Literacy hits the goal, on and off the park

Footballers reach the top because managers teach them to work at getting the simple things right, says Alan Wolfe

AS the "beautiful game" staged in Japan and South Korea any lessons for education? Picture David Beckham preparing to take England's 44th-minute penalty against Argentina. He is trying to control his breathing. Look closely, though, and there is an almost paradoxical serenity, a hint of mild amusement at the futile efforts of Caballero and Simeone to distract him.

As with the 93rd-minute free kick against Greece, he is in "the zone": he knows he is about to do something he has done successfully countless times before. Automatic thought process has taken over, as it did the whole team in the 5-1 defeat of Germany in Munich.

That day decision-making was simple, the options for passes obvious, players knew exactly what team-mates were going to do. It must have seemed like playing in slow motion. Contrast the hapless shambles of the 0-1 defeat at Wembley and the self-conscious penalty efforts of Southgate, Batty and Waddle a few years earlier.

Our second picture is of a group in their early 20s. Among them our two dear children (not so much "dear", really, as very expensive) who left university with good degrees. Nothing remarkable in that. So did 11 of their friends and contemporaries in the graduation picture. All are boys, all attended the same comprehensive school, all gained first class degrees and are now at the cutting edge of industry, commerce or academic life.

More important, they are all highly literate young men, if by "literacy" we mean the complex of knowledge, skills, processes, attitudes and dispositions that enable us to negotiate our place in the world on an everyday basis. All are capable of converting their own metaphorical penalties and free kicks with confidence and ease.

So what is the connection between the way the England team now plays its football and education? For one thing, manager Sven-Goran Eriksson places great emphasis on social relations between players and the power of the team. A simple truth, but a vital one. When, some years ago, the Dutch national side was playing England off the park, Ruud Gullit gave the telling analysis: "They (the Dutch) have good relations with each other on the pitch."

It is what gave the young men in our second picture a grammar for living. Social skills and social performance, personified in Beckham, one of Eriksson's "cultural architects", are helping Sven's men to go places. "Social inclusion" will pay off over time in education - provided we accept that schools cannot do it on their own.

Another feature common to the approach of the England management team and our schools is removal of the fear of failure. A player crippled by anxiety becomes inhibited, takes fewer risks and underachieves (as against Greece, when too many players choked under the burden of expectation).

As the best managers have always known (and what are teachers if not managers?), we need the self-confidence that comes from someone believing in us. We don't hear Eriksson, Wenger, Ferguson or Houllier criticising players in public. Are you listening, teacher-bashers?

Eriksson embodies the patience that is required in learning and development. The learning process will be non-linear, it involves taking risks and there will be setbacks. Learning "emerges" from experience over time, the unconscious mind processing experience in a way that the conscious mind cannot. Learning is often suppressed through conscious control (compare the Beckham and Southgate penalties). Perhaps our dear politicians, striving to "make an impact" during their short tenure of office, might bear this in mind.

Football is a simple game. The complexity arises because (as in the anthill) a great many components are interacting simultaneously. The secret is to work at getting the simple things right. The schools and teachers I know apply - probably often intuitively - principles similar to those followed by Eriksson. Unfortunately, school represents only a small part of the educative life of our young people.

But what if we could all see that the Pestalozzis, Froebels, Vygotskys, Bruners and the Einsteins, Bohrs, Paulis, Heisenbergs and the Erikssons, Wengers, Fergusons and Houlliers are giving us the same essential message? Now that would be joined up.

Dr Alan Wolfe is in the curriculum studies department of Aberdeen University's faculty of education.

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