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Back in ancient times, when I went to college, I had a roommate from a very small town who had
attended a different kind of public school. Steve always told me that it was a progressive school
structure that was designed to leave no child behind. Strangely it was called If No Child Moves Forward,
then No Child’s Left Behind. It was a strange name, but Steve swore by its results. Though he tried to
explain it to me in many ways, being a believer in differentiated instruction, he didn’t give up in trying to
find an explanation I could understand. Steve finally came up with the following example to help
understand this strange teaching structure

He told about how he learned to play basketball. In the education structure at his school, he learned
basketball skill after skill. He said students would show they had achieved minimal competency for one
skill, and then would move on to the next skill. For example, in learning to shoot free throws, he was
given a goal making 7 out of 10 free throws. Once this goal was established, Steve was shown the
techniques of shooting free throws and then he would practice them all the time. He talked about how
one of the things his teacher would require that everyone shoot 1000 free throws in class before they
took a test on it. He said it was tough to get motivated to shoot all those free throws, but he did it anyway
because it was what was expected. However, the only reason he knew the skills were important was
because he was told he was going to be tested on it, and if he failed bad things would happen. He didn’t
really understand what those bad things were, but he knew they are going to happen.

In truth, he didn’t really know the real reason a person would practice free throws. All Steve knew about
shooting free throws was that it was on some test, but he had no idea how free throws were useful in the
game. He didn’t know why they were useful because they never played a game in class. They didn’t
have time to play a game because they had to practice the skills. He didn’t really care that he didn’t get
to play a basketball game in school, because he knew that he could play the game because he knew all
the skills. With each test he passed, he was promoted to the next level to learn a new basketball skill.
Since he had passed all the tests and had continually shown AYBP (annual yearly basketball progress),
he was sure that when he played the full game of basketball he would do fine.

After listening to Steve’s story, the structure of learning in his school seemed to make sense for the most
part. It made sense to make sure that a student showed competency in a skill before moving on, but
there was something that seemed to be missing. I wasn’t sure what it was, maybe it was just me. I mean,
Steve had made it to college and seemed to be very intelligent, but still, something bothered me about
this structure. And it wasn’t until a surprisingly warm fall day that I figured out what bothered me about
the whole educational structure.

It was a warm Monday afternoon that showed me the problems with the way Steve had learned in his
school. It was one of those surprise fall days when no one wants to stay inside and study. The thought
was we all had the rest of the week to study, so why worry about it now. All I needed was a reason to
blow off studying and go outside. That reason came when someone yelled down the dorm hall, “Any one
want to go to court?” By “court” it was understood that the person was talking about playing basketball
on the outdoor courts that lay a short trip outside the dorm’s front doors. Reason supplied, I put on my
shoes and was out the door in a flash.  

When I got to the court I was surprised to see Steve also out there ready to play. I was surprised
because this was usually his study time, but he said that it was too beautiful a day to stay inside, and
playing basketball sounded like a good break. Not having seen him play ball on the courts before, I
warned him that it could get pretty intense because there were some very good players in the dorm. He
said he wasn’t worried because he had learned all the basketball skills in school. He had learned to
dribble, pass, rebound, to shoot free throws and three pointers. He said that he spent hour after hour
practicing each of these boring skills for the tests, and it would be nice to finally use them to play a
game. He didn’t seem to have any worry about playing. I wish I could say the same thing, because I was
worried for him for some reason.

It didn’t take long to realize I was right to worry about Steve. Quickly, we both realized that he had no
clue on how to play basketball. It was one thing to learn the skills, but it is a whole other thing to use
them in the game. Steve was frustrated. He couldn’t understand what was happening. He said he knew
how to dribble up and down the court, and around cones, but he didn’t know what to do to dribble
around a moving defender in front of him. Also, he could rebound the ball, because he knew the
techniques, but what about getting the rebound when the defender is a lot bigger and stronger than him.
He said that he kept thinking, “I didn’t learn the skill to do that.”
     
After a while he started to get in the flow of the game a little better, but he still wasn’t any good.
Eventually, he started realizing that he needed to take these skills he had learned and use them in a
new way, to create something new that he hadn’t ever done before. He still needed the skills, but he had
to use them creatively and apply them to new situations.

Another thing Steve realized is that basketball is a lot more fun when you understand why you need to
learn something. After his team won a game with him hitting two free throws at the end of the game, he
realized that all those hours practicing free throws would have been a lot easier had he known how they
could help win. He also realized he would have been a lot more motivated to practice had he been able
to experience how important free throws are.

It took a long time for Steve to be any good playing basketball, because he was so far behind everyone
else learning how to use what he knew. Though he had all the basic skills of the game, he had never
practiced using them to create something new to adjust what is going on in the game. Luckily, Steve
understood that using his imagination with the skills he knew was something that he had to work at to be
good. He couldn’t just automatically use his skills to create new uses, but it was something he had to
practice, and practice he did.

Like I said, it was a long time before Steve was any good at basketball. This was made more difficult
because a lot of times no one wanted to pick him to play, and he got left behind a lot. However,
whenever someone needed a player to shoot free throws, Steve was always the first one picked.
.The story below may or may not be true, but it is real.