kitchen table math, the sequel: Spillover

Sunday, October 26, 2014


I'm reading the new Ebola book, David Quammen's Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, excerpted from his 2012 book Spillover.

Spillover is the Quammen's term for diseases spilling over from non-human animals to us.

Yesterday I realized that "spillover" isn't a bad term for what seems to be happening to tennis instruction: constructivism and learning-by-doing are spilling over to tennis.

At least, that's the way it looks to me. I hope I'm wrong.

I've re-upped my tennis lessons, on grounds that I need a hobby. This go-round, I've enrolled in a tennis clinic, something I'd never done before.

I've been to three clinics so far, and I'm not seeing much direct instruction.

In the first clinic, the instructor told me "not to think" and to "use your instincts."

I don't have any instincts where tennis is concerned, and the instincts I do have are wrong.

e.g.: When you hit the ball, you're supposed to keep looking at the spot where the ball was instead of following its trajectory back across the net. Looking at the spot where a tennis ball used to be is completely unnatural; every fiber of my being tells me Don't do what Roger Federer does.

Moreover, I find it extremely difficult even to know whether I've kept my head down or not. I need an instructor to tell me.

The clinic went badly enough that I actually walked out of the 2nd class (!), after becoming embroiled in an unwinnable argument with the instructor on the question of my attitude.

The class had been practicing hitting the ball back and forth across the net--no scoring--and I had opted to hit a ball on the second bounce.

I hit the ball on the second bounce because my private instructor usually had me hit second bounces if I could, and because the clinic instructor was himself hitting balls that were out of bounds.

So I thought the rule was: in bounds or out, hit the ball if you can.

But no.

The instructor, who had opened the class by telling me I "didn't belong" but I could stay for the day, told me I had erred, then said primly: "In tennis, when the ball bounces twice, it's out of play."

I said: "I know that."

He said I had no reason to take my frustration out on him.

I said "You were hitting balls that are out, I thought we were supposed to hit balls that are out if we can."

He said, again, that I was frustrated and I should not take my frustration out on him.

Naturally I denied having done any such thing; he said I had but I "didn't know it"; I said I hadn't; he said I had ---- the whole scene was ludicrous.

We were now swatting Did/Did not back and forth across our own invisible net, and the exchange was turning into a very long rally indeed, leaving the other two ladies in the class standing clueless on the opposite baseline, undoubtedly wondering what was going on and when we were going to start having a class again.

At one point I tried to end the quarrel by telling the instructor, who was young enough to be my son and then some, that in life, when you say something that has obviously ticked off another person  (especially another person old enough to be your mother), you take it back. 

That's how you get along with people. 

He swatted that one right back at me, saying, yet again, that I was frustrated, and I was directing my frustration at him.

He wasn't going to give an inch, and I certainly wasn't going to give an inch, seeing as how I'm twice the instructor's age and I'm the customer to boot.

So I left, with the instructor still calling after me "You have no reason to act like this."


Back to 'spillover,' the instructor's approach to teaching tennis had a fair amount to do with the fact that our dissing war erupted in the first place.

His approach was simply to run drills: advanced drills only one student in the class was remotely equipped to do. Forehand, backhand, volley, lob. Very difficult. We were starting at the top, beginning with the 'whole,' not the component parts, and with predictable results. Nobody could maintain any form to speak of, and there were multiple mis-hits and outright whiffs.

After the drills (this was a beginner's class, by the way), we "practiced" serving, also with zero instruction. My classmates were dinking the ball across the net, and so was I.

Then we played doubles tennis for points and we were supposed to have strategy.

We were learning tennis by playing tennis.

Except nobody was learning.


My third clinic, with a different teacher, was a much happier experience, and the instructor gave plenty of direct instruction. She was also responsive; as soon as she saw that I wanted  intervention and instruction, she provided it.

But still, she wasn't breaking things down.

