Applying the First Law of Human Dynamics, that people AS INDIVIDUALS are mind-numbingly distinct, and also that people IN GENERAL are all the same, we can begin to develop a system to allow them to reach their full potential. This system needs to take into account What is being taught, and How, and Where, and to Whom. Parts of the Who, What, and How can be grouped into a Curriculum. A Curriculum is just a plan of what you are going to teach, and in what order. Other parts of the Who, How, and most of the Where can be discussed as an Environment. It is important that both the Curriculum and the Environment be designed on the same principles of development, to achieve maximum efficacy. Remember, your Curriculum and your Environment must harmonize not only with each other, but most importantly, with your intended audience, which is where developmental psychology, particularly in light of the growth in the field of cognition theory, offers such invaluable aid. Here are some basic guidelines to help you get started, and then some practical reminders I had to learn the hard way so hopefully you don't have to:
Professional educators generally take classes on how to chose the developmentally appropriate material and environment for educating children. While that is great, and I am glad we have those classes for them, professional educators are not the only people who engage in the development of children. There are a lot of really great people who give freely of their time in any number of youth volunteer organizations who try to the best that they can without the benefit of those classes. I was one of them and this appendix is a narrative of my journey understanding this process of engaging with kids and some tips on how to take into account the developmental process while engaging with them.
I began coaching soccer when I was fourteen, helping the team on which my younger brother and sister played. Upon graduating high school I went to college, where I continued to play soccer. In 2003, I was presented with two employment opportunities. The first was an assistant coaching job for a local high school girls soccer team, working with one of my former teammates. The second position was a youth pastor in an at-severe-risk community. I took both jobs, and continued to go to school full time. This is when I realized that youth pastors and high school assistant coaches do not make a great deal of money. I took a third job as a graveyard shift security guard. That was a mistake. Engaging in the lives of youth was not. My experience in these two jobs, a youth pastor and a soccer coach, set me on a path that would take me to across the country, several times, to four different countries in total, and would involve me working with world class professional soccer players, interviewing the some of the very best coaches in the world, coming within one referee's blown call of winning a national championship. I have worked in a wide variety of levels of youth and young adult soccer from beginner programs for toddlers to collegiate and semi-professional teams.
There are a few things that I picked up along the way, slowly, sometimes painfully, and usually by going quite a bit backwards before I figured out how to again go forward. Some of these things may not be applicable to the world at large, the 17 Worst Card Games to Play in an Airport for example, but some of them may be. While my journey took me to a lot of fascinating places, both geographically and intellectually, it can not be overstated that all of it was from the practical stand point of trying to teach children to learn, and specifically to learn practicably applicable skills, usually in the arena of athletic competition, primarily soccer.
It is possible that this journey began with a ball, a wall, and a dirt yard. It might have started sitting across from an international footballing legend. I think the journey started with a lecture. In any case, that is where the story of the journey starts. I was sitting in a handmade, packed earth church, the kind that evokes recollections of the Alamo. Out the window I could see two trailers, one with all the windows covered in foil. The man across from me was my boss and my mentor. He is also one of the greatest men I have ever known, personally, professionally and intellectually. He was disappointed in me. I had been 7 minutes late to work.
“When you are late, how does that appear to the kids? They sit there, half of them don’t want to be there anyway, most of them are ignored by every adult in their lives, constantly told they are unimportant. When you show up late, coffee in hand, you are telling them that coffee is more important than they are. Think about how that feels for a kid. Coffee? Coffee is more important than this child?”
This was one of the most important things that I would ever hear, and it changed my life immediately. In the decade that has passed since sitting in that church, I have made it a priority to not be late. I would rather be an hour early than 2 minutes late. It is Important to Be on Time. While I still think this is an important lesson, what I failed to understand at that moment was why this is important, and how that can be applied to other aspects of teaching. Punctuality is not important because it has some sacred position as a moral value. Punctuality is important because how you make people feel is an integral part of the educational process. Punctuality is one way to create an emotionally safe Environment.
Before we enter the next part of the narrative, a brief note about the state of world soccer at this time. The Spanish national team was in the process of being crowned the greatest soccer team in the history of either soccer or teams, and their quality was being evidenced in the success of Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two premier soccer clubs in Spain. What is important about this development is that none of the Spanish players were bigger or faster or stronger than the players they were routinely drubbing. None of them. This was a monumental shift in how athletic skill was considered. Americans had always consoled ourselves that the reason that we were not good, hell, not even competitive on the international soccer scene was because we had our best athletes playing other sports. This no longer held up. We were regularly losing to smaller, slower players. We had to rethink what it took to be successful at the highest level. This clicked for me when one of the players I coached, an All-American at college and an elite physical specimen who almost seemed engineered to play soccer, went overseas to tryout for the team my former boss was running. They said he was good. He was fast, great in the air, good feet. All things that we already knew. They said he wouldn't make it. In fact, he would probably never make it. He made good decisions, usually the right decision, he just made them too slowly. Boom. The difference between good soccer players and great soccer players was the ability to make the right decision quickly. As Dutch legend Johan Cruyff put it, "Soccer is a game that is played with the brain. I want players to learn how to think fast."
Soccer was already the most player-centric, dynamic game in the world, as with the 22 players on the field and the 50,000 screaming enthusiasts and no timeouts or substitutions to instruct the players, a coach generally has very little impact on the play of actual games. Players needed to be effective, efficient, autonomous decision makers. The task of youth soccer coaches became trying to figure out how to teach good decision making. Which meant we had to learn how to make good decisions, but that was really more of a bonus.
We are going to revisit the Prospect Theory that we introduced in our development model, as it can offer more insight on the application of such a model, as well. Prospect Theory makes a significant contribution to the application of a contemporary developmental model is by illustrating some ways that cognitive biases can inhibit the learning process. By taking a few of these biases into account when organizing material for presentation, one can make it considerably easier for that material to be both understood and retained.
There are a decent number of biases that have been investigated and established over the last couple of decades, but we are only going to consider a few here: Availability Heuristic, Suggestibility Effect, Anchoring Effect, Conservatism Bias, Fading Effect Bias, Affect Heuristic and the Generative Effect (Kahneman, 2011). While there is much that has been written about the nature and applications of these biases and heuristics, I am going to present a brief description of each, and then illustrate the particular relevance for appliying a developmental model.
Through the peaks and alleys of my journey I developed a teaching philosophy that is mutually dependent upon a Curriculum and an Environment. In order to have a productive learning session, I need to consider the particular needs and abilities of all of the possible learners in the session, have a plan that allows for each possible combination of these needs and abilities across physical, social, psychological, and emotional ranges to be accommodated and engaged in such a way that fosters growth and leaves the learners at the end of the session satisfied with their individual and collective progress and excited and confident of future progress. The field of developmental psychology, particularly in light of Cognition Theory, allows one to identify what those disparate needs and abilities might be. The keys to doing this are having a well developed, progressive, age-appropriate, flexible curriculum administered in a safe, engaging, flexible environment and founded upon a psychological understanding of the intended recipients. The good news is that the human brain is the most powerful problem solving and information processing engine in the world, so if you do provide a well developed curriculum and a healthy environment appropriate to your audience you don't need to spend that much energy on the technical details of what you are trying to teach. We are really, really good at learning things. It's one of the ways we are all the same.