Thursday, January 21, 2010

Information vs Reward and Punishment

John Wooden is considered by ESPN to be the greatest coach of all-time in any sport. To say that Wooden was a good coach is like saying Einstein was good at science. He coached at UCLA for 12 years where he won 10 NCAA titles (including 7 in a row!). In those 12 years he won 664 games out of 826 opportunities (that’s a .804 winning percentage!), and during that time the UCLA Bruins ran the table with an 88 game winning streak that took place over almost three years (four perfect 30-0 seasons!).

If you were to go back in time and visit one of John Wooden’s practices, you might expect to see him as the ‘sage on the stage’, providing his students with all of the knowledge they would need in his ‘chalk and talk’ lectures. You might assume you’d see him praising the hard workers and punishing the lollygaggers. However, if you were to make these assumptions, you’d be wrong. When Ron Gallimore and Roland Tharp, two education psychologists, attended John Wooden’s practices for the first time (while conducting a study of Wooden), they were shocked to see almost none of the above. When they observed Wooden, they were at first quite perplexed because it appeared like he hardly coached at all. “We thought we knew what coaching was ,” Gallimore said.

But upon closer inspection, they found that he used his time to observe a lot and make short and quick comments to his athletes while they were actually doing. Wooden didn’t give speeches. He didn’t dole out punishments, nor did he hand out rewards and praise. In fact, when Gallimore and Roland actually recorded and categorized 2,326 of Coach Wooden’s acts of teaching, they found that only 6.6 percent were acts of disapproval while 6.9 percent were acts of praise. That means that about 75 percent were statements of information.

If there was ever a coach who sports fans could agree should be given license to pass judgement, it would likely be John Wooden. But when given the choice, even Wooden would prefer to reserve judgment. This kind of teaching would have made Jerome Bruner proud when he said “students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.”

I’m not sure if Wooden and Bruner ever sat down over a beer to discuss pedagogy, but it would appear that Wooden was drinking what Bruner was pouring.


  1. Stumbled on to your blog...great work. Being a coach and an educator I am humbled by the exemplar that Wooden has set.
    In Lethbridge we are struggling with many of the myths that you are trying to uproot.
    Good luck!

  2. Great article. I have recently become interested in Wooden's coaching style because of his success. I am hoping I can learn how he did it and perhaps use it in my classroom to promote learning. This article provides useful information towards my quest. Cheers. Nunavut_teacher

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Joe. Internally I know this from working with kids over the past 17 years; kids respond better to facts than to judgments/manipulations. Power struggles decrease when you decrease judgments. I'm curious about my own statements in the classroom. Fact: I'm going to monitor my statements in the classroom and find out my percentages. I will then take action to improve the percentages and see what I find out along the way!

  4. John Wooden is a model for coaches to follow, teachers to follow, and for each of us to follow his model as a person. I continue to facilitate coaches clinics in hockey and bring his book, Call Me Coach, regularly. It is a central piece of my library and has been read and re-read.


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