Last year I did a TIME column on what education could learn from professional football featuring the Daly brothers – former teachers, one’s now an NFL coach and the other leads TNTP. The three of us will go deeper on that issue at an Askwith Forum at HGSE on April 2.
Today, as you get ready for Sunday’s game, here’s a guest post by Deanna Burney on the same issue:
What the Teaching Profession Can Learn from the NFL
When Tom Brady connects with Wes Welker, as he does most weeks, it is not luck or good intentions that yield touchdowns. Anyone who has played a sport knows wanting to succeed is important – but not enough. For a quarterback and receiver to work so well together, they must study the playbook, practice their plays, and benefit from the leadership of trusted coaches to hone and make the most of the players’ diverse natural talents. No successful NFL team is “winging it” or relying solely upon the innate skill of individual players to win. In this way, educational leaders have much to learn from professional sports teams. Recently, John Merrow opined that teaching is not a “team sport” as we typically understand the term when used in reference to athletics. He points out that schools’ structures – their governance, scheduling, and evaluation systems – are not designed for collaboration or “team play.” I agree and would add that the most glaring obstacle to teachers, and the teaching profession as a whole, functioning as a team is that educators lack a “playbook” – a common knowledge base uniting the “team” in its understanding of task and desired outcome.
In the NFL while variations exist from team to team, and approaches to the game continue to evolve, the strategy still boils down to the playbook. Every team has a plan for what to do on fourth and long; every NFL receiver and quarterback knows the fade, the slant, the post pattern. These terms may sound like jargon to us, but any pro football player would instantly recognize them because their livelihood depends upon it. And yet, the playbook must serve as a series of guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. Whether on the gridiron or in the classroom, the person “calling the plays” must have the flexibility and a firm knowledge of best practices in order to assess and appropriately react to unexpected circumstances.
In contrast to the NFL, education has little to no common language for creating or utilizing a professional knowledge for teaching – no “playbook” per se. Yes, it has its jargon – “differentiated instruction” for example. But if we are to use this example, found in the syllabi of many professional teacher preparation programs, there is little consensus about exactly what it is or how to make it happen effectively and consistently.
In sports, knowledge is gained and accumulated from experience, and every professional sport maintains careful records. Often they employ the kinds of statistics not taught until high school or college, but are discussed and debated by people of all levels of education in every sports bar in America. There are records of who scored the most points (Morten Anderson kicked for 2,544 during his 25-year career), which team scored the most two-point conversions in a season (6 by the 1994 Miami Dolphins), or who played in the most Pro Bowls (Randall McDaniel and Will Shields share a record 12 appearances). Of course, these stats are testament to the outstanding abilities of players and coaches, but they also provide insight into experiments, failures and successes of training techniques, leadership methods and the playbook. Current coaches and players have an endless well of information from which to draw in building their playbook. Cross reference this data with what is known about the skills of players and teammates, and coaches and players are well equipped to design smart, successful plays .
Education, by contrast, has no comparable wide-ranging, nationwide compendium of information or ideas about teaching and learning. The philosopher and science historian Karl Popper described three worlds of knowledge for teachers: interacting with students, accumulating knowledge for themselves, and – most importantly – treating ideas for teaching as objects to be shared publicly as well as stored and passed along to the next generation. Education is lacking that which Popper deems key to the success of education.
Such a knowledge base could, for example, assist a teacher from Los Angeles in addressing a challenge that has already been faced by a teacher in Detroit. We live in a society in which access to knowledge and usable information is only a few keystrokes away. A doctor can call up an X-ray of a patient from across the continent; your phone can find the nearest burger joint. Want to install an entertainment system in your Toyota Prius? Instructions are on YouTube. Fortunately, good teaching is going on in thousands of classrooms across the country every day. The very fact that teaching varies widely from school to school –and even from classroom to classroom – means there are bound to be innovations to be learned, and failures to be avoided. The challenge is in identifying those successful innovations, making that information more readily accessible, and integrating it into our daily practices as teachers and leaders of teachers.
Tom Brady and Wes Welker would no doubt say it’s not just about knowledge, it’s also about execution. Just as professional sports strategies evolve as a result of trial and error, innovation and equipment advances, so too must education. The tenure of an NFL coach depends upon his creating new wrinkles in the playbook, practicing the plays extensively, having a contingency plan for when things do not go as expected, and trusting that when the lights go on and the whistle blows, the team is well prepared to successfully execute the plays. As educators, students, parents, and business leaders, we all have a stake in the successful education of children – a much greater stake than in our Fantasy Football picks. We would benefit greatly by looking closely at those professions where a common language and knowledge base are at the core of practice, such as medicine, engineering, law, and yes, even sports.
Deanna Burney is an educational researcher and consultant. She has served as a teacher, counselor, and principal in the School District of Philadelphia, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Camden City, NJ, school district, and Chief School Administrator for a charter school in Camden As a researcher, Burney has worked in collaboration with Richard Elmore on the High Performance Learning Communities study, and was a senior researcher at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.