Information Age Education
   Issue Number 116
June, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the second in a series on complexity. Our informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.

Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
An Eight Year Old Discovers Football

Lawrence Sylwester
Apex Learning


Pedagogy is what our species does best. We are teachers, and we want to teach while sitting around the campfire rather than being continually present during our offspring's trial-and-error experiences (Michael S. Gazzaniga; American professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind; 1939–.)

“Children are the message we send to the future. (Abraham Lincoln; 16th President of the United States; 1809–1865.)


For those of us who have been lifelong football fans, it’s easy to forget just how complex the sport is. This past season helped me remember that very thing when my 8-year old son Zed suddenly and unexpectedly started spending Saturday and Sunday afternoons next to me watching the games on TV. He asked incessant questions about who was doing what, what had just happened, and just about every annoying question a football fan can imagine. But knowing that no stronger bond between father and son exists than sports, I patiently answered his questions and did my best to explain everything from fake punts to fourth and inches.

By mid-season he was catching on, and by the end of the season, which just so happened to coincide with a startling resurgence of our hometown Seattle Seahawks behind their matinee-idol rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson, he knew things I didn’t.

In mid-January, the whole family went to a friend’s house to watch the NFL playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons. The Seahawks fell behind in the first half, but then came roaring back during an exciting second half and took the lead with minutes to play. A win would put them into the NFC championship game against their bitter rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, one step away from the Super Bowl. But suddenly the defense bent a little too much and the Falcons kicked a field goal in the final seconds to win the game.

We were all disappointed by losing after such an excruciating up-and-down finish, and I noticed that Zed was sobbing inconsolably.

Having once been Zed's age, I knew that a heartbreaking loss by a favorite team could indeed bring tears, so I knew exactly what to say. I held him on my lap and whispered into his ear that the Falcons were now our worst favorite team ever. Between sobs he kept saying how he hated the Falcons, and I told him I agreed—I hated them too. We were united in our hatred for the Falcons.

After a while he pulled himself together and went outside to play catch with his friend Julian.

What I Learned

Perhaps the most remarkable thing I've seen as a parent is Zed's new love affair with football. A few months earlier, he didn't care one whit about football, and knew next to nothing about the sport or those who played it. Any attempt to get any of my three children to watch a game with me typically led to whining that they wanted to watch something on the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel.

Then things suddenly changed for Zed. But what's remarkable is the thoroughness of that change. Suddenly he "got" it. He learned a remarkable amount. He suddenly knew the NFL teams, their records, their uniforms, and their past and upcoming schedules. He knew the players, the player's numbers, and what position they played. He understood the rules, penalties, and strategies—even many of the fine differences between college and pro football. He spent hours on YouTube watching plays from previous games and even seasons!

Zed and I watched at least parts of many weekend games and the entire Seahawks’ games. He always asked me who we are "voting" for. After I told him you don't "vote" for teams, you "root" for them, he thereafter phrased it correctly.

The Experience Spread

By the time Christmas arrived, footballs and jerseys were the only things on his list. We bought him a Nintendo 3DS and a gift certificate to Game Stop, which he immediately used to buy Madden Football. His uncles in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Washington DC all bought him jerseys or sweatshirts from their home NFL teams. My brother bought him a nice leather football that he regularly took to bed with him.

His friend Julian was making the same transition and the two of them would play mock football games against each other. For some reason, Julian disliked the Washington Redskins so when Zed wore his new RG3 Redskins jersey one day, Julian got angry at him.

Seattle's crushing loss to the now-hated Atlanta Falcons was more difficult on Zed than it was on the rest of us. It was, after all, his first season as a football fan so he was unaccustomed to the kind of heartbreaking losses that can occur in football games. But this loss meant that the Seahawks would have seven months before the start of the next season. For an 8-year old, that’s an eternity.

We had a Parent-Teacher conference during Zed's Great Transformation. I told his teacher why I was fascinated by Zed's sudden interest in and comprehensive understanding of football, and why this sort of development should also interest teachers.

As I wrote earlier, those of us who have been football fans since childhood can easily forget just how complex the game is. Consider the various positions within a variety of defensive and offensive schemes that all depend on the down and field position, the mind-boggling number of plays and formations each offense uses, and the complex rules and penalties. Immediately after the ball is snapped, all 22 players sprint in different directions for a few seconds—after which the TV commentators spend 30 seconds or so analyzing the play and rerunning it in slo-mo.

Any first time observer would immediately be lost. Reruns and slow motion are valuable learning experiences.

Emerging Ability to Understand Complexity

I believe that Zed's sudden grasp of football is reflective of his emerging ability to understand complexity in other things. Consider how children grasped the complexities of the Harry Potter series with its made-up terminology, make-believe events, shifting characters, and developing plots and story lines. The books are full of such complexities, not unlike 22 NFL players simultaneously running in different directions when the ball is hiked. The reader has to discern what's going on and why, just as football fans have to make sense of what's going on during any given play.

Zed’s falling in love with football provided him a real developmental opportunity to understand something very complex. I discovered that he knew things I didn't know (such as the record and team members of the Seahawks' opponent) or that I couldn't remember (such as the scores of previous Seahawks games). Some children start to read complex books or explore an aspect of the natural world. Zed had been interested in the mysteries of Pokémon, but mastering the greater complexities of football quickly displaced that.

The 2013 season is less than two months away, and we’re already gearing up for another exciting season that won’t be complete until the Seahawks win the Super Bowl.

The Mastery of Complexity

Play and games provide young people with a non-threatening exploratory venue for the complex challenges they'll confront as adults. Play involves informal or small group explorations with a minimum focus on goals and rules. We eventually wonder how our skills compare with others, so rule-bound scored games provide a clearly defined common goal. Referees adjudicate rules because players typically push the edges of what's appropriate. Collaboration and competition became central in games—and in life.

Young people often have no conscious awareness of the underlying significance of their play and games. A three-year-old on a tricycle is beginning an exploration with wheels that will result in an adolescent driver's license. Skills needed to be a good driver are built on years of play.

The universal fear that young people have of scary stories and risky play/games relates to our need to develop and maintain cognitive systems that process the important emotion of fear. Emotional systems must develop and maintain their capability to effectively recognize and respond to dangers and opportunities. Watching a competitive NFL game next to a protective father is much safer than playing it, and (I believe) better that manipulating players on a video game.

Some of these emotions and motor skills may not be sufficiently activated in normal developmental life, so observing them physically by watching games or mentally by reading books and watching films play an important developmental role. The play/game impetus thus seems to be built into curious developing children. And if it's not emerging intrinsically, parental and community educational systems will certainly seek to activate it (Sylwester, 2007).

References and Additional Readings

Moursund, D. (March 2011). Play together, learn together: STEM. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF document from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/doc_download/212-play-together-learn-together-stem.html.

Moursund, D. (2008). “Video Games.” IAE-pedia. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Retrieved 6/13/2013 from http://iae-pedia.org/Video_Games.

Sylwester, R. (2007). The adolescent brain: Reaching for autonomy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Lawrence Sylwester

Lawrence Sylwester is an Operations Manager at Apex Learning, a leading provider of standards-based digital curricula for US high schools. He and his wife Chau are the parents of three children: middle-schooler Midori, and elementary schoolers Zed and Stoli.

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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading.