Teaching students how to learn independently

Warning: This post contains golf stories from the author.

Six months into golf, I was hitting a lot of shots into the water, and every time I played a hole with lots of water, the fear would interfere with my swing. And I would hit the ball so it went into the water, not deliberately. Or so I thought.

So I decided I would spend the entire summer playing only at courses where there was water on almost every hole. The goal repeated itself each time I faced the water hazards: “Don’t hit to the water.”

It took many dozens of lost balls before I realized that the thought I was thinking before starting my swing started with defeat. The presence of the word ‘water’ was orienting my body toward the hazard.

Many golf courses place water hazards to challenge golfers. Here is me on a Sunday.

As soon as I realized this, I decided to change my thinking.

I focused my pre-shot thought to think only of the distance and the club choice that it would take to play each stroke. And just before the takeaway that started each swing, I thought only the word, ‘swing.’

It worked. I broke 85 that summer.

Why am I talking about golf on a blog about learning how to learn?

Reason number 1: Because I transferred that strategy to facilitating learning.

What I learned as I lost my fear of water hazards is that it is possible to quiet a learner’s mind of negative triggers and create the thinking essential for the alternative behavior.

It sounds like common sense! With all the brain research out there, we know this stuff. But as Jim Kwik says, “Common sense does not always translate to common practice.”

How did golf help me facilitate better learning?

First, I taught people (children, adults) that the brain is built with ideas that we learn from when we were zero to seven years old. By the time we are seven, we’ve developed some cognitive constructs that serve as portals for our default thinking. And, if we somehow learned to think in negative ways, say about reading or mathematics, we spend our time looking for signs in the world that our negative constructs are true. And we end up sabotaging ourselves before we even start trying. And the next things we would dialog on were the things we might do to transform our thinking, so that we can trigger more confident thoughts.

It led to the second golf story.

Reason number 2: Visualization helps learners

When I took the test to get a golfer card, one of the practical items on the test was to hit a 150-yard shot around a large tree and get on the green. I practiced this shot thousands of times over the course of a two-year preparation (after school and on weekends) prior to taking the test. And for those two years, I spent the pre-shot routine imagining the shot from behind the ball, before I stepped up to make the swing. And for the better part of two years, I had something like a 0.06 percent success rate. But what happened in the 20th month was that I was playing a round in a course that had entire forests on each hole (and more chances of authentic practice) and sure enough the drive landed behind a tree about 145 yards from the green.

And I followed that pre-shot routine I had grooved into my brain for the past 20 months.

And I watched as the ball curved around the tree in a draw, and landed on the green, rolling a nice, makeable 4 feet from the cup. Birdie. (Which, to non-golfers, is a really nice score.)

After that day, I believed in the power of visualization in the learning process.

What I taught the kids was that the brain does not distinguish between a real memory and a memorable thought. The memorable thought pattern that we rehearse lights up the same neurons as the real memory would. So if we want to condition our brains for a successful outcome, we can train that thought by repeatedly visualizing that successful outcome.

When the successful outcome finally happens for real, we receive such a great splash of positive neurotransmitter feedback that it further cements that positive vision in our brains.

Which brings us to the third golf story.

Reason number 3: Using feedback to feedforward for targeted practice.

Shortly after the test of curve-the-ball-around-a-tree, my coach left Bangkok to pioneer the recruitment of golfers in Russia. So I was without a coach and was on a personal mission to break 80 that year. I had to keep practicing, but without feedback from another person who knew my swing like his own.

I didn’t want to get another coach; I had tried a couple but they were just not the same as my golf teacher. So I decided to create a feedback loop for myself. The feedback loop started while playing a round of golf. I would note the following down on the score card for each hole:

  • Did I hit the fairway for par 4s and par 5 holes?
  • Did I hit the green on the approach?
  • How many putts before I finished the hole?
  • What ‘trouble’ did I meet (sand bunker, water hazard)?
Score card with data notes.

The data I collected from each round of golf gave me information that would feedforward (there’s that word!) into the practice sessions that week. I only had an hour after work to practice. Weekends were for play. So I had to make five hours of practice the most efficient they could be, the most useful for improvement. You could say, as a teacher, that it was targeted practice.

What the data told me:

If I did not hit a lot of fairways on the drive, it meant something was wonky about my drive swing. Hitting fairways meant landing on short grass, so the next shot is easier. Landing on non-fairway like long grass, weeds, tree roots, mud, flower beds etc meant sacrificing the score.

If I did not hit enough greens, it meant the shots with irons, a type of golf club that is flat on the hitting end, were not quite right. The ‘approach’ means the shot that lands on the green, the surface where the flag and hole is located. A good approach means you make it there, as close to the hole as possible. Missing the green meant trouble (could be water, sand, long grass, weeds, and missed shots).

The number of putts told me whether I made the minimum (1) or the maximum goal (2) before the ball went into the hole. The wonkier the putting, the more putts it takes to hole the ball. (This is a bad thing. Golf is not bowling.)

Finally, the data about trouble meant I could track which problem-solving situations had defeated my golf skills that round.

Third step in the feedback loop was to input the round’s statistics into a spreadsheet and then tell myself what to practice that week, to target the trouble areas.

Spreadsheet with data and targeted practice notes.

Fourth step was the actual targeted practice.

  • If driving was poor, I made time to practice with the driver.
  • If iron play was poor, I made time to work on that.
  • If putting was a nightmare, I spend at least an hour on the putting green.
  • If I got into sand a few times and had trouble getting out, I would spend time hitting out of the practice bunker at the club.

So I taught the golf team how to create this feedback loop for their own skills, and for those three years I coached golf in a team with kids from 11 to 18 years old, our team (Phoenix! Rah!) won the league championship year after year after year so much so that the other coaches asked me “What do you breed golfers at your school?”

Nah, we just teach them how to teach themselves when we’re not around.

What I learned from my hobby is that so much is possible when people learn how to learn.

Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://learnertoolbox.com.

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