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Dean Smith, the Tarheels, and AFL in Action

The February 23, 2015, edition of Sports Illustrated, included Alexander Wolff's moving tribute to Dean Smith, the former UNC Men's Basketball coach who passed away on February 7.  As a Demon Deacon and a Hokie, I've never been too fond of the Tarheels' basketball program, rooting loudly against them for many years.  In fact, one of my fondest sports memories was storming our home court after Rodney Rogers, Randolph Childress, and the rest of the 'Deacs beat the soon-to-be national champions from Chapel Hill by over 20 points during my freshman year at Wake.   

That being said, it's possible to detest a team and still have incredible respect for them and their coach.  Such was always the case with UNC and Dean Smith.  Year in and year out they were so good, you knew it had to be the result of an excellent teacher at the helm.

Wolff's article highlighted many of Smith's strengths as a coach and a person.  As Wolff recounts part of his interview with former UNC star, Eric Montross, one of the secrets to Smith's success is revealed: Coach Dean Smith practiced the principles of Assessment FOR Learning.

When working with teachers on how to implement AFL principles, I always encourage them to ask themselves the following 2 questions on a daily basis:

  1. Did I cause my students today to leave my room knowing what they need to know, what they do and don't know, and what they need to do to improve?
  2. Did I enable myself today to leave the room with a clear understanding of what my students - collectively and individually - do and don't know so that they can plan to meet their learning objectives?

If a teacher can answer "Yes" to those questions, then whatever he or she did that day was an example of the principles of AFL in action.  (For more on this topic, read Assessment FOR Learning - A quick and easy indicator.)

While I doubt Dean Smith ever used the term Assessment FOR Learning, his goal for his practices reveals nonetheless that he was an excellent practitioner of AFL principles.  Wolff interviews former Tarheel great, Eric Montross, who said, "Something he taught us each day was meant to be remembered."

At every Tar Heels practice each player was expected to know, and spit back on demand, that day's point of emphasis on offense, the point of emphasis on defense, and the thought for the day - and aphorism such as Do not judge another man until you've walked a full moon in his moccasins, or, When moving a mountain, begin by removing the smallest stone.  "You'd repeat it verbatim," Montross said, "or the whole team would run."

Based on what Montross shared, Coach Smith was able to leave practice every day knowing how well his players understood the concepts he was coaching.  He didn't just assume they got because he covered it.  He intentionally and purposefully sought out feedback.  Furthermore, his players were able to leave practice each day sure of what they were learning.

Teachers, coaches, students, and players all need feedback. Teachers, coaches, students, and players all need to know what they need to know, how well they know it, and what they need to do to improve.  Effective teachers and coaches don't let students leave the classroom or the gym without assessing and providing that feedback.

Thanks, Coach Smith, for setting an example we all should follow.

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