What a Basketball Coach Taught a College Professor About Teaching

Hello FLMS staff and families,

Below is an abbreviated article about the connection between coaching and teaching. I hope you enjoy it.

Dave Patota


Freetown-Lakeville Middle School


What a Basketball Coach Taught a College Professor About Teaching

In this Chronicle of Higher Education article, Craig Owens (Drake University) says he wasn’t into team sports growing up and didn’t worry very much about this gap in his skill set. But then two of his students invited him to be an “honorary coach” at one of their women’s varsity basketball games. “Luckily for the team and the fans, no actual coaching was involved,” says Owens, but what he saw as the coach prepared his team for the game opened his eyes. “I witnessed questions and answers, discussion and debate, part Socratic dialogue, part collaborative problem solving,” he says. “The players identified tactics their opponents would probably rely on, linking their predictions to precise moments of video they had examined. They discussed scenarios they might encounter, asked questions, and offered one another advice on how to capitalize on their own strengths and the visitors’ weaknesses. They were engaged in what we professors might call problem-based learning, working together to solve a problem to which they were deeply committed: How do we win this game?”

Owens compared this dynamic to his own English classes, where students almost always direct their comments to him, “relying on me to validate, synthesize, and articulate them in tidy explanations to be transcribed into their notebooks and reproduced on exams and essays. I have often felt myself to be the center of their attention, sensing that it’s my job to demonstrate knowing and thinking, and to dispense wisdom while they observe and record. In doing so, I offer my students the impression that the best understanding is one that reflects what others, wiser and more experienced, already know… They aren’t investigating open, urgent questions essential to their understanding of our material.”

Owens traces this familiar dynamic back to his own days as a student, when participation in class was “a chance to shine, not an opportunity to share and collaborate, to learn from and to teach my classmates, and to fail openly in the hopes of improving… How much better at this work might I be now if, at some point in my young life, I had been urged to think of my successes as the fruits of a culture in which others must also succeed?”

He was so struck by what he saw that he started a “Coaching in the Classroom” program and persuaded professors of chemistry, biology, anthropology, statistics, education, advertising, and theater to observe and talk with coaches of basketball, football, soccer, and golf to see what could cross over into academic classes and labs. One insight from a football coach was that at the beginning of every season, players are taught “the system,” which involves coaching and guiding one another and exercising individual and collective leadership. This, says Owens, “named the very thing I had often neglected to do in my classes. What, I asked myself, is the system of reading and interpretation according to which I expect my students to engage with Shakespeare’s work? What are the moves, the routines, the preliminary habits of mind and practices necessary for making some sense of 400-year-old texts?”

As soon as he explained “the system” in his Shakespeare class, students “started responding directly to one another, asking questions and following lines of thought suggested by their classmates’ insights. They sensed that they had found a way into the text that gave them something to hold onto, some agency over the task at hand, and they took part enthusiastically and with genuine intellectual curiosity.”


“Bringing the Locker Room Into the Classroom” by Craig Owens in The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 1, 2014 (Vol. LV, #30, p. A64),; Owens can be reached at


Marshall Memo 532 April 14, 2014