One of the best-designed learning experience I ever experienced was on the topic of soccer. It was the key requirement in becoming certified as a youth-soccer coach: a required weekend clinic.
Not an auspicious context: few adults want to give up a weekend for something like this. And talk about heterogeneous groupings! The group of 32 I was in ranged in age from 23 to 61, and in experience from Varsity college soccer to no soccer experience at all. But by Sunday evening we would all agree that the experience had been educationally delightful and eye-opening.
The instructor, a member of a professional soccer team, laid out a 2-part “theory” – two overarching understandings related to transfer – for how all soccer instruction should be considered, regardless of age and experience or available time.
1. Use a whole-part-whole transparent logic. The trainer first described the importance of scheduling all practices with a clear whole-part logic to learners:
- model and practice the discrete skill,
- practice it in game-like conditions,
- practice it in game conditions,
- practice it in the game.
For example, suppose the drill focus is improved passing. Then, start with a simple back and forth exercise in passing with first one foot then another, in pairs. The coach models proper technique (or asks others to do so). Then, we make the drill more game-like by having all the pairs passing their ball back and forth to each other in the same small space, necessitating looking up and timely passes, given all the people and balls. Then, game conditions – pressure: a person is added to each pair who tries to steal the ball. Then, more demanding game conditions: a scrimmage which requires a maximum of two-touch dribbling to ensure constant passing. Then, a 6 v 6 game is played. As a re-inforcer, we return to the pass-in-a-small space-with-every-other-pair-passing, but this time for greater speed and accuracy. Finally, we all discuss and reflect on the passing experience – what helps, what hurts, and what we saw in the game.
2. Always maximize all elements of training goals in every drill. Secondly, he argued that every drill should maximize the following five elements at the heart of good soccer: fitness, technical skill, ability in set plays, teamwork, and strategic insight. Not only should a practice and its topics maximize these elements but so should each drill.
To make his point, he asked participants to propose a common soccer drill and lead a run-through of it out on the field, using the other workshop participants. The drill was then analyzed via this “theory” of good drill, in terms of the 5 elements mentioned: How might it be altered to require more fitness? Game strategy? Teamwork? etc. Each common drill was always greatly improved by the group right away, using this Understanding. In fact, some time-tested drills (such as the usual three-on-two drill found on almost all soccer practice fields) were found terribly wanting based on this theory and experience. We saw with new eyes.
Every person in the workshop agreed at the end that it had been one of the most stimulating learning experiences of their lives, and had provided a robust framework for coaching kids when time is limited and an overall plan is needed. From my perspective it also provided a powerful framework for transfer – a theory for designing countless additional drills and practices beyond those explicitly exhibited or discussed. Further, the theory is clearly transferable to all similar sports – basketball, lacrosse, ice hockey, etc. In short, it was unusually effective teaching for understanding – on a soccer field with once-reluctant learners.
 Some readers will recognize this logic as quite similar to the Gradual Release of Responsibility model used in reading instruction and assessment. But that model is hampered by the egocentric title (why aren’t we calling it the Gradual Increase of Student Independence?) and the failure to link the gradual move to specific transfer goals that make independent and innovative thinking truly necessary for success, not just a way to organize group-work on scaffolded tasks more efficient in classes.