Learning on the Field and in the Classroom

In addition to my duties in the classroom, I also coach soccer. I began playing around age five and was lucky enough to play at the college level. The sport has been so good to me; opening many doors for me to travel the United States and meet amazing people and teammates from all over the globe. Even to this day, I get excited to go out to practice with my team…lacing up the cleats and jumping into a rondo to try and nutmeg everyone. It truly is a beautiful game that teaches so much about self-sacrifice, working within a team, and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Not only does play on the soccer field imitate much that can lead a person to being very successful, it also mimics the classroom. Most practices are setup the same way:

-Introduction of concept to focus on for the session.

This usually resembles players listening to the coach describe what/how/when/why this concept is important to the game. A short demonstration may occur where players watch the concept performed properly.

-Implementation of that concept at the individual level.

At this point, players are usually given a ball to slowly walk through the process, making sure they understand their role in the larger scheme. Ample amount of time here is important to insure correct understanding of how to perform the concept.

Practice the concept in a small-sided game.

Now the entire team will, depending on the concept, split into a few small groups and practice together. The goal here is to see all players at least understanding what to do, even if they may not physically perform exactly correct.

– Application of the concept in a full-sided game.

Lastly, the concept is taken to a full 11 versus 11 game. Can the players properly execute the concept of the session?

Now, of course this is just a general day. Practice moves from direct instruction from the coach while players watch/listen, to individual attempts from the players, to small group work, to full field performance.

Do I see similarities between practice on the field and proper classroom instruction? Yep. Most days in my classroom begin with instruction of material coming from me before students practice on their own with the information. Then, students may work in small groups to chat and discuss any misconceptions about the material. Finally, we all come back together to further elaborate on the information and work to use our new knowledge for good.

My worry as a coach and teacher? One of the biggest criticisms of soccer coaching in the United States is that we generally gloss over or completely skip the direct instruction and self-practice aspects of many sessions, moving too quickly into the small-sided and full-sided games. I get it…it’s fun to play the games. And, honestly, when I was beginning as a coach, skipping to the games was a coverup for my lack of understanding of how to properly coach. It was a safety net and took the pressure off me to hold players accountable for the small aspects that create the beautiful game. As the coach, I didn’t need to have a superior knowledge base because the players were simply going to run around kicking the ball.

Do I see any similarities between this criticism and how classrooms are being run? Yep. Soccer practices where players skip straight to the games is akin to the classroom where instruction skips straight to the top levels of Bloom’s taxonomy:

Skimming over or ignoring Bloom’s bottom levels of ‘remembering’ and ‘understanding’ can be disastrous for learning (Doug Lemov wrote a fantastic blog on this topic). It is darn near impossible to move up the levels to ‘apply’, ‘analyze’, ‘evaluate’, and ‘create’ with information that you do not remember or understand.

It is impossible to be creative with knowledge you do not have.

I don’t know why, but I feel like have to throw a disclaimer like this in with most of my blog articles: Am I saying the top levels of Bloom’s taxonomy are bad or even unnecessary? No. Not in the slightest. What I am saying is I believe we are becoming so caught up with projects, creativity, and innovation in the classroom that we are forgetting a necessary ingredient for success…acquiring the knowledge. Without remembering and understanding the information, creativity becomes a moot point.

I would encourage you, whether on an athletic field or in the classroom, to ensure the basics are mastered before moving to larger application of the material. Your players and/or students will have a much better chance, in the long run, to be more successful.

How can you allow for students to be given the proper opportunities to remember and understand in the classroom?

4 comments

  1. Blake – I admire your writing about the brain and learning. It will continue to help improve our effectiveness as educators. I, too, am a high school teacher and soccer coach, but my thinking about coaching over the last decade and a half has evolved away from what you proffer in this piece. Much of that thinking is rooted in my coaching development path that began in coach-centered, direct instruction and has moved towards a more “ecological” approach.

    The notion that teaching a skill to a player in an isolated setting transfers directly to being able to use that skill in a far more dynamic game environment (that includes defenders) is more supposition and tradition than evidence-based. Isolated skill development detaches the decision-making part of the process that is essential in game play. More and more research is showing that coupling the decision and the technical skill is more effective. [For more on perception and action in sports, etc., see @shakeywaits (Twitter) who has a podcast and is doing some really interesting research at Arizona State University.]

    Also, the notion that a games-based approach to coaching is somehow inferior coaching, or a detriment to learning, is also just not true. Letting the players play withOUT any coaching interventions may not be very effective (although a pretty large number of Brazilians would disagree), that is NOT what an effective games-based, or “ecological,” approach looks like. Rather, an effective coach establishes an environment that uses constraints or incentives within that environment in which player skills will naturally emerge. There is a ton of new research and growing evidence that this highly effective for skill acquisition, and many in that field are are moving towards that model.

    On a personal note, I would really recommend looking into this for your coaching. I have found my players are far more engaged in training, develop at faster rates, and the overall experience for everyone involved is much richer.

    Lastly, I just can’t fathom detaching learning from fun. With fun brings engagement and a much stronger desire to stick with it. There is also a compelling argument that one of the reasons all but two of our youth sports in this country are experiencing a significant drop off in participation by middle school is because of too much focus on the coach-driven technical development and less on play and enjoyment (which, along with spending time with friends, is the top reason kids participate in sports).

    I hope you look into the research on this, especially because you value evidence-based concepts. You also have a broad reach among educators and are vested in moving our craft forwards. Thanks for reading, and keep up the good work!

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