot and have hit the last 10 in a row.
Sports — The practice gets put to use, and there is a real payoff or outcome to work toward.
First, there are plenty of kids who feel the inverse (love math practice, hate sports practice). Why do we not think that’s true? Math is required, sports are not.
Recently, in a polynomial unit, my kids had to multiply a binomial by a trinomial a few times (like three times). There was also a problem of a 7-term polynomial being multiplied by a trinomial. I told my students that this problem was “challenge by choice” but that I really wanted them to try it – because it was kind of fun in an algebra geeky sort of way. It was really my subversive way to get them to understand the distributive property and that “FOIL” isn’t the best acronym. About 90% of my students tried the hard (or tedious) problem; a bunch did it correctly and most of them came really close.
Ultimately, it’s about a sense of accomplishment – whatever the practice is for.
We try much harder in sports practice because we’re preparing for a game. In most math classrooms, there is no “game”. There’s just practice.
Hard-nosed and repetitive skills work in sports is essential and beneficial. In math, it’s a chore if you “get it” and unhelpful if you don’t.
Sorry. This sounds like a typical US American discussion to me.
I think another angle would be “growth mindset”. Students believe that they will get better at a sport with that kind of focused practice.
Try running a season’s worth of sports practice without a “scrimmage” and see what happens.
A trumpet player, actor, cellist, dancer who is improving, does so not just through repetitive button pushing or by being yelled at by a coach/math teacher. Productive practice requires intrinsic motivation, reflective ability, attention to detail and a cognitive clarity that connects often the tiniest of personal goals to prior knowledge and past experiences. Understanding results from such clarity. Also, one cannot discount the value of relevance in this equation.
People do not get “good” at something by doing it 10,000 times without caring about it, finding personal value in the activity or by making connections to something bigger than yourself.