Sports for Education (6/8)

Jeff Prudhomme
May 30, 2018 · 5 min read

Policy Five from the Future of Sports & Society Discussion Project

Image courtesy of Aspen Institute Project Play

The Basic Idea: Reintegrate Sports and Education

Sports have long been linked to education, to the cognitive and moral development of flourishing individuals. Just think of the ancient educational ideal of “a sound mind in a sound body.” What if we decide that our core societal goal for sports is to use sports for education? How could we revitalize this link? This policy possibility focuses on the goal of enhancing education via sports by forging a new connection of sports and education. It would re-integrate sports into the overall mission of education, no longer seeing sports as a separate add-on to “book learning.” This policy possibility embodies a more holistic view of education. It is informed by the belief that we should stop separating our physical selves and our physical development from our mental and social selves and our cognitive and moral development.

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play highlights the importance of sports and physical activity for education, not to mention the broader beneficial effects of physical activity, such as boosting mood and fostering social connection.

Sports Curriculum for Vital Skill Development

Sports and physical activity can boost classroom learning. Sports also can teach vital life skills, including skills of self-regulation, perseverance, resilience, communication, and collaboration. There has been renewed attention to the value of these so-called soft skills as key contributors to success in school and in life. This policy builds on the way sports present opportunities for learning skills and values that are essential for success in life as a healthy person. This policy would entail taking a curricular, instead of extra-curricular, approach to sports — intentionally structuring sports experiences to foster the skills we want to develop.

Sports Can Change the Way We Look at Learning

Reintegrating sports and education is not a one-way street. Sports can help to transform and revitalize the ways we foster more robust active learning. Looking at sports as educational experiences can help us refocus on a performance notion of learning. Rather than a sink-or-swim approach, schools might shift to a mastery-learning approach that is intrinsic to sports.

Would you applaud swimming teachers who bragged about the high number of their students who drowned or failed to learn to swim? We often applaud academic instructors with high failure rates as being exceptionally rigorous instructors. What if we viewed teaching much more like coaching, applauding those who have high success rates for their students?

Under this policy option, the role of educators would be recast to be more like that of a coach, helping a student constantly improve performance up to the point of mastery rather than just delivering content for the student to rehearse. Sports can also help us remember the fun of learning. We might restructure learning experiences (for example, through problem-based and collaborative learning) to highlight the satisfaction that comes from the same kind of full engagement we experience in sports activities. Imagine if assessment experiences were as meaningful and as fun as an athletic competition. Above all, this policy approach sees sports as an educational tool, as a way to enhance learning and improve the overall project of education.

In sports we can experience a sense of flow, where the mental attention of the whole individual is engaged. What if we built on that to make learning experiences that are more fully engaging of learners? What if we learned from sports to focus pedagogy on the serious fun of education?

Some Possible Features

Curricular Integration

  • Integrate sports into the core of K-12 education, so they are part of the curriculum and not just as an extracurricular activity. This should be done with a research-based approach to integrating sports with learning goals.
  • Collegiate sports should be drawn back to their educational purposes and include more programs (such as intramural sports) for all students. Sports should not disrupt academic purposes, so, for example, there should be no missed classes and disruptive travel for intercollegiate competitions. Sports should be integrated with academics to enhance overall educational performance.
  • Use sports to support learning of soft skills, social and emotional skills (teamwork, perseverance, resilience, communication, leadership). This should be done intentionally: structure sports experiences (and coaching support) to teach positive social and emotional skills (they don’t fit with a “win at all costs” mentality).
  • Coaches should be part of the educational staff: establish a coaching certification program that centers on the development of the life skills targeted for development in students
  • Support coaching programs to support athletic needs of a diverse population and to include different ability status individuals
  • Explore ways to use sports to support learning of core academic subjects
  • Teach physical literacy to encourage fitness practices for life
  • Redesign (and extend as needed) the school day to incorporate physical activity into the curriculum
  • Everyone needs movement: some sort of sport activity would be mandatory and a right for all students — and would not be restricted by disciplinary or other academic concerns
  • For homeschooled students, the policy might require participation in community-based sports programs as part of earning a state-accredited diploma
  • Offer a variety of sports and physical activity programs to meet diverse student athletic interests and needs, creating an inclusive environment for all ability levels. For example, create opportunities for students to play adaptive sports together to expose all students to differences and similarities and work on teamwork and communication

Sports as a Subject of Study

  • Sports are comparable to performing arts, like music, dance, or theater, so consider athletics could be a possible performance major or academic program. Athletes could have an academic concentration in a specific sport (comparable to a performing arts major).
  • An athletic course of study could include training in coaching techniques (like pedagogy) and professional development for athletic training. Academics could be interwoven with actual sports performance experiences.
  • Focus such programs on learning research-based principles of athletic training/coaching rather than focusing on how to play a specific sport
  • Colleges and universities might become centers for such sports programs, as some nations have sports universities

Universities offer degrees in performing arts, why not allow them to confer degrees for athletic performance? What if college athletes could major in their sport — perhaps where coursework could be used to draw out the transferrable skills that many claims sports convey?

Pedagogy Enhanced by Sports

  • Let sports influence teaching and learning in general, encouraging more active pedagogy and pedagogies that address more of the whole person
  • Develop a “coaching” model of teaching: students receive constant mentoring feedback on their performance of knowledge just as a coach or trainer provides feedback to an athlete
  • Recognize the importance of physicality and movement for cognitive performance (a more holistic view of education and human development)

Exploring Possible Impacts

  • How might this policy approach impact education at various levels? How might it affect the quality of education?
  • What changes would it entail for educational practices from primary school through higher education?
  • What other broader social or cultural implications might this policy have? What tradeoffs might we face?
  • How might it impact sports participation, public health, or the overall landscape for sports?

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade