Education Trends

What LeBron Can Tell Us About Learning

August 9, 2010

In my last post, I lamented that LeBron James announced he was going to the Miami Heat the same day that Florida's Teachers of the Year were honored in Orlando, but media attention to these two events was totally misplaced. I also said that "basketball has a few lessons to teach us about learning. In sports, we know it's about performance and what athletes do and not about memorizing the rules of the game." LeBron knows the rules of basketball, but it's what he does with the ball that makes him one of the greatest players we've ever seen.

My favorite story on this point was told to me by Roger Nichols, director of the Boston Museum of Science in the mid-80s, and I tell it again in my new book, Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools. Dr. Nichols felt so strongly about reaching children early with the excitement of science that he gave up his faculty position at Harvard Medical School to lead the Museum of Science during the last chapter of his career.

As a young assistant professor of education at Harvard, I took my graduate students to visit the Museum of Science and meet with Dr. Nichols. In discussing the need for hands-on science learning, Nichols had us imagine parents at the dinner table asking their young son or daughter the question asked millions of times every school day: "So, what did you learn in school today?" The child shrugs, as they often do, and says, "We learned to play basketball." The parents then ask, "How did you do that?" The child answers, "Well, we sat in the gym and the teacher passed out these books and we turned to chapter one, about passing the basketball. We learned there are three types of passes-the bounce pass, the chest pass, and the one-handed pass."

"OK," parents would say, wanting to know more, "What happened next?" The child continues, "We read the next chapter about dribbling. And another chapter on shooting. We learned there's the set shot, the bank shot, and the jump shot." After a few minutes of this recitation, most parents, growing increasingly exasperated, would challenge: "But did the teacher ever give you a basketball and take you on the court to play?" "No," the child sighs. "We just read the book until the bell rang."Nichols said that parents in America would never stand for this: sports taught as memorization of terms and reading about what athletes do. Parents of high school basketball players would be marching on the principal's office the next day and complaining to the school board. Many communities take their high school sports teams very, very, seriously. In some cases, too seriously. I once asked a high school science teacher why his school had seen eight principals replaced in ten years. Poor student achievement? Low faculty morale? His answer: "We haven't had a winning football team."

Sports require performance, watching others perform, and observing oneself performing. Sports coaches and athletes routinely make use of videotape analysis of games to improve performance. Yet millions of parents settle for science, mathematics, history, and other subjects taught through rote memorization of vocabulary from textbooks, while their children never get a chance to actively "perform" real science or history.

Science and mathematics education should get students out of the classroom and collecting data in fields and streams, at traffic intersections, and in their larger communities. They could begin by seeking answers to the everyday questions they encounter in their own lives, such as "Where does the water in your house come from? Where does it go to? And how can you measure its quality?" The learning of history should immerse students in original documents, photographs, and music, as the Library of Congress's American Memory collections do so well.

So, this fall, I humbly propose a new national campaign to teach basketball with textbooks. If the ensuing expressions of outrage by parents and demonstrations at school board meetings lead to energetic discussions about active hands-on, minds-on learning in academic subjects, this short-lived campaign will be very worthwhile. It will make us smarter about learning and move us closer to creating the kind of curriculum an Education Nation needs.

Editor's Note: Did you miss our webinar with Milton Chen? Click here for the archive video, and to get the full list of resources that were mentioned during the show.

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