Fencing & the ‘new school’

This summer, I heard Marvin Minsky speak during Gary Stager’s conference, Constructing Modern Knowledge. (If you’d like to go this year in July to CMK, check out the guest list and register.)

Among the things that Minksy spoke about was an effort he made several years ago to teach/program a computer and robot to play a piano.  In order to get the digital pianist to play one piece, Minsky decided he needed to know how to play it himself.  There was, as he explained it, one soft note in the middle of a group of loud ones, and I could not strike the key at just the right pressure to make the note sound as it did. So Minsky called around, and finally found, in Australia, a professional pianist who had played this particular piece in concert.  Minksy explained his difficulty by phone, and the pianist thought for a long time.

“I remember this piece,” said the pianist.  “The note is rather tricky. You have to push your finger down in such a way that you’re striking at the key as if it were a half-inch or so deeper into the piano keyboard, and then pull back from that note. Then your finger will strike the actual key with the right pressure and get the right softness.”  Minksy was able to play the piece correctly after practicing this trick a few times.

A few years ago, I went out to Colorado Springs, CO, to attend the US Fencing Association’s Coaching College.  I wanted to get my level 1 certification as a fencing coach.

Among the things that I learned there was the riposte from parry-3.  The riposte from a parry-3 is tricky if you move your elbow at all, but it lands perfectly on your opponent’s shoulder if you work the counterattack from the wrist or even better from the fingers.  I teach this to my students; we drill exactly this action, and only this action, during practices.

Yesterday, during our first fencing match, a first-year fencer landed two of these perfectly, and won three of her matches, based on this and countless other drills.

A colleague of mine used to coach varsity football.  Now he’s a school administrator, and he does a great job there.  But as a varsity football coach, they never played a game during practice, ever.  They never scrimmaged, team against team.  It was always drill, drill, drill.

A couple of years ago, one of his former players was touring a college.  On the tour, he met the college football coach — it wasn’t a top-line, Division I school, I don’t think, or someplace where football is the be-all/end-all or the raison d’etre — but the coach asked my colleague’s former student to do a three-point stance.  The kid dropped into position opposite the coach, as the coach did the same.

And the coach said, “that’s the best three-point stance I’ve seen in a decade from a high school kid.  If you get in here, you’re on the varsity squad.”  The student’s grades got him into the college, but the kid’s constant practice of the forms and attitudes of football put him on the team his freshman year.  He wasn’t the biggest player, he wasn’t the best, and he didn’t play much his first year. But dedication to form, to drill, to specific and intentional practice, made all the difference to him.

Policy-makers can get all mumbo-jumbo about 21st century skills, and creativity, and collaboration, and the rest.  They can flog us till we’re more whipped than dead horses.  We teachers can argue for more computers, and more technology, and when can the kids use cellphones in school, puleeze? And the budgets will never increase at all, nor will the budget priorities likely change.

But there’s a vast range of kids out there who need this kind of focused, specific drill, and this kind of very particular training.  This is how you do a riposte in 3.  This is a 3-point stance in football.  This is how you do a jump shot.  This is a sentence with a participial phrase.  Write a sentence that begins with the words, “in front of the house”.

We teachers (and administrators) have to be conscious — and we have to persuade policy-makers, politicians, and parents [and colleagues] of this as well — that specific kinds of focused drill and practice have their place.  Not “drill-and-kill”, as the most vehement would have it, certainly.

But we certainly need to help students build up a repertoire of 3-point stances, ripostes from parry-3, and soft notes in the middle of loud ones.  Skill, and talent, and knowledge, is built out of accumulating such storehouses of data, and integrating them into our physical being.

Your school could have the finest chemistry laboratory in the world, and $31,944 worth of glassware and materials.  But if you ask me to be your school’s chemistry teacher, well… “Class, this is chemistry 101. Get out your books, read chapter 1, and do questions 1-5 at the end.”  My students at the end of the year will know all about chemistry.  But they won’t be chemists, any more than they’ll be football players if I coach them.

If you want a fencer, though, let me have your kid for a few seasons.  I have drills that will make that kid come alive.

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  1. I think that some people, including some of my (wonderful, good-hearted and more-capable-than-me) colleagues DO believe that “practice and drill” are the opposite side of “21st century skills”, particularly those who don’t use computers in class and are told (usually with gently-disguised vehemence) that they must.

    We have to consider, and make explicit, that when another educator talks about 21st century skills, we’re not talking about dropping practice from the agenda. We’re including skill-specific practice within a larger whole, and we’re seeking better designed lessons that open a wider range of skills to practice.

    So I don’t think we’re on opposite sides here, though maybe my initial blog came across that way.

    That said, I think it’s important to recognize that you could have a very expensive laboratory set-up in your chemistry lab, or a Steinway piano in your auditorium, or a storeroom full of fencing equipment next to your locker room in the gym. But without the personnel with the knowledge and experience to translate that equipment into student ability, it’s kind of pointless to have it.

  2. > policy-makers can get all mumbo-jumbo about 21st century skills…

    You write as though the domains of ‘practice’ and ’21st century skills’ are diametrically opposed. But this is not the case at all.

    Nobody I know believes that you simply learn from exposure, and not from the sort of focused effort you describe in your examples. People learn by training their mind, just as they do by exercising their muscles. That’s how connections are created: very rarely from single instances, and more commonly from repeated experiences.

    The difference between 21st century learning and what preceeds it has to do more with (a) the content of that learning, and (b) the construction of practice exercises.

    With respect to content, we know that simply drilling in grammar, mathematics, and (perhaps) geography will leave a student woefully unprepared for contemporary society. A much wider range of skills is required, ranging from information literacy, multimedia production, and managing complex phenomena.

    With respect to construction, while it is tempting to focus on *simple* and well-defined practise sessions, as you describe in your post, and while sometimes these may even be useful, it is more educationally efficacious to engage in complex and varied practice sessions, in order to learn *multiple* skills or concepts in a single activity, and to experience these from various perspectives.

    Drilling a single riposte over and over , or drilling a three-point stance over and over, will produce a very good riposte or three-point stance, but will not (despite the misleading examples provided) produce effective fencers or football players. Practice is specific skills helps, but any athlete knows that the best practice is real-game experience. Because you need to learn the various nuances of the game that can’t be described and that will never ever form part of a practice regimen.

    21st century literacies focus on the much greater range of competencies required in a dynamic and complex environment, and the complex and dynamic educational methodology required to learn anything more complex than simply defined skills. That doesn’t mean the skills are useless. But it does mean that it would be a horrible mistake to assume that training in just those skills can substitute for a real 21st century education.

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