Radical Education Reform: Exhibit A

education football 2.png

This post, a follow up to my previous “opening remarks,” has been a long time coming, but I found myself thinking about the NCAA football championship game, and realized I had stumbled upon “Exhibit A.” Saying that I was thinking about the football game may be misleading: I didn’t know which teams were actually playing, or when the game was until I googled it a few days before it happened. Obviously, I am not really a football fan, but I am generally aware of my alma mater’s team (BYU), and I occasionally watch a game, but I usually stop caring about football when BYU is no longer playing, which tends to be rather early in the post-season schedule. Furthermore, I have never played organized football, but I do participate in “turkey bowls” and other recreational games, although I sometimes wish that we’d play soccer or ultimate frisbee instead.

Despite my lackluster interest and anemic emotional investment in football, I somehow know quite a lot about it. A few weeks ago, for example, I went to a friend’s house to watch a bowl game. When a yellow flag appeared near the line of scrimmage, I knew that it was probably a false start. I knew what might lead to a pass interference penalty. And I had opinions about what the team should do: stop trying to run it up the middle, risk the turnover on downs and go for the three yards instead of punting, and bench a particular player who seems to have forgotten how to tackle. As I gestured and shouted at the TV, I was struck by the absurdity of my behavior. I was suggesting that–with no real experience or training–I somehow had a better idea of the strategy my team should be pursuing than its coaches.

My deference toward the professional coaching staff soon morphed into amazement that I even had an opinion. Where did my ideas even come from? Nobody had ever taught me football strategy. I doubt that anybody had even taught me about the various penalties. Somehow, my limited experience with watching football games, hearing the announcers’ commentary, and listening to my friends’ game day discussions had coalesced into a surprisingly nuanced albeit amateur understanding of the game.

Because I study education, this fascinated me: The majority of educational research addresses in-school learning, which is intentionally orchestrated by a teacher (and often forced upon the students). That I had somehow organically learned about football without any pedagogical planning or intention was amazing. I said out loud, “I know about football. I really do.” My friend gave me a funny look. I decided to continue my thinking silently.

Our society teaches its members about football. For most, there is no formal instruction, just points of access all along a spectrum of expertise (from my “they really should stop trying to run it up the middle” to the ESPN analysts). Anybody who is interested can find statistics and commentary specific to their favorite team. Nationwide, high schools highlight their football team, undergraduates fill football stadiums, holiday celebrations include watching specific football games, and the NFL practically owns Monday night.  There are respectable careers in playing, reporting, coaching, commentating, and analyzing football. Games are publicly televised and broadly publicized. There are bitter rivalries, hometown loyalties, and colorful celebrities–intrigue and interest enough to engage a population. People may choose to avoid football (and consequently avoid learning about it), but American society is structured to teach its members about the sport.

That may not be particularly interesting in and of itself, but it illustrates the educational power of society. Imagine what could happen if we created similar structures to organically educate people about something other (and more important) than football. I for one would trade my knowledge of football for a better understanding of the history of the Middle East. Could a society teach something along those lines as pervasively as we currently teach football?

6 thoughts on “Radical Education Reform: Exhibit A

  1. Are there “traditional” education examples of this? I’m thinking of learning to read, maybe? Certainly learning to speak. And are we talking about massive change (cultural) or small communities (maybe within a school or internet group)?

    1. Good questions. I think learning to speak is definitely an example. I’ll keep thinking about other more traditional concepts that are already “taught” by society. For this thought experiment, I’m imagining society writ large, but I think any microcosm could do the same kind of thing.

  2. David,

    As always, your musings provoke much thinking for me. I love Josh’s suppositions and additional clarifying questions on this. It think there are definitely traditional examples, at least on on basic levels. And I wonder about the potential of affecting full cultural change.

    As you mentioned gaining a better understanding of the history of the Middle East, my thoughts immediately turned to the influence that social media (and the media in general) has on societal education. And my answer to your final question is a resounding YES! Society can, and does, pervasively teach its members. Through current technology, I believe that the masses are being educated, but I struggle with how one-sided that that education tends to be, and how it is creating multiple generations of people who have lost the ability, and perhaps the desire, to learn through thoughtful debate. Members “follow” mostly those who agree with their individual ideals, and, generally speaking, fail to find and acknowledge the truth that exists in the opposing point of view.

    When I think of radically reforming education, I think that egocentrism must be quashed, with each of us then engaging in thoughtful debate by listening to the ideas and thoughts of those who disagree with us, and then seeking for the truths that they have. I believe that if we could find a way to harness social media in a way that would encourage this kind of learning, we could easily achieve success in small communities AND perhaps even create a massive cultural shift.

    1. Valena, always good to hear from you. I love the idea of quashing egocentrism in general and within social media in particular. A lot would change, I think, if we imagined our Facebook posts as the text for another’s education.

  3. One example came to mind. Using technology is a skill not necessarily taught. There is peer pressure to learn. There are immediate awards for learning. And there are options for specialization for everyone, even though no one person is required to specialize in one field.

    Those are some characteristics of a field that parallels what you described. Now the question is can you tailor subjects of study to have those characteristics, or do people bring those characteristics inherently to certain activities?

    1. Technology–probably even more pervasive than football. One of the most amazing demonstrations of learning must be how within an incredibly short amount of time, practically everyone has learned how to use a cell phone and appropriated cell phone usage into many aspects of their lives. So could you teach a population something else that effectively? That’s the question. I’ll sleep on it.

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