What we can learn from John Wooden IV
Date: October 17, 2013
I based the previous two blog posts on a 1974 study by Professors Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp published in Psychology Today in 1976. In 2004 they re-visited the research and re-evaluated the data, resulting in the following study (as always, I recommend reading it for yourself--it's not long).
They note that, "much of the earlier study was verified. But much can be modified, enriched, and corrected." Evaluating their earlier study, they state that their coding of the various teaching acts was formed by the prevailing "'objectivity' Zeitgeist of the 1970s." They also said that they didn't have the nerve to ask Wooden for an interview at the time. In the intervening years, however, they were able to interview Wooden and others, filling out the picture with more information.
There's much of interest in the article and I'll speak of Wooden's (extraordinary) preparation in the next post. But for today, let's look at what was characterized as the ratio of positive to negative reinforcements, "total positive social reinforcements, verbals and non-verbals, constitute less than 7% of total acts. But scolds add up to 15.6% . . . Wooden scolds more than twice as much as he rewards."
As Gallimore and Tharp say in the 2004 study, "In 1974-75, teacher-praise was a major topic of classroom research . . . Thus we were surprised that Coach Wooden so seldom praised or reproved his players. This was at odds with the view held by many in the early '70s that the effective teacher signals, by praise and reproof, what student behaviors do and do not match expectations."
In a 2002 interview with Wooden, they told him that, "the thing we were most struck about was that you didn't do either of those things [reproofs or praise] so much. Most the things you said were just plain information about how to play basketball. I think we calculated that 75% of everything you said was information about the proper way to . . . do something in a particular context." To which Wooden replied, "I believe that is the positive approach. I believe in the positive approach. I always have."
Then Gallimore and Tharp say, "The positive approach in Coach's practice was to focus players' attention on specific, fine points of how to properly play basketball."
They quote Swen Nater (a former UCLA player, who'll reappear soon in the blog series because of the fantastic book about Wooden's teaching co-authored with Ronald Gallimore) about this kind of positive approach:
I think this is significant, but something that needs more thought (from me, at least!) in terms of how to apply in a choral context.
With a basketball team there are a limited number of players--Wooden carried 12 with 7 that were in the primary rotation and therefore received the vast majority of the playing time in games. This means that much of the instruction can be individual. With a choir of (in my case for my undergraduate choir at UNT) 55 singers, that's much more difficult. I strive to make much of what I say "information dense" so that I do impart information, not just (as Nater noted), "an evaluation, not a solution." But this still isn't easy.
I'd be very interested in hearing what approaches you've used in this regard. As I've mentioned before, my frequent use of quartet seating forces (although forced is a funny word here--most singers love to be in quartets) the singers to be much more independent. I also realize I haven't had my singers do nearly as much individual singing in the rehearsal (or a quartet) this year as last. I need to re-evaluate that as my rehearsals go forward.
Certainly, however, we can all work harder as conductors to make sure that we don't just, as Nater says, give an "evaluation, not a solution." We have to think much more carefully about how we can teach our choir to sing better, to sing more musically, to read better, to sing better in tune, to sing with a better sense of ensemble, to be expressive. Only in doing that can our choirs reach their potential. But more importantly, only in this way can our individual singers gain the skills that will serve them well in their musical lives beyond the time they sing with us.
And a postscript: Ron Gallimore once again responded, having sent the earlier post to Swen Nater, referenced above:
"Here's what Swen had to say about this statement in your blog:
It is clear to the players that Wooden is truly concerned about them. He takes a group of young men, many with superstar potential, and convinces them that they can best serve their self-interest by subordinating personal pride to team effort. Fairness, almost an obsession in his autobiography, has unquestionably helped players accept Wooden's decisions they did not like.
Many thanks to Ron Gallimore, Ronald Tharp, and Swen Nater for taking the time to add to this discussion!