Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Education Could Learn from Soccer

In the February 16 Ottawa Citizen I was quite interested to read Richard Starnes' "Beautiful Game" column about changes to soccer for children in Canada.  In the column he talks about how children in under 9, under 10, and under 11 year old leagues will not be competing for titles.  Rather than focusing on winning games and trying to be first in the league the focus is meant to be on improving skills.

Starnes mentions that many parents and coaches will be unhappy about the changes but points out that this is a selfish reaction from the adults.  He does not say this directly but, the way I see it, those adults want to make themselves feel good by saying "my team/my kid's team won the league championship this year".  It is not about motivating the players, or rewarding the team that improves the most, it is about making adults feel good on the backs of children.

My mind immediately jumped to some conversations that I have had recently with other teachers about marks and marking.  In particular, talking to teachers who have children in the school system I get a sense of what parents are thinking when it comes to their children's marks.  Even for teachers, who ought to know better, the focus is about the mark, the number or the letter, rather than the mark as an indicator of learning.  Our whole culture, from kindergarten to university seems fixated on marks to what I view as an unhealthy degree.

Here is where the connection to soccer comes in.  I think that marks are only really serving parents. If a child gets all As, the parent gets to be proud and tell everyone.  It is like winning the league championship.  If a child has Bs or Cs or Ds you can talk about illnesses or injuries and how he or she will do better next year just like a sports team undergoing a "rebuilding year".  But none of that is about how much the child learned, whether he or she will retain that learning, whether he or she developed skills and habits to assist future learning.  And yet those items are what really matters in the long run.

I wish that education would take a cue from soccer and get rid of marks in elementary school.  It is well understood that almost all children will be moved up through the grades based on their age anyway, so marks really serve no purpose.  Instead of counting As and Bs on the report card, maybe parents will take time to read the comments instead.  Those comments take dozens of hours for elementary teachers to write yet my impression is that only a tiny minority of parents read them because all they want to know is "A, B, C, or D?"

It is great to see soccer putting the focus on learning and improvement for its young participants.  I wonder how long it will take the education system to do the same?

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