Having Good Models

3 Aug

Let me offer you an anecdote about models and learning from my own experience:

In my late twenties, I decided to get back into tennis, something I’d played as a child. I signed up for a year of lessons in my neighborhood, group lessons for beginners with a grumpy Frenchman named Xavier. My youth tennis came back to me with unexpected ease, and I found myself hitting the ball quite well, eliciting some colorful expressions from Xavier on the court. All was bon until we got to serves.

I’d never really learned how to serve as a child, so I had no experience with them, really, and relied solely on my ability to imitate what Xavier was doing. I watched and watched as he launched his ball into the air, arced his racket powerfully over his head, and hit the ball, rocketing it to the far court with precision and speed. I watched him do that a hundred times, listened to his explanation of how to, and tried to imitate it myself. I couldn’t. Sometimes I couldn’t even connect with the ball at all. Xavier would tsk, irritated, “Non, Alexis.”

But luckily for me, Xavier was a good coach. He knew that showing me what to do, and having me practice it, wasn’t enough. So he took me aside and showed me how not to do it. “Don’t have your racket here when the ball is in the air, because look what happens–” he’d show me how bringing the racket behind my back too late would never allow me to connect with the ball at the right moment. “Bring it back like this,” and he’d show me how to time the movement of the racket with the throwing of the ball in the air, like a little dance. “Not like this,” he’d say, bringing the racket back a beat too late — as I’d been doing, “Like this–” and he’d show me again — side by side — a model of excellence and a model that was subpar. How not to do it; how to do it. How not to; how to.

The a-ha moment.

Something in my brain finally understood. Now, I threw the ball as he’d instructed me to from the very beginning, brought my racket back at the time that he’d shown me from the beginning, but this time there was no missed connection, no pathetic lob of the ball into space. This time, I hit the ball right in the racket’s sweet spot and rocketed that thing to the opposite corner like Rafael Nadal (or something like that.) “C’est bon, Alexis!” Xavier exclaimed.

I needed to see the lack of excellence to understand what excellence was not before I could really understand what it was. Side by side, Xavier’s two models helped produce transfer (learning to serve correctly and effectively on my own).

Might I have learned eventually with only the model of the good serve? Perhaps. Maybe practicing over and over would have produced that result sooner or later. But the point is that Xavier recognized I wasn’t grasping it from only seeing his model of excellent serving, so he adapted and decided to show me the contrast of how not to serve. It worked. Instantly I saw what I’d been doing wrong and corrected it.

Sometimes we learners need to see the wrong way of doing something to be able to see the right way of doing it. Sometimes the best models for learning are actually the “bad” ones.

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One Response to “Having Good Models”

  1. grantwiggins August 10, 2011 at 8:14 pm #

    C’est bon, Alexis!

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