Sunday, December 19, 2010

What football teams can teach us about student motivation?

There are two blanket statements I cannot stand to hear teachers say. One goes something like, “I just have the dumbest group of students, why don't they understand what I am teaching?" While it would be preposterous for me to deny that some people are blessed with higher intelligences than others, I doubt there are large segments of our population that are incapable of learning. Instead, I would say you probably need to reflect on how you are "teaching" them. 

The other is usually some take on, “they just don't care, they are the most unmotivated students.” The job of an educator is to make learning worthwhile and find ways to motivate students. It sure is a tough task and often times the results are not immediate, but teachers must take some responsibility for student motivation. 

I teach middle school social studies and help coach baseball at a local high school. A couple weeks ago I was walking around the high school campus with the varsity baseball coach and we peaked our heads into a film study session for the football team. All 30 players were glued to the screen as the coach was basically giving a lecture pointing out the different sets and tendencies of the opposing squad. As any football fan knows, football schemes are wildly complex and great football players must use information to make decision on the fly during the game. As I sat there mesmerized at the coaches "classroom management", I realized that these highly motivated and attentive athletes are usually the prime candidates for statements like the ones I previously mentioned. Why is this and what lessons can be learned?



When I was thinking about this question, I ran into this wonderful thesis by James Michael Rifenburg at Auburn University. He set out to investigate how college football players struggle with literary composition while being able to master the complex composition and diagrams of football plays. He basically goes on to argue that the football field is a bastion for intent participation. Basically, it is a mode of learning where social instruction and modeling is key to learning new ideas within specific communities. It breeds motivation and metacognition within learning communities. Therefore, the football field is a perfect learning environment. Based on his thesis and my own informal observations these are things we can learn from football teams to motivate and educate students. 

1. Collaboration is key to a winning football team. You work together with one goal in mind and realize that through learning from one another the whole will be better. Great teams realize there is no competition (grades) for individual players. The grade is how well the team performs together. If you lead a team of isolated and individualistic players you will loose.

2. Modeling is a very key process for both coaches and players. Older players usually teach younger players how to run plays and perform routes or blocks. 

3. Most learning occurs through hands-on instruction and participation. Students are allowed to use concepts and ideas in a tangible way, practical way almost immediately. They do this under the aid of the coaches, not by themselves after the team has concluded (homework). Also, on great teams they talk to the coaches during practice to tweak plays and their input is valued and necessary. 

4. Reflection is fostered for both the players and the coach. I would also assert assessment to be mainly formative. This takes place in the case of film study. While is may seem that winning one game is everything, often they are just steps to a larger goal. Even if you lose the game you learn from your mistakes and work on them so that you are better for the next. The season doesn't end with one test (I mean game). 

5. Instruction and learning are meaningful and relevant. The team works together to win games and championships. But really the team is just working to be the best they can be-- to perform at top ability. The players see the purpose and it is worth being motivated for.


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