How Soccer Will Save the World

4 Mar

“Even as a footballer, I was always being creative.” Eric Cantona

I love how a meaningful piece of writing, something that resonates with you, changes the way you see everything.

Seth Godin’s ‘Stop Stealing Dreams‘ doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but it restates, reframes and recaptures a lot of ideas about teaching, learning and education. As I was reading, I’d often find myself nodding and thinking ‘yes, that’s what I think too’ (here are my first thoughts on ‘Stop Stealing Dreams’).

Bringing those ideas into focus has changed the way I see other things as well. I find myself categorizing ideas and methods barely mentioned in Godin’s book into industrial or non-industrial thinking (some writers use ‘post-industrial’ here, but I think this way of thinking pre-dates the industrial revolution. We are merely returning to it).

For example it’s now obvious that standardized testing is an intrusion of scientific management techniques (industrial thinking) into teaching and learning, an artistic and non-industrial activity. That’s why things like EQAO are problematic for so many teachers and students. Round peg into square hole.

Such categorizations are imperfect but sometimes it’s a useful lens to view things through . It was through this very lens that I was viewing another of my favourite topics, soccer, and reflecting on it’s place in the world and how it relates to modern education.

Modern soccer is a non-industrial activity. It pre-dates industrial thinking by centuries, having been played from the 3rd century BCE. Soccer is an inherently interdependent activity, just like learning. No single player dominates a match, and great players rise to the top only with the help of teamates.

Playing soccer is a complex problem solving activity, where each time you have the ball you must choose the best of twelve possible options in a few seconds. One of the highest compliments a player can receive is to be called ‘creative’, which happens when mental and physical skills work together to solve the problems faced in the game in unexpected and unusual ways.

Soccer is also a very dynamic and unpredictable activity. Conditions are always changing and strategies have to be re-evaluated and modified on an ongoing basis. The best players and teams are those that can do this and effectively communicate with each other. Sounds like modern learning doesn’t it?

Another key way that soccer is obviously non-industrial is the way it resists quantification. Individual statistics are rarely referred to and not very helpful in assessing a player’s performance. Compare that to the statistical analysis of baseball players highlighted in ‘Moneyball‘ or in other sports discussed at the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT. At the Sloan Conference papers were presented analysing aspects of Football, Baseball, Basketball and Hockey, but not Soccer, the world’s most popular sport.

In the culture of soccer non-industrial thinking goes even further. Players and fans often devalue the most important statistic of the game, the score. Teams aspire to the play the game ‘the right way’ and teams that play in an efficient but uncreative way are disparaged. Most players and fans would rather lose trying to play ‘good football’, than win playing an efficient ‘kick and run’ style.  True fans celebrate soccer as ‘the beautiful game’ where the end definitely does not justify the means.

Many North American sports fans, weaned on ‘win at all costs’ approaches, struggle to understand this aspect of soccer, and it highlights a fundamental difference in industrial and non-industrial thinking.

What does this mean for teaching and learning? It highlights that there are activities in a variety of areas (arts, problem solving, sports, etc.) which encourage and support the development of non-industrial thinking that students need to be successful in the future as described by Godin. We need to be aware of these activities and use them in education to develop these qualities in our students.

The dominance of industrial thinking in so many aspects of our culture (evaluating sports by statistics, movies by box office receipts, authors by books sold, people by numbers of FB friends) indicates how deeply ingrained it is. As we try and develop creativity and collaboration in our students and our schools we must realize that, at least in the short term, we are very much swimming against a cultural tide.

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