More Super Bowl School

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.

8 Responses to “More Super Bowl School”

  1. jmiller Says:

    And in the NFL, every single team except for one is a LOSER. The game of football is about crushing one’s opponents. I don’t think this is a very good guide for educa…wait, oh yes, silly me.

  2. Kent Says:

    There are less than 2,000 active players in the NFL. That is about equal to 1/4 of the Harvard undergrad student body. Except that we are talking about a far more elite and select group than just the top 25% of Harvard. An educational comparison would be to select the top 2000 students nationwide from the Ivys, the public Ivys, Stanford, Rice, etc.

    That would be a rarified group of students indeed. One imagines that you could use just about any sort of instruction with them and they would operate at an extremely high level.

    The difficulty with teaching is not reaching the top 0.0001 percent, or even the top 10%. It’s reaching the broad middle and bottom. Doesn’t matter what kind of common “vocabulary” you have. It is just dang tough to teach kids who are hungry, pregnant, abused at home, homeless, sick, taking care of sick parents, afraid of deportation, in foster care, abusing drugs, or working 50 hours a week outside of school to help their single mom pay the rent and keep food on the table.

  3. jane Says:

    Although teaching is radically different than playing football at any level, I was recently struck by some parallels in the role of leadership (whether football coach, teacher leaders, principals or central office leaders). The 49ers were a losing team for years until a new coach arrived. The same players who had played miserably for many years suddenly took off under a new coach who signals (with intensity) high expectations, recognizes and nurtures abilities, fosters collaboration, and, in so doing, creates a climate of trust and respect. He also knows a lot and the players respect that but the human side is powerful. These are the same qualities I see in my current study of a high-poverty successful district in California’s Central Valley. Huge differences, of course, but still some similarities.

  4. Adam Nunnari Says:

    I would like to agree and disagree with you:

    The teaching profession, as a whole, can isolate the teacher from the “playbook”. However, if you compare the teacher as a wrestler (the type in high school and college) rather than a football player, the individual outcome benefits the team.

    Each teacher can attack education with their different teaching styles and create a learning experience for each of the students. The teacher, individually, can make a difference. Administration, coaches, or supervisors can steer the teacher into the right direction, but it is ultimately, the teacher responsibility to succeed.
    Collaboration is a key ingredient with progression in the educational system. Within the school, teachers can discuss other students and strategies. However, much of my experience deals with teachers complaining about their student, not options for improving the classroom. The Professional Learning Communities that I have been reading online have given new insight to my personal teaching practice. My hope is that teachers seeking enlightenment, motivation, or fresh ideas will be proactive within their research.

  5. Ken Says:

    I found this post insightful for the simple reason that while plumbers, doctors, airline pilots, and yes, even professional athletes all have a common knowledge base to draw from, the education profession has continued to develop only marginally because the people with the most knowledge, skill, and expertise to improve it – teachers – continue to work under conditions in which the norms of autonomy, isolation, and independence prevail. Every teacher has their own playbook, and this is a big part of the problem. But it could also be a key to improving the profession.

    Imagine if, when working with a student who is having difficulty learning, a teacher could distill the collective wisdom of thousands of educators who have worked in similar situations and found success. Better yet, let’s start with the teacher in the room next door or the one down the hall. Unfortunately, the profession seldom makes time for the kind of sustained collaboration embedded in the context of the classroom that yields insights about the teaching methods that work best for kids with diverse learning needs. Instead, most professional development continues to be episodic, disconnected from practice, and rarely supported. Knowledge generated through collaboration occurs infrequently at best; the good knowledge that does exist is rarely assimilated.

    It has often been said that good teaching matters; that compared to other teachers, a highly effective teacher has a disproportionate impact when it comes to altering the academic outcomes of their students. Just as every athlete can point to the person who made a difference in their lives – the older brother or sister who played catch with them in the yard; the dedicated parent who drove them to games; the coach who pushed them to excel on the field – everyone can recall a teacher who inspired them and nurtured them to new heights. Every child deserves teachers like these. For this to be possible, teachers need the time, space, place – and most critically, sufficient support – to learn from (and contribute to) the playbook.

  6. Jackie Says:

    Teachers and coaches are extremely difference. In some ways they are similar. Teachers need to really learn deeply about the student academically and personally to find the right learning methods for that child. Teachers are learning from principals, teachers, districts about what new motivating and techniques they can use in the classroom. Teaching is not like a sport, where the game has certain rules and must be followed by the coach and players. There are different strategies and plays that coaches and players create to win but, teachers and students must work together to find the right strategy that helps them learn. We all learn differently and teachers have to proceed to find that way for each individual, unlike where coaches need to find a strategy for there team. Students are competing like players, they are succedding to their best as an individual.

  7. phillipmarlowe Says:

    Applying the Success of NCLB to the Improvement of Interscholastic Football
    byteacherken
    NCLB: The Football Version
    1. All teams must make the state playoffs and all MUST win the championship. If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are the champions, and coaches will be held accountable. If after two years they have not won the championship, their footballs and equipment will be taken away UNTIL they do win the championship.

    2. All kids will be expected to have the same football skills at the same time even if they do not have the same conditions or opportunities to practice on their own. NO exceptions will be made for lack of interest in football, a desire to perform athletically, or disabilities of themselves or their parents. ALL KIDS WILL PLAY FOOTBALL AT A PROFICIENT LEVEL!

    3. Talented players will be asked to workout on their own, without instruction. This is because the coaches will be using all their instructional time with the athletes who aren’t interested in football, have limited athletic ability or whose parents don’t like football.

    4. Games will be played year round, but statistics will only be kept in the 4th, 8th, and 11th game.

    It will create a New Age of Sports where every school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimum goals. If no child gets ahead, then no child gets left behind.

    If parents do not like this new law, they are encouraged to vote for vouchers and support private schools that can screen out the non-athletes and prevent their children from having to go to school with bad football players.

    Full credit for the above goes to my friend Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress, who told me to go ahead and post it.

    Pass it on.

  8. KLargo Says:

    As a huge Patriots fan and educator, this article definitely caught my eye!

    First, I do like the football analogy. Often football has been used in business management (through the likes of the ever inspirational Vince Lombardi, whose speeches I have even played in my high school business management classes!). 60 Minutes had a special a few years back comparing leadership styles of both Bill Bellichick and the Panthers coach–so this analogy is commonplace. Second, I do like the importance of stressing a “systems” approach. I believe there should not be a divide between teachers and administration. Third, our data drive world is similar to that of football (however, as “trends” change, often data needs change). I also do agree about the need to stay on top of new advances, which is critical in education. (Although as irony has it, the 60 Minutes piece indicated how NFL coaches cannot use computers on the field–stating how Bellichick must cram all his notes onto his clipboard!). We fail as educators if we are not on top of the latest technologies.

    The only thing I would like to add is that the government does not regulate the NFL. I feel that the negative impact of NcLB made it difficult for education to progress towards true education, rather than being test driven. The rule book has had way too many changes that didn’t make sense to the players! :)

    My closing thought is that, like education, so many people criticize the Patriots for losing the Super Bowl without celebrating the sheer success of making it to this fine, honored event. I think far too often, only the top schools arerecognized, when there are thousands of other schools doing amazing things, that, too, should be honored!!

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