Learning and the Super Bowl

Unless you are a die-hard Pats fan (congrats New Englanders), if you tuned into the big game this year, you were likely shocked that the hype surrendered to boredom so quickly. I would like credit if any of these make it into the social fabric, but my friends and family enjoyed coming up with monikers for the 2019 Super Bowl much more than watching the game. #Snooze Bowl. #Stupid Bowl. #Sellout Bowl. Those were a few we came up with. Add them to your favorite post today!

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In fact, more fun than the game by far was talking through several conspiracy theories related to the game. My personal favorite was around the much discussed non-call by a ref in the Saints / Rams NFC championship game. But tied to it was the other super bad call in the other game. I was in Kansas City last week performing the convocation for KU faculty and they were still steaming mad at the refs. Why? Because of the ghost call against Tom Brady giving the Pats another four downs at the end of the game. The Chiefs had stopped them, exactly as they had to. But the refs called a roughing the passer call (notably by a ref who could not actually see the infraction from behind the players), giving the Patriots a whole new set of downs plus 15 yards. How are those calls conspiracy fodder? The argument is that the NFL told the refs not to blow their whistles in the last few minutes of the game unless it was their “pet” project of protecting the QB this season. That is exactly what happened. They did not call an egregious foul in the waning moments of the Saints game, but did call a non-existent foul in the last minutes of the Chiefs game. The result? The most boring Super Bowl of all time. (Yes, defense wins championships. It also loses advertisers and fans…) So, in this “new” era of football where there has been a significant jump in points scored per game, we got the lowest scoring Super Bowl in history.

But this is a teaching and learning blog, not a football rant. In fact, knowing education audiences as I do, I’m hopeful you made it to paragraph three as many educators are not huge football fans. But there really is something for us to “glean” from things, with regard to teaching and learning.

I know the sport is violent. I also know some fans are fans solely because of the violence. And I am also keenly following all of the head trauma / concussion work being done in and around the sport. I suspect that the prescient articles from a few years ago discussing the slow death of football might indeed be accurate, with the prediction of fewer and fewer families allowing their kids to even play Pop Warner or High School football coming to fruition. So, much like boxing, young football teams are becoming populated by kids from lower socioeconomic brackets which can only have a ripple effect. Add to that the barrage of money and research being put against those findings by the NFL itself and the whole thing becomes a quagmire. (Does a study about how great it is to eat eggs from the egg council hold weight? Likewise, is the concussion research from the billion dollar NFL legitimate?) So please understand that I am cognizant of the variables in and around a sport I have enjoyed watching (and played in high school) my whole life.

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So what can the NFL teach us about teaching and learning? I have blogged many times about the difference between a master teacher and an expert. It actually is not that hard to differentiate between the two. They both know jargon and use language that a novice would struggle to know or understand. However, the master teacher demystifies, deconstructs, and defines those out of reach terms with regularity, whereas an expert simply moves forward with the conversation. The expert and the master teacher understand the frames associated with the subject (the “why”) while also being able to leverage the mechanics (the “what”) in meaningful ways. But it is the master teacher who ensures a learner practices the mechanics while being able to conceptualize the frame, whereas the expert typically only encourages one or the other.

What is both interesting and enjoyable for me, when thinking about master teaching and pro football are two commentators. As a person who watches a lot of football on Sundays, and have since I was about 12 years old, I have heard my share of play-by-play teams. In all honesty, I never really thought much about them as my recollections of their broadcast work was always connected to my dad yelling at the TV. He hated it when the announcers explained something that was obvious to everyone, made an overly-simplistic point, or seemed biased toward one of the teams playing.

But in recent years, I have become appreciative of perspectives and nuances of the game that were otherwise lost on me. I enjoyed it when Jon Gruden joined the Monday Night Football team, not because of his quirky sayings or unusual phrasing, but because of his intricate knowledge of the game that he was able to share in ways that made sense. But as interesting as he was, I don’t know that I would call him a master teacher. He still used jargon that I did not understand. But if you really want to see the difference between an expert and a master teacher, look to two guys currently working the calls for NFL games: Tony Romo and Cris Collinsworth.

Both ex-players, Tony Romo (who called this year’s Super Bowl) was a Quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys until just a few seasons ago and Cris Collinsworth was a Wide Receiver for the Cincinnati Benglas back in the 1980’s. Both played the game at a high level and played for solid teams, seeing playoffs and championship games in their playing careers. But, as I have noted already, being an expert does not make one a master teacher!

Making sense of disparate concepts.

Making sense of disparate concepts.

So, it is with equal enthusiasm that I share their expertise as commentators and teachers. It has been both obvious and gratifying to see both men throw themselves into learning about the defensive side of the ball. They speak of interviews, techniques, and strategies for defense with just as much comfort as offense, where they “grew up.” But in addition, these two commentators have really worked hard to find multiple ways to express those same techniques and strategies to the viewer. It is not surprising to me when I hear sports DJs on the radio agree that these two “color” commentators are the best in the business. But the reason so many people feel that way is largely the same reason students find instructors to be excellent. Those instructors, if lauded for their ability to teach, are typically master teachers. They too have worked hard to understand all “sides” of the subject, but have worked equally hard to find ways to communicate that subject to novices.

I heard a radio analyst say this about Tony Romo this week (my paraphrase - not an exact quote as I was driving in my car at the time): “The reason Tony Romo is so fun to listen to as a game caller is because he is teaching young players how to play better, regardless of their position.” I think that is true. He is teaching the audience how it works, how the plays build, how the players think, as well as providing statistics and other information. It’s also fascinating to me how often both of these guys seem to be able to predict what is about to happen on the field. (Here is a montage of Romo’s ability to predict in his short broadcasting career.)

So what can we learn about learning from watching pro football? A lot, it turns out. Not only is it a crash course in how norepinephrine is created in the human body due to the palpable tension, how dopamine kicks in as every fan believes their team can overcome, and how endorphins from winning make a fan desperate to do it all again (a perfect recipe for learning), but it turns out we can learn from the facilitators of football too. These two guys worked really hard to overcome the gap between expert and master teacher. It’s a lesson worth learning.

Good luck and good learning.