All of the above is buildup to say, when Gladwell makes an observation about a social phenomenon-- we should take it seriously. This leads to his exciting observation in a Time Magazine interview where in response to a question on the prevailing failure of urban school reform responds by celebrating the core of the Project Coach model, which uses sports principles to guide the teaching and learning that we do in the program:
Q: You've talked before about the deficiencies of the U.S. public-education system. If you were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — who has about $5 billion in discretionary funding and a mandate to fix our schools — what would you do?
There's precious little experimentation in education. Instead there seems to be a desire for greater regimentation, which I think is nonsense. I think we need to try 100 different things. If I were Arne Duncan, I'd think of myself as a venture capitalist, fund as many wacky and inventive ideas as I could, and closely monitor them to see how they worked.
I've always been fascinated by the idea that in inner-city schools, the thing they do best is sports. They do really, really well in sports. It's not correct to say these schools are dysfunctional; they're highly functional in certain areas. So I've always wondered about using the principles of sports in the classroom. Go same sex; do everything in teams; have teams compete with each other. I'd like to try that. I don't know whether it will work, but it's certainly worth a shot, and we could learn something really useful.
We use a games approach to both sport and learning activities in the program. In sports, a games approach is best understood by what it is not. Here is an example: in our program when we want to teach our novice soccer players how to dribble the ball a conventional approach would be to get players into a line, provide some direct and often didactic instruction (for example, use the inside of your foot to control the ball) and then have the players replicate your instructions while the coach offers feedback.
A games-based approach would involve the coach setting up a grid and telling his/her players-- each of whom has their own ball. "On my count, dribble around the box, but don't let me tag you. We're playing tag and I am IT!" Quickly and without long and detailed instructions, the coach gets a dribble tag game underway. Players are dribbling the ball around a constrained box and deploying a full-range of crucial technical and tactical skills: dribbling with different parts of the foot, avoiding the defense, keeping one's head up to be aware of other players, and changing direction. Skills, techniques, tactics are all taught through a soccer-like game.
Adapting this approach to the classroom is a little trickier, but we do it. For example, our teams meet with their coaches for a pre-practice gathering we call the huddle. In the huddle the coaches lead a variety of activities such as discussions on sportsmanship or having players think about proper nutrition. A quick example of a games-based encounter during the huddle involves a 'loose competition' between two teams side-by-side on the field. Each team is given the task of brainstorming and prioritizing a list of healthy and nutritious foods. The two groups vie against each other to generate a list. Importantly, the approach does not necessarily result in higher quality work, but it is engaging, motivating, and fun.