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08.14.19John Maguire On Shot-tracking, Feedback and Readable Writing

Training with a new feedback system has worked wonders in the NBA. Could writing teachers learn from this?


John Maguire has taught writing for decades at a half dozen New England colleges, including Boston University. He developed his first-year Readable Writing course while at the Berklee College of Music, and he blogs on the subject of writing pedagogy at readablewriting.com.

John seeks to build up his students’ voice and craft through deliberate practice of skills and details others tend to overlook. Since writing, deliberate practice and intentional teaching are obviously interests of mine, we connected on these ideas recently and have kept in touch. He recently shared this thought-provoking reflection on the parallels between developing writers and basketball players.

One sports writer for the Wall Street Journal, Ben Cohen, seems to have made “advances in coaching” his beat. Cohen regularly writes about how players use feedback to learn to improve their performance.  One recent column is titled “Computers are the New Basketball Coaches” and it’s all about computerized shot-tracking technology. (WSJ July 20-21, 2019: p A12.)

Computerized shot-tracking is the latest training tool used by college and NBA teams, Cohen says. There are several types. One uses video cameras over the basket to watch each shot as the player makes it. The system calculates the speed and position of the ball as it goes through the hoop—or  not.  It can figure the angle of approach for a whole series of shots, calculate averages, identify patterns and basically sum up a practice session.  A player can learn a lot.

Admiral Schofield did. As a college freshman at the University of Tennessee a few years back, he was making 30 per cent of his three-point shots. Pretty good average–but could he move it higher?  UT had installed a shot-tracking system that identified Schofield’s three-point shots as too steep—he was shooting “sky balls.” Schofield needed to change the angle of his shots from 55 to 45 degrees.

He used the tracking system and worked on flattening his shots all through college. By the time he was a senior, his better-angled three-point shots were a habit. They now came in at the optimal angle and on target more often, 41 per cent of the time. Schofield was a better player now. He seemed pretty good to the NBA’s Washington Wizards, and they signed him last month.

People know basketball is a performance, and that good feedback improves performance, but they often forget that writing is a performance, too.

The differences are clear. Basketball players run, pass and shoot on a shiny court. Writers have to work alone at a keyboard. Players cannot undo a bad shot, but writers can edit themselves. Both sports, however, are performances in real time.

 “Your computer keyboard is like a piano keyboard,” I used to tell writing students at the jazz college where I taught. “You have to sit down at the keyboard with good enough chops, so you can make something neat happen in real time.” 

That’s why skill feedback obsesses good coaches and committed teachers; both keep trying new ways to give timely and accurate feedback. In the Noah system that Schofield trained with, the machine calls out the arc of the shot (“Forty-one!”) instantly, before the player even has the ball back in his hands. You can’t get more accurate or timely than that.

Everyone knows fast and personal feedback is best. That’s why people who want to learn something fast hire coaches if they can—whether for singing, golf or tennis. But even group classes can be more like coaching, if they use feedback systems closer to individual coaching.

For example, college news-writing used to be taught in mock-up newsrooms with typewriters or computers set up in rows. The students would all be writing news articles, based on a “press conference” they all had attended. In that situation the teacher walked up and down the rows and critiqued the writing, sentence by sentence, in real time.  Students learned immediately. 

A more striking example is a first-semester writing course that Cornell University offered after World War II. Fifteen students wrote 1000 words every day and the instructor read them overnight and returned them the next morning. The course was a full-time job for the instructor. I don’t know how Cornell afforded it, but that system worked!

Today there do exist less radical, but still quite effective, ways to improve writing feedback.

One is the “readable writing method,” designed to lighten the cognitive load on students and also give them effective feedback. It reduces the cognitive load for both students and teachers by focusing on one skill at a time—much as a basketball system focuses only on shot angles. (Disclosure: it’s my method.)

One writing behavior at a time forces students to focus.

We start with using concrete nouns (2 weeks) then move to active verbs (4 weeks), people words (1), sentence-length control (1) and editing for conciseness (1). Feedback is tightly focused. During the concrete-noun unit that’s all we are concerned about. In the active-verb unit, all the feedback is about verbs.

This tightly focused feedback keeps the student thinking How did I do on that skill? How can I get better at it?

We keep that focus through (1) personal comments during in-class work; (2) class discussions of homework the day it’s turned in; (3) individual conferences. We read short passages in class from Xeroxed handouts, and practice identifying concrete nouns, active verbs, and so on. Sometimes we do arithmetic–students figure the ratios of concrete nouns and active verbs and compute average sentence lengths. When they have figured out the ratios involved in their essays, they have a deeper knowledge of what they have done and why.

 Teaching a few skills in depth has another advantage—it lightens the burden of remembering technical terms. This helps in classroom discussions. The teacher can tell the class, “We are going to look at Susan’s verbs in the third paragraph—only at the verbs.” Because the class knows what verbs are from four weeks of practice, that kind of discussion becomes easy.

 In traditional practice, student work is private and commented on only in private. In this course, we analyze student papers or excerpts live in the classroom. This is fast feedback. It increases student confidence and toughens them up.

Ben Cohen reports that the NBA coaches have replaced their “ancient shooting gurus” with these computerized products. He says young players won’t accept advice from the old-guy experts any more, but only from the computers they are used to, which “keep a comprehensive record of everything you would want to know about any shot, in addition to all the things you didn’t know it was possible to know.”

 In other words, skill improvement may depend on factors we haven’t been paying attention to—because we couldn’t get feedback on them.  Once we can get feedback we can improve,  and attending to one skill at a time works the best. A writing course designed with those facts in mind can get great results.

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