Most people that listen to me talk about teaching are probably tired of hearing me compare it to coaching. This is part of the reason I added a comparison to conducting an orchestra to my repertoire, despite having never actually conducted for real! However, as I continue to reflect on my experiences as a coach, I realized that not only do elements of coaching connect with teaching, but the whole structure of goals for a team are natural counterparts to goals for a class. With this comparison, it becomes clear that coaching a team and teaching a class are spaces that should be about both individual learning and collective learning! And yet, in reality, the predominant model of a college course is as a collection of students that are there to learn as individuals, and we have not embraced or leveraged the concept of collective learning.

It is not surprising that the fundamental elements of learning are focused on the individual. Students are admitted to the university as individuals, and they will leave the university to compete for spots in graduate school, professional schools, and the job market as individuals as well. In the course of their studies, most classes are composed of different students, and each student has their own path through the college experience. Even in highly structured majors, students have flexibility around fulfilling their GE requirements and sometimes the exact order in which classes are taken. Even in a class with group work or group projects, each student receives their own individual grade in the course, and information on the “group grade” is not captured on each student’s formal record. 

As one considers the list of reasons for focusing on the individual in higher education, a striking difference between the examples of collective work from the arts and sports emerges. In these two fields, performances and games (which are both fundamentally collective experiences) serve as important assessments. For the class, we have no such collective measurement of excellence. Hold on to this thought, as I will come back to it!

Let’s explore some of the predominant classroom experiences—many of which I have addressed in previous posts—and see what a “team model” might suggest. First, there is the idea of “standards.” In almost every classroom structure I can think of, students are held to the exact same set of standards. For example, they get the exact same test with the same set of questions, or they get the same writing assignment with the same rubric. On the surface, this seems extremely reasonable. But underlying this system is an implicit separation of standards that has interesting side effects. For instance, a student can often earn a grade of B or C by mastering some of the course and essentially not doing anything in other parts, or they can earn these grades by not mastering anything but doing “just well enough” in everything, or they can fall somewhere across a range of variations in between!

In contrast, I would argue that sports teams, orchestras, drama productions, dance troupes, etc. all hold their members to the same level of standards, not necessarily the same set of standards. This is obvious when one considers that members of a team naturally specialize in different areas. A soccer team cannot only consist of people really good at scoring goals, as they would be unable to defend. An orchestra cannot consist of only violin players, as this would only be a violin group. At the same time, while diversity and different areas of specialization are necessary to build a strong team, one certainly expects all members of the team to possess a certain level of excellence in “soccer skills” or “musical ability” that exists as a core set of standards for the team.

Switching our conceptual framework from expecting students to adhere to the same set of standards to holding students to the same level of standards (with the option for specialization) allows for variation in the path to different grades while still ensuring that all students demonstrate a base level of mastery in regards to course topics. Imagine if the learning outcomes for a course were presented to students up front and explicitly described as: “You must receive a score of at least X in these three topics, an average score of Y across all three topics, and have one topic in which you ‘excel’ and receive a score of Z.” How would this change the dynamics of the classroom, the engagement of students, and how they perform? As you read this, educators are experimenting with this and other models of teaching, and it is exciting to think of the possibilities!

At this point, some readers might think: “But Michael, we have group work, and we ask our students to study in groups. Isn’t this thinking of them as a team?” Yes, we have definitely started to emphasize the importance of students working in diverse teams (as this is the reality in the workforce), and we are doing more of this in our classes to promote active learning. But, I believe that we still fall short in teaching students how to work as a team and leveraging the team experience as a learning tool. In part, this is because grades are essentially always translated into an individual grade, and we have nothing built into the system that truly values team elements. Despite this, I think we can learn how to better leverage the full potential of what a competitive, collaborative classroom experience should be from our colleagues in athletics and the arts. 

For many years, I made a point to integrate group work into my classes. However, despite my experience coaching, it took someone to ask the simple question “Do you teach your students how to work in a group?” to realize how I was short-changing the students and the experience. For any of the group efforts in the arts and sports, it is critical to train the participants as individuals while also actively teaching them to be a collective. As instructors, we need to educate ourselves on how to “coach” and “direct” students and treat our courses as collective productions if we are to effectively leverage the benefits of this model for our students. 

A final thought is the general area of expectations of excellence. As I mentioned, the idea of collective success is baked into sports and the arts. It is ultimately the team that wins or loses, the entire orchestra that has a successful or unsuccessful concert, or the play that is great or not. It is certainly true that individuals are often called out for either a great performance or being the weak link, but there is never a case when individual team members are declared the winner of a competition when the rest of the team loses or vice versa. 

However, the flip side is also important. In the sports and arts spaces, individuals do have to navigate individual competition. Whether this is trying out for the team/play/orchestra or competing for the starting position/lead role/first chair, individual competition is part of the experience. But it is part of an integrated experience where, come performance or game day, the chance of success is significantly reduced if the focus is not the team! It is really the balance of collective and individual excellence that I find exciting and intriguing to translate to the classroom. 

When it comes to leveraging the benefits of competitive collaboration, I regularly think of my own soccer career. Training with people better than me who wanted me to get better (because it made the team better) was a major reason I reached the levels I did. At the same time, the motivation to make the varsity team and become a starting player drove me to train on my own and also helped me improve my skills. My daughter’s dance career had similar elements of a truly collaborative approach to learning combined with the individual drive for excellence. With her, there was the added element of watching choreographers develop routines that leveraged a student’s strength so they had the best chance of success in competitions, both in group numbers and as individuals! It was an objective lesson in allowing broader standards not lower standards.

Though it is hard to imagine what collective success would mean in the context of the classroom, I would argue that this is based more on how ingrained the individual focus is within the educational system and not the reality of what is possible. At UCI, we have already started to look at course outcomes and changing the ways that these metrics are measured. And it is really this change in framing and approach that I am encouraging!

Obviously, translating the “team” model to the classroom is not straightforward—but in many ways, it is a better reflection of life after college, both inside and outside academia! It is worth exploring the reality of “coaching”, “conducting”, and “directing” as a viable model for improving how we teach. With this in mind, I am bringing together a group of UCI coaches and faculty from the UCI School of the Arts to have a series of conversations on the reality of “teaching a team” and how this translates to the classroom. 

On Wednesday, April 20 from 4:00 to 5:30 PM, I invite you to join me at a special UCI Teach Week hybrid panel titled “Is the Classroom a Team? Coaching an Athletics Team, Running a Collective Arts Performance, and Teaching a Class.” This panel will feature the following: 

  • Stephen Barker, Dean, Claire Trevor School of the Arts
  • Jane Page, Professor of Directing, Claire Trevor School of the Arts
  • Ama Wray, Professor of Dance, Claire Trevor School of the Arts
  • Paula Smith, UCI Director of Intercollegiate Athletics
  • Scott Juniper, Head Coach Women’s Soccer
  • Tamara Inoue, Head Coach Women’s Basketball
  • Russ Turner, Head Coach Men’s Basketball

The in-person event will be held on the 5th Floor of the Science Library at 570 iLab A and 571 iLab B. The event will also be livestreamed for those that wish to tune in virtually. Please register for the in-person panel here. You can access the livestream for this event here.

I look forward to seeing you at this panel and continuing to have productive conversations on transforming UCI and higher education!