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Author: Howard E. Aldrich

Instructors need to be careful about using sports analogies in their teaching. Some students have no interest in sports, and others, especially international students, may not have the context needed to understand these analogies. However, occasionally I find an analogy that is so appropriate that it would be a shame not to use it, and this one is mostly about teachers. It's an analogy that keeps me from prematurely intervening in ongoing student discussions. Dean Smith, the retired basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, is famous for saving his time-outs until the last few minutes of a game. By saving his time-outs, he was able to work a masterful endgame strategy and keep other coaches off balance. Typically, coaches call time-out to bring players over to the bench and give them a solution to some aspect of the game that isn't going well. Not Dean Smith. Despite seeing his players in perilous situations, as turnovers mounted and the game seemed to be going against the Tar Heels, Dean Smith refused to call time-out. Fans routinely excoriated him for this, shouting from the stands, “Call time-out! Call time-out!” But Coach Smith just sat back in his chair with his arms folded, smiling, and let the team play on. Why didn't Coach Smith call time-out? He told reporters that if he had prepared the players properly, they would know what to do. If he'd done his job during practices and taught them what they needed to know, they would recognize when they were in trouble and would know what actions they should take to deal with the problem. Calling time-out and telling the players what to do would be a setback for the program. It would imply that he wasn't a very good coach! Properly prepared players should be able to deal with most of the game situations they encounter. Coach Smith trusted his players to use what they had learned, and calling time-out would imply he had lost faith in them. As a result, he saved the time-outs for the last few minutes of the game, and then he used them strategically, not to correct his players. I think this is a great analogy for how instructors should run classroom discussions. Countless studies document that many instructors are quick to intervene when they see students struggling with the material. Most instructors perceive wrong answers as something they should correct. When students misunderstand, teachers perceive it as signaling the need for greater instructor involvement. But what else can they do? Should they just stand by when the discussion loses momentum or wanders off track? What would Coach Smith say? Having watched him coach for many years, I'm betting he'd recommend that instructors count to 10, find an out-of-the-way place to sit or stand, and let the students “play on.” Instructor intervention should be limited to making sure interaction between students goes smoothly. For example, instructors should keep track of who has and hasn't spoken. They can use the board to record what the students are saying. If the instructor has properly prepared the students in previous classes, if they learned about discussions—if they know they must come prepared, if they understand the importance of listening and the need for civil discourse—they should know what to do. Intervening to “correct” students who are getting it wrong constitutes a setback for the learning process. It robs students of the chance to work through problems on their own and teaches them that whenever they get in trouble, they need a teacher to fix what's gone wrong.
Is not calling a time-out in discussion a risky strategy? Will the class occasionally go off the track? Sure! But Dean Smith won more basketball games than practically any other coach in America, and I think that by visibly showing his players that he trusted them, he made them believe they could do what needed to be done. It's a principle I'm trying to apply in the courses I teach.