In her class, too, we were doing the same advanced drills none of us could do .... and then, when we played a game, the instructor told us 10 Things About Doubles Strategy we were supposed to remember and use.

There's no way a beginner can remember 10 Things About Doubles Strategy, not while also attempting actually to do those 10 Things and get the ball back across the net.

More learning tennis by playing tennis.


I'm told that tennis instruction used to be different. Tennis teachers worked on form & watched as their students practiced technique over and over until they had it down.

That approach seems to be fading, and I blame spillover from our public schools.

People teaching tennis or continuing education classes are teaching the way K-12 teachers teach writing and math and grammar. Via discovery.

Their experience of schooling didn't instill within them a gut understanding that memory is limited, that subjects and skills must be broken down into bite-size pieces a student can remember long enough to practice and master.

So they run drills and have students play pretend doubles.


Now Ed is giving me lessons --- we are becoming an afterschooling family for tennis.

And I'll take more private lessons, the grown-up equivalent of hiring a tutor.

Talk about spillover.


palisadesk said...

"Spillover is the term for diseases spilling over from non-human animals to us."

That's funny, I thought the term was zoonosis, adjective zoonotic.

kcab said...

I'm with palisadesk. Also, here's an article on mapping the zoonotic niche of EBV in Africa: Mapping Zoonotic niche...

The Lancet has taken all of its Ebola articles out from behind the paywall. I tend to read those and the relevant articles in PLOS.

Molly said...

Infectious disease epidemiologist here. Never once used the term spillover. Zoonosis, zoonotic, cross-species transmission perhaps....

froggiemama said...

This sounds pretty typical of sports lessons. "Beginner" sports classes always assume "some experience". The tennis lessons I took as a teen back in the 70's were just as horrible. And I can recall getting yelled at in junior high gym because I violated some flag football rule, even though football rules were never taught to us. And gymnastics - we had gender segregated gym and the girls had to do gymnastics - anyone who wasn't taking private gymnastics lessons was doomed to a bad grade. For years, I have always wondered why gym class is the only school subject that gets away with expecting kids to be able to do things without actually teaching them to do those things.

Anonymous said...

"This sounds pretty typical of sports lessons. 'Beginner' sports classes always assume 'some experience'. The tennis lessons I took as a teen back in the 70's were just as horrible. "

Not all. My son has taken a number of lessons in various sports -- some as a beginner, some not. The beginner classes (e.g. lacrosse, Tae Kwon Do, rock climbing) typically did assume true beginner. This probably depends on the instructor and/or organization.

-Mark Roulo

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Interesting. I noticed the same thing at a wine and cheese class I took last year. The instructor kept telling us that there was no right or wrong; we should feel free to make our own pairings, and it was all about what we liked. If that's the case, WHY EVEN HOLD A CLASS? I got exposed to a couple of new cheeses, but otherwise the experience was entirely pointless.

Catherine Johnson said...

You guys!

I know "zoonosis" is the official term.

I give a "zoonoses" reading quiz to my students every year!

Here it is: zoonoses reading quiz.

"Zoonoses" isn't a useful metaphor for bad K-12 instruction spilling over to bad tennis instruction.

GoogleMaster said...

Catherine, inquiring minds wanna know: When you give the zoonoses reading quiz to your students and have them read it out loud, how many students do you have to go through before you get one who doesn't pronounce it as "ZOO-noh-zez"?

Anonymous said...

Is this the death of the concept of mastery?

I believe constructivist math came about because the entering classes in ed school are dumber each year, and there's not enough mastery to go around to supply the nation's need for authoritative math teachers.

The idea that it's spilling over to not just other subjects but other realms of endeavor is chilling. I would hate to find myself paying for a constructivist tennis teacher.

Anonymous said...

"entering classes in ed school are dumber each year"

(I'm a different Anonymous)

That's even worse than scary. In college 30 years ago I was a student who made some money on the side as a tutor. Of math, among other things.

And ed majors were hopeless. All the tutors agreed on that.