How does learning really work? Although it sounds quite fundamental, it’s a much tougher question than it seems. So tough, in fact, that most of us will just be satisfied to know that it happens. Learning and development have been dominated by a small group of intellectual giants like Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, and maybe most of all Jean Piaget. After some time, though, society digests the initially groundbreaking theories and models. College students frantically memorize the dates and names and stages for exams. Ironically, theories that usually emerged from observation of real life classrooms and playgrounds become dangerously detached from them.

We can pass skills and knowledge between generations without really knowing how it happens. The common complaint about theories is that they don’t work out in real life. If you actually want to impact development, though, you need to come up with a personal concept of what learning really is. One person who spent their life diving into that question was Jean Piaget. Piaget isn’t quite a household name, but those who have heard of him would probably associate him with his stages of development model. In reality, though, Piaget was up to something far bigger. Tipped off by Einstein that the secrets of the universe lay in the child’s mind, Piaget spent so much time studying children that he seems to have been able to see from their eyes. I look at his work as the Rosetta Stone that bridges the adult and child minds.

One of the things Piaget loved to observe was the games children would play. He noticed that children’s ability to play games came before their ability to articulate the rules of the game. Somehow they could follow rules that they didn’t consciously know. Piaget thought children unconsciously abstracted principles out from what they observed in the world and acted them out in games. In Piaget’s mind, games were embodied representations of the underlying principles of the larger game of life.

This maps nicely onto our current understanding of procedural memory (riding a bike) and declarative memory (recalling an address or the last president’s name). We use different systems to actively do things and to describe them in speech. Perhaps this accounts for the saying “those who can’t do teach.” This gives us a useful hint for teaching sports, though. Instead of trying to transfer the underlying principles of the game to young players through speech, we should try to find games that put the principles in an embodied form to be acted out. This is the whole philosophy behind small-sided games. Saying “pressure, cover, balance” when the coach asks what the defensive principles are isn’t the same thing as being able to do pressure, cover, balance.

What Piaget would do is come up with a game that contained an underlying principle and have children play it. For example, he’d have children reshape a ball of clay into a long snake and ask them if it was still the same amount of clay. The underlying principle here is conservation – if nothing has been added or taken away, then it must be the same amount of clay even if the shape has changed. By creating these games, Piaget was able to figure out how the young mind acquired the fundamental principles of the universe. From a coaching perspective, we could say Piaget created small-sided games for life. Something tells me he would have been an unreal coach!

I believe there’s something else to be learned from Piaget, though. To really teach effectively, the teacher needs to be able to see through the eyes of the student. Very often, a teacher or coach can be an expert performer of the skill, but a terrible teacher. I’m looking at you Diego Maradona! Effective teachers or coaches are able to temporarily forget what they know and imagine the world through other eyes. When a student or player doesn’t understand something, they take responsibility for finding a clearer way to explain it.

In my opinion, learning will always be partly magic, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand it. By embedding principles in games we develop the ability to act, which is different from the ability to speak. By stepping back from the position of what we know as coaches and imagining what the game looks like to someone who doesn’t. That can be really hard when you’ve spent most of your life around a sport. Rather than talk about it, though, I’m going to follow my own advice and give you a game. Below is a video of an Indian sport called Kabaddi. If you’re unfamiliar with it, see if you can figure out the principles and objectives of the game just by watching. It might not be as easy as you think. 

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