from Educational Leadership
Learnball League: Teacher-to-Teacher Network
For over 35 years teacher volunteers have been showing other interested teachers how to implement Learnball, a classroom management approach that uses a sports format and peer approval to improve productivity, motivation and behavior.
In 1964, a teacher from Pennsylvania developed Learnball—a classroom management technique to improve student productivity, motivation, and behavior. Using suggestions from other teachers, Earl Bradley designed Learnball to appeal to students because student enthusiasm is a major factor in teacher acceptance of new methods. Learnball is a strong educational medicine mixed with just enough sweetener to make it palatable. The medicine is discipline, cooperation, and hard work. Learnball teams are highly cohesive, family-like support groups, which adopt norms that are able to quickly and easily overcome bad habits. The sweetener is a sports format with special modifications (individualized participation and consensus) that appeals to students K-12.
Bradley understood that the success of a new program depends on teachers being able to see immediate improvements in student behaviors. While doing research for his doctoral dissertation, Bradley also had the foresight to recognize that the teacher is the key to acceptance and implementation of any program. When the presenter of a new practice is a successful practitioner, credibility for the program is greatly increased. In addition, he knew that teachers are more apt to implement new practices when the program can be quickly and easily implemented, has immediate and enduring results, and provides for support from peers. Bradley developed a dissemination model then that meets today’s standards for staff development presentations. Los Angeles Teacher Center Director Bernice Medinnis, who has introduced Learnball to new and experienced teachers, cites numerous benefits of Learnball.
Increased time-on-task, greater student involvement, and more positive student attitudes have occurred immediately where Learnball is used. Teachers are spreading the word, teaching and supporting each other as they implement the program.
Medinnis reports that there is unprecedented enthusiasm and excitement during presentations and an unusually high percentage of teacher acceptance and implementation. In addition, teachers who use Learnball consistently relate dramatic increases in student motivation and decreases in discipline problems.
A Model for Student Enthusiasm
The Learnball approach uses peer social approval as a reward. A foam ball and hoop are used (very sparingly) to create an appealing sports format. In Learnball, classroom rules become the rules of the sport. This produces immediate, positive behavioral changes, especially in students who have acquired negative habits. This approach harnesses students’ interest in peer activities and sports to create enthusiasm for academic learning. Classwork becomes a cooperative team endeavor in which the scholar earns peer esteem for superior effort and the slower students are rewarded for learning attempts. A very important Learnball feature is that all students, regardless of ability, receive learning reinforcement from their peers. Learnball creates many culture-free, gender-free roles for students, and it uses a consensus, problem-solving approach to classroom situations.
Support from Peers Is Essential
Bradley and his colleagues formed a nonprofit organization to disseminate the mode, which evolved into a teacher-to-teacher, self-help network called Learnball League International. The League gives support to teachers through a telephone hotline and email. The Learnball implementation handbook is available only as part of the League membership to ensure that teachers can receive help from peers, if needed. The League guarantees success and will refund the membership cost if Learnball fails to improve motivation and decrease discipline problems. Indicative of Learnball’s strength is the fact that no refunds have been requested since its inception.
The Learnball Classroom Guide
Much of Learnball’s acceptance is due to the fact that The Guide makes it easy to implement the technique. The Guide evolved over may years as a result of teacher suggestions. It is a behaviorally stated, "teacher friendly" manual that outlines step-by-step, how to introduce Learnball to students, elect student leaders, form teams, and reach consensus on classroom rules. It explains how to use the ball and hoop and award points for positive classroom behaviors. When a step requires the teacher to explain a Learnball procedure to students, an appropriate speech is provided. Since Learnball is a management method, the teacher continues to use the same materials and grading system as before. Learnball does not require any changes in curriculum, or in how the teacher deals with the subject matter.
Immediate and Enduring Results
Thousands of teachers use Learnball at all ability levels, in high- and low-income areas, in rural, urban, and suburban settings. These teachers report similar immediate and enduring results. Students take pride in doing homework and bring pencils and books to class to help their team. They pay attention, complete more assignments, and enjoy academic success.
The following comment is typical of teachers’ reactions:
I first read about Learnball in late September when my principal circulated the Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin article. I was very much interested because the article offered a solution for the many frustrations that were taking the enjoyment out of teaching. I followed the step-by-step instructions. It was easy and fun to do. Both the cooperation within each team and the competition between teams were evident immediately. I have never seen students so motivated! I sensed a high energy level in the classroom, and that energy was focused on the lesson. Since we began Learnball, student output has increased tremendously because positive behaviors are rewarded continuously. Learnball has exceeded all my expectations!
Reprinted from "Learnball League: Teacher-to-Teacher Network," which appeared in Educational Leadership, and Readings in Educational Supervision,, which are both publications of The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
from The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin
Teaching is something I have always loved, but settling my students down so that I could teach was once a frustrating and time-consuming task. Several years ago I discovered a classroom management technique called Learnball which allows a teacher the time to really teach effectively.
