What Draymond Green Can Teach Us about Learning

This blog has excepts from the book, Computers, Cockroaches, and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning through Metaphor.

The Golden State Warriors just won the NBA championship in dominating fashion. Some are calling this team the greatest ever. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant may be the superstars, but basketball fans know Draymond Green is the linchpin – which is rather surprising given that Green was not expected to be a great NBA player. Heck, he was not expected to be an NBA player at all. As a high school player from Saginaw, Michigan, Green was not particularly athletic and rather short for his position. He had some skills but not enough to stand out from his peers. So what happened? How did he become an NBA All-Star? The story has more do with his mind than his body and it can teach us something about the nature of learning.

Green attended Michigan State University, where he was under the tutelage of hall of fame coach Tom Izzo. Green explained that Coach Izzo “taught me to think the game.” By “think the game,” Green means he learned to anticipate actions, read the tendencies of other teams, be in the right position, make the right play, and so on. Later in his college career, as Green was leading his teams to victories in the NCAA tournament, it became a mantra for announcers to comment on his “high basketball IQ.”

Green was always a smart player, but two factors were critical in helping him capitalize on his potential. First, Green received a lot of one-on-one and team tutoring, not just from Coach Izzo, but the whole coaching staff, including an associate head coach, two assistant coaches, an athletic trainer, a strength and conditioning coach, and others. Green had a knack for appropriating feedback and using it to constantly improve his game. Second, Green took advantage of Michigan State’s state-of-the-art video production services. A video production team, consisting of a coordinator and about a dozen student managers, edits and digitizes footage of every game so that players and coaches can efficiently and flexibly review performance. Green spent countless hours with coaches and by himself critiquing his performance and figuring out how to maximize his performance on the court.

Despite becoming a college star through such efforts, no one expected much of Green in the NBA where his lack of athleticism and height would be more glaring deficiencies. However, Green quickly proved his doubters wrong. He carried his passion for learning from coaches and video feedback to the NBA and constantly improved his game. In 2014, Goldberry wrote, “You could argue that Green is the ‘most improved’ player in the NBA this year, but that overlooks a bigger truth: Green is always improving, and the only constant in his game has been its perpetual evolution. He is the best-case scenario for player development in the NBA.” As if to prove Goldberry right, Green blossomed even more the following season, earning his first All-Star appearance. Now he’s considered one of the 15 or 20 best players in the NBA.

****

Here’s the take away from Green’s story: feedback, and the ability to learn from feedback, are really important. In fact, the ability to learn from feedback is far more important than innate ability. As an educational psychologist (i.e., someone who studies education and learning), I get frustrated by the number of fixed mindset students who equate educational success with innate intelligence. But if I’m honest, I have to admit, I was once there myself. I used to think there were smart kids who got As and average kids, like me, who didn’t. Then my sophomore year in high school, I sat next to a girl in biology class who had a 4.0 GPA. She was a year older and known as the smart girl in the school. We became friends and one day I realized, “She’s no different than anyone else. She just does her homework, studies, takes things seriously…hmmm. I could maybe do that…” Changed my whole academic trajectory. Over time, I understood that you can develop as a learner just as Green developed as a basketball player. Learning from feedback is key to such development. But students are at one huge disadvantage compared to Green: they do not have access to an abundance of feedback.

There are two good reasons for this. One, lack of resources. Teachers do not have a staff of associate and assistant teachers. Plus, instead of one team of about 13 players, teachers often have multiple “teams” of 20-30 students. Two, lack of video. Teachers cannot take a video of the learning processes going on in their students’ minds. There can be no post-performance video sessions of the type that so benefitted Green.

Consequently, to improve as learners, to be engaged in Draymond Green-like perpetual evolution, students have to provide feedback to themselves. They have to become their own coach. Cognitive psychologists use the term metacognition to refer to the process of reflecting on your own thinking. Metacognition involves such things as becoming aware of how the mind processes information and monitoring these processes.

Through metacognitive activity, students can become learning all-stars. A practical model for doing so is Zimmerman’s (2002) model of self-regulated learning (SRL). Zimmerman divides SRL into three phases: forethought (before the learning activity), performance (during the learning activity), and self-reflection (after the learning activity). You can think of each phase as a self-coaching phase.

In the forethought phase, the individual sets goals and engages in strategic planning (i.e., plans which strategies will be effective). The individual also activates productive motivation patterns, including a belief that one can be a successful learner, an interest in the learning, and a focus on learning as opposed to worrying about grades or the perception of others. This phase is parallel to such coaching actions as preparing a game plan and getting the team focused and energized. During the performance phase, the individual implements the planned strategies, monitors the learning process, makes adjustments as need, and maintains appropriate motivation. This phase is parallel to implementing the game plan, monitoring its effectiveness, making adjustments to counter challenges, and firing up or calming down players as needed. In the self-reflection phase, the individual uses self-evaluation to make judgments about the success of the learning, the effectiveness of the strategies, and the appropriateness of the motivation. These judgments are used to consider improvements for the next learning activity. This last phase is parallel to reviewing game tape, identifying areas of success and areas in need of improvement, and exploring alternative strategies in preparation for the next game.

Draymond Green may not be role model in all things (some of his antics are over the top), but he is a great model of a perpetual learner. Individuals who want to become learning all-stars would do well to develop metacognitive skills and follow his example of constantly learning from feedback.

References

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory into Practice, 41, 64-70. doi:10.1207/s15430421tip4102_2

Advertisements