Saturday, June 26, 2010

Some Sports Analogies for Education

This past week has seen several sports moments of note:  the US advances to elimination play in the World Cup; John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played the longest tennis match in history, and Edwin Jackson pitched a no-hitter but he issued eight walks.  Each of these events seems to illustrate facts about education that many, especially well meaning but misguided reformers, forget.

If it wasn't clear before this week, it should be clear now: success is often just plain ugly.  No one is going to claim that Isner and Mahut played a great match.  Granted, Isner set a record for aces, but many of those came because Mahut was too tired to move.  Mahut also hit over 100 aces because Isner was too tired to effectively respond.

As for the baseball game, I've never heard a baseball fan say that walks make a game better.  Few pitchers are given the opportunity to give up eight because walks usually lead to runs.  Further in an age of pitch counts, walks drive up the pitch count, and few managers are going to allow their pitchers to throw 149 pitches.

The US World Cup win has been described as "maddening," and "Landon Donovan scuffed the ball into the goal."   This particular example of "the beautiful game" apparently wasn't that beautiful.  

Many educational reformers seem to believe that education is scientific and that there's some magic formula that can make everyone learn.  The fact is that education is "maddening"; teachers scuffle through long days and long school years.  Many of the successes are not caused by skill alone but by a a series of circumstances beyond teachers' control.  Like Donavan's game winning goal, many successes involve luck and being in the right place at the right time.

The other point that the tennis match has illustrated is that success is often costly.  Isner won the marathon match but was easily defeated in his next match.  Jackson's manager is considering holding Jackson out of his next scheduled start.  Likewise, education will have it's costs, even if it's only the fact that the comfortable get troubled while the troubled get comforted.

Update:  Ghana defeats US 2-1 in soccer, a fact that further illustrates that success is difficult to repeat, especially if the initial effort is extremely taxing.

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