What schools can learn from the Olympics
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Every few years, the Olympic Games capture the world's interest and imagination. The 2008 Summer Games in Beijing were the most-watched television broadcast of all time, with up to 4.7 billion viewers -- 70 percent of the world's population -- watching some part of the coverage. This summer, with live streaming of every event, the London Games are poised to break this record.
A nonprofit consultancy in the United Kingdom recently published a report on the educational value of mega-events like the Olympics. It found that the Olympic Games are ideal for engaging young people in discussion about heightening aspirations and achievements, setting goals, learning about other cultures and encouraging broader involvement in team projects. The question is how can these themes inform and inspire useful practices in our classrooms?
Educators now focus on how to teach students the 21st-century skills they'll need to thrive in college and to succeed in a very different type of workforce. Corporate leaders, university professors and others have worked to define and describe those skills, which include critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration and ethical leadership.
What's striking is how closely these proficiencies mirror the lessons taught by athletics: teamwork, sportsmanship, fair play and healthy competition. The easiest one to transfer from athletics to the classroom -- and the one most evident among our Olympic athletes -- is the concept of what it means to be part of a team.
On a well-constructed team, athletes push themselves so they don't let their teammates down. It's an influential form of peer pressure. The dynamic of a team environment motivates individuals to work together and see that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. We'll watch this play out during the Olympics, where even events that are completely individual like track races, swimming heats and gymnastic routines hold the possibility of winning a medal for Team USA.
Exploiting team dynamics in a classroom setting can be powerful as well. Having students collaborate, as in project-based learning, is quickly gaining popularity as more teachers use this technique and see positive results and measurable gains.
At our school -- a boys' boarding high school where all students are required to participate on sports teams -- many of our teachers have used project-based learning to connect athletics to the classroom. In this model, the teacher acts more like a coach, in contrast to a traditional classroom where an instructor typically transfers information by lecturing.
For example, one of our biology classes learned about tree taxonomy by working in teams to pinpoint different species of trees on the school grounds. Each team created a unique nine-hole Frisbee golf course using tree types and locations to identify the targets that players needed to hit to complete each hole. Students on competing teams had to locate a particular type of tree in a specified area of campus to find each target so that their overall golf score depended on their knowledge of the different species they were studying.
Providing students with opportunities to collaborate on projects that require them to design and construct something helps them connect with the material they are studying. It was clear that the students participating in the tree taxonomy Frisbee golf tournament were completely immersed in the game -- a state that educational psychologists refer to as a "flow" experience.
People generally are susceptible to this state of energized focus when they're undertaking a challenging activity that requires specific skills. Teens most commonly experience it when they're engaged in video-gaming and competing in a sport. Athletes call it being in "the zone."
For Michael Phelps, listening to music on his iPod is a big part of his pre-race routine as he mentally prepares for competition. He uses hip-hop music to boost his intensity and get in the zone. Regular and dependable classroom routines serve a similar purpose by helping students ease into activities that may be new and challenging.
Educators are interested in replicating the flow state that athletes experience in order to improve scholastic engagement. Researchers at the University of Central Florida have been studying the effectiveness of a history course developed by Florida Virtual School that's taught entirely through a game-based environment. The course aims to induce the flow state that kids experience when playing video games or sports to improve their understanding and retention of material.
Behind many of the great performances we will witness during the Summer Games is exceptional coaching. Sometimes athletes aren't better than rivals, but their coach is. The 1980 "Miracle on Ice" American Olympic hockey team is a great example.
Not every aspect of coaching a team and teaching a class is the same but there is overlap, especially when it comes to performance assessment. Good athletes expect and welcome feedback on their performance. As technology has evolved and become more affordable, the use of digital video and analytic software has become common in both amateur and professional sports. They allow coaches to quickly identify mistakes and make corrections. When players help each other and reinforce the coach's feedback, the whole team improves and everyone takes pride in what they're able to achieve collectively.
Borrowing successful practices from athletics to create new models for teaching can be of great benefit to students. As millions of young people tune in to the Olympics in the weeks ahead, good teachers will be viewing things through a different lens -- one that will allow them to capture the magic of the Games as they plan their lessons for a new school year.
First Published July 25, 2012 12:00 am