The Educational Legacy of John Wooden

John Wooden (1910-2010)

For each of his practices as coach of UCLA’s mens basketball program, John Wooden used a set of 3 x 5 index cards.

On those cards was the sequence and duration of each drill he wanted to practice.  It was the same practice every day, and everyone worked on the same skills—there was no need to differentiate.  Wooden saw no need to mess with what worked, a system in development since his earliest coaching days at Indiana State in the 1930s.

It is one of many lessons Coach Wooden has for us as educators—especially since he himself saw himself as a teacher more than a coach.

Former players, coaches, and sports pundits will be busy expelling reams of print on the legacy of John Wooden, who died this past Saturday June 5 at age 99.  They will laud his 10 national championships, his 88-game winning streak that still stands as an NCAA record, as well as the stars under his tutelage such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. 

Many more will praise his impact beyond the basketball court as an educator and motivator.  They will extol his timeless virtue and humility; his steadfast beliefs and conservative demeanor that were at once folksy and endearing.  His legacy on this front is ironclad: the Seven-Point Creed, the Pyramid of Success, and the endless maxims that made him an icon to millions of Americans beyond the confines of sports.

 Along will all his usual parade of well-wishers, the Neighborhood is not alone in celebrating the life work of one of the most remarkable men in America’s last century. 

Yet in the spirit of our journal, we seek the virtues of Wooden as teacher, educator, and mentor. 

To that end, I’ve selected a few of Coach Wooden’s most poignant and perceptive maxims so they can be applied to our own practice as educators.  Wooden, like any good teacher, believed in the learning power of self-reflection, and it would do us good—and honor him—to reflect on our practice this last month before summer.

“Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Probably one of Wooden’s most famous, if not the most famous quote.  Its complexity is in its apparent simplicity.  How many times do we get bogged down on lessons based on needless minutia?  On the other hand, how often do we rush into covering a unit while many of the students still have trouble grasping the concept?  Timing is based on both the needs of the teacher and the needs of the students.  The material has to be covered, yet one should never go so fast as to leave students behind. 

“Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.”

His other well-known maxim, this quote is fairly obvious to most teachers.  It’s been paraphrased in numerous ways by numerous characters, including a Navy officer that alluded to Slavic toilet habits.  The results are always the same.   We can ad lib all we want, but the best learning experiences are those that are planned and managed in advance.  Even if you have to change things on the fly, the plan will always keep you oriented towards the learning goals of your students.

“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do”

Every classroom has the kid that doesn’t want to learn.  Often, a student doesn’t want to perform due to shame at their lack of ability or comprehension.  The above maxim is the basis for special education: use your abilities to their utmost, and with proper training you can overcome those shortcomings.

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

We all mess up once in a while.  Teachers, students, administrators: we all have times when we come up short.  That lesson didn’t come out as planned.  You did poorly on a test.  That conflict wasn’t resolved in the best way.  Mistakes happen—it’s how we react to mistakes that really matter.

“Never mistake activity for achievement.”

So much can fit into this category: those hackneyed homemade greeting cards used to waste time.  A busy assignment used to discipline an unruly child.  Standardized tests designed to derive meaningless data to make the suits feel better.  Just because things are happening does not make it meaningful.  True achievement involves activity and purpose, focusing work toward a real, organic end.

“Young people need models, not critics.”

This is especially true where the role models are few and far between—the South Bronx, for example.  My students have plenty of people hassling them, harassing them, even abusing them.  Yet so few of those adults that get on their case actually model the right form of behavior themselves.  Boys need to see men act as gentlemen.  Girls need to see smart, confident professional women.

 “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

One of the sad casualties of modern education is the dearth of moral or character-building education among young people.  In a media-driven world where reputation is not only easily attained, but easily disposed, today’s students need ethical guidance more than ever.

“Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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