Growing up in Massachusetts, it is hard not to be a fan of the local professional sports teams. The Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots are all amongst the most rabidly followed franchises in their sports, and the recent run of seven championships in the past 12 years is unprecedented. With the Patriots' appearance in the Super Bowl this weekend, an eighth is a realistic possibility. In fact, the Patriots have established a winning tradition in the last decade that has allowed them to put together the longest stretch of sustained excellence in NFL history. But how have they accomplished this in an era where a strict salary cap was supposed to make parity the norm? The answer is simple: the Patriots are masters of situational football. But this concept doesn't have to be restricted to the football field. We can use the principles behind situational football to enhance and improve our education system as well.
What's the Situation?
Situational Football is a straightforward concept. Rather than practice plays without regard to the context in which they will be used, a coach presents players with specific scenarios in which a particular play will be used: attempting to simulate the pressure of that situation. In this way players are trained not only in the physical skills needed to execute the play, but also in the mental aspects of executing the play so that they are not surprised by the intensity of the situation when it arises in a game. In this way even the mental aspects of executing under pressure become routine.
Here is an anecdote I once heard regarding former Patriot place kicker Adam Vinatieri (who kicked the only two Super Bowl winning field goals in NFL history). Most NFL kickers spend the bulk of their practice time off on a separate field, calmly kicking field goal after field goal from every possible distance. Not true for Patriots kickers. They hang out on the sidelines during practice and are thrust onto the field in situations that closely resemble actual game conditions. That might mean that they are asked to make a high-pressure kick with only four seconds on the clock, or they might have to sprint onto the field to kick a 48 yarder as time expires. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and some of his players provide more clarification on the importance of situational practice in this video from Elite Sport Leadership Central.
But how do these concepts relate to education?
School Zone – No Context Allowed!
One of the biggest criticisms of American education is that much of what is taught is irrelevant, or that students can't relate what they are studying to events in their lives. Schools, at least in our Industrial Age model, are known for having students sit in straight rows, for arbitrarily determined amounts of time, studying disembodied facts, figures, and equations. There is almost literally no context for any of this information, either in how it relates to other areas of inquiry or to the world outside the classroom.
In this way, traditional schooling is very much like the NFL placekicker who goes off on his own to casually practice kicking under ideal circumstances. This means that when students, like the kicker, get into actual game action, they do not know how to respond. That is where situational training can make a profound and immediate impact on our educational system and what we expect from graduates at every level.
School Are Parts of Communities!
Schools of all types exist within real communities where opportunities to gain meaningful, contextual experiences are readily available. That makes it all the more shocking that schools are missing opportunities to tie student learning into the community in which they exist. John Dewey knew the value of having students actively engaged with real world tasks to support their learning (History of Experiential Learning, UC Davis), and even before Dewey, apprenticeship was a model in which students learned directly by participating in the work they would ultimately do for a living. This concept changed radically with the Industrial Revolution, where the idea of children as raw materials that were to be shaped into plug-and-play worker drones for factories was prevalent. Specific skills were not necessary because factory work was generally broken down into very small, context-free tasks. In short, students didn't need to know how to integrate into a community of practice because they literally needed to be able to repeat one meaningless motion thousands of times a day.
The world we live in now however requires much more from workers. In a globally connected, information-based economy, broad-based thinking – thinking that can connect knowledge from various fields – is absolutely necessary. This means that having students engaged with people in the community is one way of providing them with an understanding of the ways in which what they are learning in school can be applied in the world. In addition to the benefit to the student, this sort of interaction begins to cultivate the kinds of skills that will provide employers with workers who already know what is expected of them and can step right in to a position and contribute.
Injuries Happen in the NFL
This notion of being able to step right in and contribute ties in nicely with the concept of situational football. Let's return to the Patriots – another part of their sustained success is the fact that all of the players on the roster have been prepared to play as if a situation could arise on any given play where their immediate contribution would be necessary. This happened in 2008, when starting quarterback Tom Brady was injured (knocked out for the entire season). Backup Matt Cassel, who had not started a meaningful game since high school, stepped in and led the team to 11 wins, mostly because he was prepared to contribute. This is the kind of meaningful and useful preparation that we can give our students if we can break free of the classroom and allow them to participate in relevant activities before they become essential for earning a living.
Dewey had the right idea, as do present-day Montessori schools. Both of these models incorporate real world tasks for students and encourage them to interact with adults outside of the classroom. Swinging our curriculums towards a model where more learning occurs outside the classroom and students use technology to connect with instructors, or where virtual learning, games, or simulations are used to allow students to gain hands-on experiences before they need to use their education in the game of life.
Let's make our own students Super Bowl winners by providing them with meaningful experiences before they hit the playing field.