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What LeBron Can Tell Us About Learning

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow
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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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Lee Tilson's picture

How about a little competition?

Why can't we have a real life science experiment about learning?

Let's take a number of classes, and test out twenty different ways of teaching the material. Let's see which lessons are remembered.

Who has the best method of teaching algebra? Or some other subject?

malcolm bellamy's picture
malcolm bellamy
Teaching and Learning Consultant in Southend, Essex, U.K.

I loved this post. It is so true that we would never allow sports to be taught in a boring textbook-centred way. Many years ago in Britain, where I live, I heard about a soccer coach who wouldn't allow his team to practise with a ball! The idea was that they would be so anxious to see it on the Saturday they would really be keen to get it and keep it in the match!
This reminds me so much of our approach to teaching science and history. Milton Chen is right..we must make it practical and we must seek real world applications and investigations for the children. It is amazing that we have produced any scientists and historians with the factory system that we all have at the moment.

Don Ernst's picture

This post is important because it reminds us of how much we don't act on what we know and instead are driven by politics and fads. Frank Wilson in his important book The Hand: How its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture, reminds us that the hand is an extension of the brain and shapes learning and human experience in powerful ways. Yet, little education innovation is shaped by our increasing understanding of cognition and neuroscience. Basketball is all about the connection between hand and brain, but little that goes on in our test-based, fixed-standards schools invokes the possibilities of joining brain and hand to deeply engage our young people in meaningful learning. So, why not teach lay-ups and math skills? Thanks Milton for helping us put a little pressure on those who think innovation is simply another way to teach to a test that does little to inspire, motivate, or engage our young people for the challenges of our collective future.

Don Ernst

Rae Pica's picture
Rae Pica
Children's physical activity specialist/Author/Radio host

Oh, what a fabulous analogy! Thank you for sharing it with us! As a proponent of active learning in all areas of education, I keep waiting for the "revolution" in education, particularly since we have so much research to support the role of physical and sensory experience in the learning process. Sadly, the policy makers seem to remain unaware of the research -- or of the goals of a true education.

Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

In the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience [Paperback]
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Author) the analogy of academic learning and sports is also made. The crucial components of achievement in sports involve the challenge, immediate feedback, instruction and the attainment of goals. Theses are the elements that make up a person's intrinsic motivation to learn.

Project-based science that includes a inquiry approach to doing science, within the teacher's pedagogy, can provide these same crucial elements for academic success in the classroom. Students are inspired and motivated to learn. It is self-driven like we see in sports.

Take a hard look at this analogy and you will see the merits of pursing this approach to learning in the 21st century classroom.

Emily V. Wade's picture

In 1983 Roger Nichols chaired a committee of six other museum directors to address the declining percent of students electing science and engineering as majors after a discussion with Dr. Paul Gray, then President of MIT. MITS was founded and continues to provide a two-week Summer Institute, taught by museum eductors, for K-8 teachers in inquiry-based, hands-on, minds-on science for their classes. Over 3000 teachers from Massachusetts and adjacent states have participated since 1986 with the exception of 1992. Over 40 museums provide the instructors. Check out our web page,, for more information. I am so glad that you started everyone thinking of the analogy with sports teaching. Cheers, Paddy (Emily V. Wade)

Jennifer Hallam's picture

Hi Milton-- I'm working on a project that promotes interactive learning; it's called PEOPLE ROCK! It's a series of music CDs, each of which focuses on figures who have "rocked" the world in different ways. The first CD, "Awesome Artists," is almost done. Inquiry-based, interactive lesson plans, synced up to National Standards in science, language arts, math, social science, and more, are being crafted around each CD. Please check out the project on If you like what you see and hear, please help us spread the word. Thanks!

Mark Pickard's picture
Mark Pickard
Teacher and Pastor

there is a time a Football player must sit down and study the playbook or the game film.
I'm not criticizing, just commenting, because I know it is just analogy and makes some good points.

Cheryl Mahoney's picture

Thank you, Milton, for this discussion on experiential learning. Nichols' analogy to learning basketball with a textbook is both apt and entertaining. We do tend to simply accept that science, history and other subjects are taught through lectures and textbooks--I once took an astronomy class where we were never required to actually go outside and look at the stars! How much more engaging and instructive it would be to take the hands-on approach you describe.

I think this applies to so many other areas too--community involvement and public service included. We could talk to students about giving and volunteering, but it would mean so much more to encourage them to actually do it. That's part of where UniversalGiving comes in: we're a web-based marketplace that helps people give and volunteer with the top-performing, vetted organizations all over the world. So after talking about giving, someone can come to our site and find a quality opportunity to actually do it! We have many opportunities that are great for kids who are looking for that hands-on experience of service learning too. For example, you can give five dollars to send a refugee child a toy, or fifteen dollars to send a child a soccer ball.

I heard about your book and your work from UniversalGiving's CEO, Pamela Hawley, after she heard you interviewed on NPR with Michael Krasny. I'm glad I had the opportunity to explore your blog, and please let me know if we can ever be a resource to you!

Cheryl Mahoney

Steve Fouts's picture

Great analogy! As educators that are charged with preparing our kids for the future, we should be letting them experience the real world in their learning. We should use everyday issues we face with money to teach decimals, fractions, and percents. My 5th grade students shop for cars and houses online, make and use their own credit cards, order school supplies, and balance budgets not because I tell them to, but because they WANT to.

These projects got started when my students asked the ultimate question, "When are we going to use this?". When they heard the answers, they wanted to know if there was a way they could do it too. Let your students know the when's, why's, and how's, and then listen to your students. They will tell you what will have meaning to them, and put relevance and motivation into your lessons.

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