How Hard Work Pays Off in Learning: Insights from John Calipari’s Philosophy of Education

I’ve got a new piece up at Ethos: A Digitial Review of Arts, Humanities, & Public Ethics  that I think might be of interest to Rule Number One readers. As an educator I was intrigued with the way University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari teaches his players to learn how to learn on the court, so I wrote a bit about how we as educators (whether it’s as librarians or full-time classroom lecturers) can apply these lessons in our teaching.


John Calipari: Source

Here’s a couple key excerpts:

Calipari makes th[e] point in relation to basketball, writing “you can improve individual skills if you’re willing to spend time. It’s almost guaranteed … “If you’ve got talent inside you, it’s fully within you power to nurture it. Almost every kid I bring in has NBA-caliber athleticism. More than anything, that’s what I try to get across to them: You control your own destiny. It’s up to you.” This point about our destinies, the deeply existential notion that “[t]alent is not the determining thing; grit is,” (or, as Sartre might have put it, you are your choices) struck me … as a deeply profound and hopeful fact about human existence. There’s no real master secret to success; it just takes a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of grindin’.

This fact of the court applies equally to the classroom. According to educational psychologist Daniel Willingham, “as far as anyone knows, the only way to develop mental facility is to repeat the target process again and again and again.” It’s not sexy; it’s just what actually seems to work. If you practice something, you’ll get better at it. Interestingly, a recent Hoop Magazine story on Lebron James—widely considered to be the greatest athlete not just the NBA but in all of sports —notes that it’s Lebron’s work ethic, not his physical gifts, that make him truly special. A survey of NBA players and commentators bears out this point consistently. For example, Brian Windhorst states,

“He has tremendous physical gifts. He was already an elite specimen and could have been very successful and wealthy on just those gifts. He made an early decision to take what he had and work very, very hard …he kept working on his skills and his body to take that immense talent and become the greatest at his craft. That’s what sets him apart because he combines his skills and talent with his work ethic to become an elite player in every way.”

[…] Seen in this light, Lebron’s Nike slogan “earned not given” becomes a robust statement of educational philosophy rather than simply another meaningless sports cliché. We’ve been taught, to borrow another Nike slogan, to want to “be like Mike”, yet, many students, myself included, fail to understand that being like Michael Jordan doesn’t just mean flying through the air or hitting game winning shots, it means loving the grind like a champion (Imagine how good you’d be at math if you practiced it four hours a day). We need to want not just the gold star, but also the work that it takes to get it.

I suspect that I may not be the only student to have entered a classroom with a fixed mindset and consider myself lucky to have gained some knowledge I’ve used to correct that. More troubling, though, is my suspicion that I’m not the only person who’s ever been a teacher entering the classroom with a fixed-mindset about student learning. I recall, for example, when taking piano lessons later in life, telling my teacher that I felt like I wasn’t very good at keeping time, and her saying “Oh, that’s probably something someone told you when you were young and you believed it. You work hard at it and you do great.” She was right. How many times over the years did I encourage a similar mindset in my own students? How many students told me they just didn’t “get” philosophy and I kind of maybe just believed them?  (“Oh, that’s okay, philosophy just makes sense to me, but I could never be good at engineering like you are!”). Very rarely did I explicitly make an effort with students who were struggling to encourage them that it was hard work and deliberate practice, more than “being smart,” that would help them succeed.

Making these facts about how to learn explicit to our students (as, perhaps, a consistent meta-narrative of our classrooms) is something educators must begin to do in order to help students, including college students, succeed …

You can read the rest of the post over at Ethos Review.


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Filed under Education, Library Instruction, On Being Human, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

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