Before Learnball, most of my fifth-grade students demanded more personal attention and assistance than it was possible for me to give. There just was not enough of me to go around. They requested my help on all sorts of tasks from the time they entered the room in the morning until they left in the afternoon. Their pleas ranged from asking for help to find lost items (a pencil, a book, or a missing lunch) to settling petty arguments. Also, I spent much time explaining over and over again the simplest instructions.
Once all these things were settled, we would finally begin the English lesson. Immediately, someone would interrupt to ask, "Are we having gym class today?" or "Can I do math in ink?" or "May I go to the nurse?" When I would ask a question such as, "What is the predicate of this sentence?" someone would raise a hand to tell me that "grandma’s cat died" or that an aunt was having a baby.
Sometimes during history, while I used maps and pictures to demonstrate the perils Columbus faced on his westward voyage of discovery, one pupil might develop an intense interest in the garbage collectors outside the window, another in tying his shoes, and yet another in rearranging his crayons for the fourth time.
During math, students received my help with directions on the proper page in the text, an example was given, and attention was directed to further instructions on the board. Almost invariably someone would open the book to the wrong page, another would need to have the instructions repeated, etc.
It never occurred to some of my students to take the initiate to solve minor problems themselves. They leaned on me, depended on me for everything, and took little or no responsibility. The children were likable and friendly, but their insatiable demands were exhausting.
It became normal to feel tired and frustrated at the end of the day. To me, it seemed that my students were capable of doing much more for themselves, but they were just not motivated or inclined to be self-reliant.
It was discouraging to see some of my brightest students (according to my observations and the school records) doing only average work. A few students worked independently, paid attention, and learned their lessons well—but they were called "teacher’s pets" by the others. The slower students who made a lot of mistakes were frequently the source for humor among the more advantaged students. My efforts to overcome the lack of motivation and self-discipline led me to explore and use many methods. A firm set of rules was established and strictly enforced. Interruptions were discouraged and cut short. Challenging enrichment assignments were given to students who did above-average work, In addition, lessons were taped for those students who could not read well and student tutors were assigned to help them. Ability groups were created in academic areas as much as possible. Time and effort were devoted to individual counseling sessions and parent conferences for students who had more than average discipline or learning problems.
Improving Attitudes and Behaviors
None of these techniques nor any combination of them produced lasting results. Then, a middle-school math teacher invited me to join Learnball League. Her enthusiasm overcame my hesitation and convinced me to try it. Nevertheless, little doubts lingered in my mind. Her older students liked it, but would my younger ones? Maybe it worked with her style of teaching, but would it work with mine? However, the League guaranteed results so I thought: "Why not? Maybe this will work." The League sent me a Learnball guide which included detailed instructions. (I purchased a hoop at a local toy store.) As soon as the hoop was in place, the attitudes and behaviors—especially among my problem students—began to improve. The students voted unanimously to try Learnball. Their enthusiasm was tremendous! We formed two teams, elected leaders, and chose other student officials for each team. The students agreed to abide by Learnball rules. (As a practical matter, Learnball rules are simply teacher rules magically transformed by the Learnball format so that they become an acceptable part of the peer group structure.) Once the teams were established, contests covering every aspect of learning were easy to manage.
As the days went by, there were steady improvements in student attitudes, behavior, and performance. Students took pride in having their pencils, books, and assignments ready for each lesson because it helped their team win. Students paid attention, completed more assignments, and enjoyed their successes. Bright students were encouraged to do their best; slower students were patiently coached by their teammates. All levels started and completed assignments on their own. It was easy to capture students’ complete, undivided attention at a moment’s notice. It felt great to be able to spend most of my classroom day teaching for a change. Now there was time to assist individual students who really needed my help. Learnball produced results far beyond my greatest hopes and expectations. It turned my most trying class into my most enjoyable class.
As an active member of the League, it is a pleasure for me to help other teachers by sharing my Learnball experiences. The objectives of the League are to help teachers improve management methods and to increase student motivation. Its main purpose is to provide teachers with specific, helpful information concerning the implementation and maintenance of Learnball in their classroom.
I found Learnball to be a simple concept that provides a well-organized, well disciplined, management method. It is used day-in, day-out, all year long to provide maximum motivation and consistent control. It was painstakingly developed by a single classroom teacher over a period of years beginning in 1966. Since that time, many teachers have contributed ideas and helped eliminate the "bugs" inherent in any new idea. Learnball also became the subject of a doctoral dissertation in 1970. Now, it is used by teachers in most subject areas from the lower primary grades to senior high school.
"The Learnball League," by Joan Peckham Sneed, originally appeared in The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, is reprinted by permission of The Delta Kappa Gamma Society International.