How soccer explains what doesn’t work in education

lucasRecently, on a flight to and from the Netherlands to work on a curriculum design project for the International Baccalaureate Organization, I had some much needed headspace to read something for pure enjoyment and interest. I chose a book that I had wanted to read for a long time: “How Soccer Explains the World”. In this great little read, a New York Times journalist, Franklin Foer, documents his travels to soccer Meccas around the world, and attempts to use this most un-American of all mainstream sports as a lens to explain the affects of globalization on phenomenon ranging from mass culture, to violence, crime, corruption and ethnic identity. 

I’d like to propose he add an additional chapter: How soccer explains what doesn’t work in 21st century education.

You don’t have to look far to find condemnation of mass compulsory education, …

…or to find allegations that how we do schooling around the world is un-engaging, uninspiring, lacks creativity, is irrelevant, boring, and is a relic of our industrial past. Soccer is anything but these descriptors, … except perhaps that its roots originate at the same time England was industrializing.


My 8 year old son is a bit fanatic about the game, to the point that my wife gets a little worried sometimes. The other night at dinner, when he turned a question about what he was learning in school into a statement about the recent exploits of FC Barcelona, she commented that maybe he was becoming narrowly focused to the detriment of interest in other topics: like the ones you learn at school.

I retorted that that was hardly a fair comparison. Soccer is way more interesting to an 8 year old boy, and me too, than regular school tasks like multiplication tables, spelling tests and the numerous worksheets a grade three comes home with.

“Now,” I said to my wife, who in her own right is an amazing special education teacher,  “what IF?”

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach basic economics and mathematics to my son?

  • Why can Barcelona afford to pay Messi but not AFC Ajax in the Netherlands Eredivisie?
  • How many tickets would you have to sell to pay Messi’s salary?

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach science?

  • Why does a ball curve in certain directions when kicked different ways?
  • How can you grow really green grass for a soccer stadium?

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach history?

  • Why was there so much violence at Rangers-Celtic games?
  • What happened to Jewish soccer clubs in Nazi-occupied Europe?

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach geography?

  • Why do Catalonians feel such a strong connection to their Barca club, while people in Vancouver don’t feel the same way about the Whitecaps?
  • Where are the best players in the world from? What local social and economic conditions create good soccer players?

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach ethics and social responsibility?

  • Is it fair to charge children to play on community soccer clubs?
  • What is more important, winning or how you play?
  • Did Juventus bribe a referee before their recent Champions League game with Celtic? (Okay, maybe not that one…)

WHAT IF the teacher used soccer to teach Language Arts?

  • Write a persuasive paragraph explaining which team is better: Barcelona or Manchester United.
  • Write a descriptive story about the sights, sounds and smells of a soccer field on a rainy day.
  • Collect a variety of different kinds of media (books, newspapers and magazines) about an important issue in sport.

These probably aren’t even good examples of what I am getting at. I am sure there are more creative teachers/soccer dads out there who could come up with better lesson ideas.

The point is that a child’s passions and interests should be gateways that we use to encourage them to explore meaningful questions about the real world. These aren’t frivolous obsessions that we should discourage and put to death once kids enter four walls of a classroom.  There should not be any difference between “school subjects” and out of school subjects. We know a great deal of learning takes place outside of school, especially when kids are interested, engaged, curious and motivated. We need to bring those interests and curiosities into the classroom and make them part of our curriculum. In compulsory schooling – both independent and public – we simply don’t make the time and space in our “official curriculum” to design learning experiences in personally engaging and relevant ways.

But, WHAT IF we could? WHAT IF we tried, maybe if even it was just once in a while?


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