The Immaculate reception

I have written about the sport of American football before, and the surprising number of themes common to the world of education. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 article , Most Likely to Succeed, draws a convincing parallel between the difficulty of identifying effective teachers and effective Quarterbacks. My own most recent NFL-related scribble, Players not Plays. has perhaps not reached so wide an audience, but think it makes a valid and related point: the contents of one’s playbook will pale into insignificance if the players are not fit for purpose.

I was reminded of the NFL again this week as I was made aware of a dragon I believed to have been slain. Caitlin Moran’s terrible Why I should run our Schools , George Monbiot’s development of a game for all the family, Sir Ken Robinson-bingo, and now this latest polemic are generic examples of an argument that, despite its nonsensical construct, staunchly refuses to die. It is educational bindweed – just when you think you’ve hacked away the final root, it springs up somewhere else in the garden.

One of the key principles of the argument, as if you needed reminding, is as follows. All information is on the internet, and everyone has a smartphone. So anything you need to know can be accessed at the click of a button. Hence by not knowing anything yourself, you free up your brain, and rather than acting as a store of undigested chunks of information, it can be used for nebulous skills such as thinking critically about the latest piece of information you’ve just accessed on your smart-phone.

Of course the people whose job it is to put stuff on the internet do need to know something, and probably quite a lot, but we’re not them, so we can just look up things they have placed on the internet whenever we need. If we know what it is that we need to look up, that is. And also how it relates to the other things we needed to look up to be able to be able to understand and give context to the thing it was that we didn’t know anything about originally.

Despite all this, the internet has not as a rule made us cleverer, and those writing the articles would have you believe that it’s the fault of teachers cramming Gradgrindian facts into the heads of poor Schoolchildren. If only we knew less, we could do more critical thinking. Except you can only think about what you know, and at that point, the argument fall apart. What even are you, if you don’t know anything about anything?

A disclaimer: I do not believe that all learning happens in class, or as a direct result of what we are taught by teachers, though they may provide the inspiration. The acquisition of knowledge comes from myriad sources, not least from the self. Learning how to learn is a thing, and we should embrace the idea that we can all be autodidacts.

This is where my link to NFL comes in. It is perhaps the best example of something I have discovered and learned about purely by myself. I have never played the sport, been exposed to it at School or university, or been encouraged to investigate by parents, teachers or coaches. I simply stumbled across the game some time in the mid-90s, and have been finding out about the game ever since. I have been to games in the UK at Wembley, and also in the US at Buffalo, Green Bay and Dallas. I have watched countless games live, in replay, condensed and analysed. I have read books, articles, message-boards, and have attempted to absorb the rules, strategy, history and culture of the game.

And yet, despite this 20-year commitment, there is plenty I do not understand. Tackling, pass-interference, the difference between College and professional game, the scheduling, salary cap; the effect of the 1978 rule changes, re-location of franchises, read-option and what makes a good long-snapper remain as much a mystery as ever they were. I have committed to finding out about the game, piecing together each fragment of information and developing links between them. Incidentally, the title of this blog is probably the most famous play in the game, when Chuck Noll’s Steelers overcame John Madden’s Raiders and set the tone for Steeler dominance for the remainder of that decade. It took me 10+ years of interest in the game to uncover this pivotal moment.

The journey has been enjoyable, but in terms of efficiency, it’s happened at a geological pace. If I had signed up for a 6 week intensive course on Football: America’s game (note: course does not exist), I imagine I would have learned as much as I have done in 20-odd years of auto-didacticism. And therein lies the problem with the ‘you can just look it up’ argument. Maybe you can, but even if this is true, it still requires effort, luck, dedication and it’s mightily inefficient. It requires the time we do not have.

With learning, there is always an opportunity cost; auto didacticism and looking stuff up might be a realistic option when it comes to transatlantic sport, less so when we’re talking fixed-time Schooling.

And if you don’t believe that, you can Ickey-shuffle off.