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