Football management and classroom teaching are exactly the same. Well, sort of. I recently read Jonathan Wilson’s new book The Barcelona Legacy, in which the contributions of Johan Cruyff and Jose Mourinho are discussed, among other subjects are discussed. The book as a whole serves to set out the difference between the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. On the one hand, Mourinho spends very little time on gym work and prefers to set out a structure, a formation, and get players to learn set patterns of play. Meanwhile, Guardiola, the purest disciple of Cruyff, focuses on ‘automation.’ The players are encouraged to develop the tools to rapidly deal with any situation that presents itself on the pitch. This is an extension of Cruyff’s philosophy of knowing the instinctive reaction of the opponent, and to use that knowledge to your own advantage. The value of this to teaching struck me when I learned what lay at the core of Cruyff’s entire belief system: if you focus on results, when they stop coming, what are you left with? Instead, one must focus on a style, on the approach. Not only is there something durable, that will outlast any individual result, but the results will probably take care of themselves.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this. What happens when we focus on learning responses to predictable examination questions. It is dry. It is boring. Perhaps it breeds dissent among the players. Sorry, students. Can we even predict what we will come up against anyway? The new examination specifications cover a far larger domain on knowledge, and in my two subjects of history and politics, value more connections than one could ever plan to make. Pep has it right. If we focus on the principles of our subject, and bring them to life with disciplinary knowledge, students will enjoy themselves. They’ll be left with something that they can manipulate to fit any exam question that they are presented with, and they’ll be able to do so with confidence. Most importantly, they’ll be left with something that far outlives the examination result: lasting knowledge. Teaching students how to apply knowledge in a set pattern seems likely to preclude transfer. Teaching should focus on the tools that are necessary to allow students to acquire knowledge, deploy knowledge and connect it to what they already know. With a solid foundation of skills, or historical knowledge with all the skills and ‘facts’ that might entail, they’ll have what they need.
There is a philosophical argument here against teaching to the test, apart from the fact, it doesn’t really work (see Christodoulou’s fantastic Making Good Progress). I become enormously frustrated at arguments surrounding “they don’t need to know that for the exam”, or “the question won’t be that, so why bother?” Such arguments seem to place zero value on the years of students’ lives invested in a particular subject, or the thousands of pounds of taxpayer money spent on developing those people to be useful and knowledgeable in the days and years after an exam. We don’t care what happens on the day, quite so much as the person left standing at the end. The exam is an indication of that, but as an end in itself, quite pointless.
In the unlikely event that a football manager or commissioning editor for TV documentaries read this, get in touch to hear my full pitch for an amusing series where I trade places with a football manager and apply the principles of teaching. I’m happy to manage at a non-league level, but swapping with Jurgen Klopp seems best. He’d deliver a cracking assembly, I’m sure, and no doubt achieve admirable examination results.