July 23, 2024

Tennis and the Fallacy of Explicit Instruction

Anyone familiar with my work/scholarship knows that I am a constructionist who finds instruction to be severely overvalued. This is an admittedly unpopular view in a political climate favoring explicit or direct instruction as the one true pedagogical approach all teachers must always adopt. The argument I am about to make is a personal one, it is not based on A/B testing, experimental conditions, or peer review. There are zero claims of science to be found here.

I respect my personal learning experiences as a lens through which to think about learning. I happily own my biases. A social media troll’s mileage may vary.

Around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began playing tennis. I had always wanted to play tennis, but my travel schedule made joining a tennis club a poor investment. Over the past four years, I’ve invested approximately $35,000 in membership, lessons, and workouts. In a good week, I play seven or eight times. I take a weekly private lesson, play in three drop-in doubles sessions, participate in three workouts, and organize my own drop-in doubles situation on weekends. Occasionally, I’ll take an additional lesson or help a pro with one of his students. 

Along the way, I’ve made some progress as a tennis player, made a few friends, and lost a considerable amount of weight. There have also been ample opportunities to think about teaching and learning. A dozen or so pros have been “lucky enough “blessed” to have me as a student. Some lessons and teachers are better than others, an hour with one pro reverses six months’ worth of progress. So, I remind myself to stay clear of his workouts.

Unlike school students, I get to choose my teachers. I even call upon different teachers depending on my specific needs or even mood. I can vote with my feet.


Yesterday, I took a private lesson with a different pro for the first time. My primary motivation was getting in some extra exercise so I can lose a few pounds. I attend the pro’s weekly group workout. So, I know him a bit. The lesson went great. We focused on the fundamentals of turning my body, stepping into the ball, and following through on my groundstrokes. I made measurable progress in hitting with more power and velocity while keeping the ball in the court.

Last night, I played socially and was able to recreate some of what I learned in the lesson while actually playing tennis.

Today’s lesson

I just completed my weekly private lesson with the pro I’ve been working with for four years. Before we took the court, I told him that I “hit balls with” his colleague yesterday, made progress, and wanted to practice turning, stepping, and following through on groundstrokes. Some of the pros are competitively jealous, so I chose to use “hit balls with” euphemistically, rather than say, “I took a lesson.” I can cope with their transparent insecurities, but wanted to build on yesterday’s progress, well aware that all physical activity is fraught with peaks, valleys, and plateaus – especially in my case. (I had “special gym” in elementary school and the fact that I can do anything physical is a miracle and source of wonder.)

Before long, my pro decided that I also need to focus on topspin, adding additional variables to the three I am working on, and even though I am barely aware of when I manage to achieve topspin or how to produce it reliably. 

Adding those extra steps to the choreography complicated matters, distracted me from the skill I was hoping to practice, injected confusion, and left me frustrated.

Explicit instruction

Each pro had a tacit curriculum guiding their instruction. Yesterday’s pro wanted to improve my game immediately by helping me hit the ball with more power and accuracy. Today’s pro believes that learning to hit the proper stroke will one day make me a much better tennis player. He is undoubtedly correct, but this is a clear example of the great being the enemy of the good. Our goals are misaligned.

I take tennis lessons for: 

  1. Physical fitness and weight loss (health)
  2. Playing tennis with others (social)

The folks advocating for explicit instruction in schools have no concern for the goals of the learner. Their agenda is set and doctrinaire. Their curriculum is “scientific,” pure, and true. Like today’s tennis pro, their ultimate objective may be a very high standard. It may also be unattainable. Aspirations are important, but context, needs, idiosyncrasies, desires, and context of the learner are critical. 

The other problem with the “my way or the highway” nature of explicit instruction is that learning is fundamentally messy and personal. No one method, mantra, scope or sequence works for everyone at the same time, or perhaps ever. Following a scripted curriculum may satisfy a teacher (doubtful) but offers little to their students.

Halfway through my tennis lesson, I wanted to quit playing tennis. One can easily imagine how many seven-year-olds feel the exact same way when they are forced to stop reading Captain Underpants to accommodate their teachers’ explicit systematic synthetic phonics instruction. A kid’s ability or willingness to answer comprehension questions about The Fawn at Dawn will be used to determine their “reading ability,” regardless of their interests or self-concept as a reader. Such instruction may cause children to doubt their ability, lose patience, or want to quit reading.

To my friends in the explicit/direct instruction cult, the last paragraph is an illustration of empathy. Call me crazy, but I think empathy is an essential element of teaching, just like listening, observing, and flexibility.

My goal as a learner investing an inordinate amount of time trying to play tennis is NOT to be a tennis player.

The ship has sailed for my Wimbledon dreams. (they never existed) 

I need to experience occasional, if not continuous progress, for two reasons: my personal satisfaction and motivation; and because tennis is a social endeavor. Tennis playing competence and confidence is essential to others graciously tolerating my mediocrity on the court. Making progress and occasional competence are the price of admission for the socio-constructivist environment of the tennis court.

Without people willing to play with me, tennis is just theoretical exercise, much like decoding phonemes rather than reading for pleasure or information. Why bother?

I need to improve as a tennis player in order to continue improving as a tennis player.

Putting ideology, even “research-based science,” ahead of the experience of the learner is not only ineffective, but deeply disrespectful.

Gotta go downstairs now and get my butt kicked in a 90-minute workout. Hopefully, I can remember to turn, step, and follow through. With any luck, I’ll suck a little less than I did yesterday.