Column #24, posted September 18, 2006

The History Teacher or the Football Coach?

I play softball in an old guy’s softball league in Florida . I started playing a few years ago and I discovered I wasn’t really very good. This was a bit surprising since I had played in the University softball leagues while I was a professor and had only stopped playing in my forties. I wasn’t a bad player then. There  hadn’t been that long a hiatus. And now I was playing against people a good deal older than myself since I am rather young as recent Florida transplants go.   I used to be a good hitter and I wasn’t now. The reason was easy enough to understand. In the university leagues they play fast pitch. A batter has a second or so to decide about swinging. It is all instinct, at least it was after having played for forty some odd years.

 But, in Florida , old guys play slow pitch. The pitcher throws the ball in a high looping arc and it is a strike if it lands on the plate. Quite a different experience from trying to hit a ball that is zinging by your head. Should be easier, no? Not for me. It took a bit of thinking to figure out why.

I analyzed how I was swinging, when I was swinging, what kinds of pitches I was swinging at, and I came to many different conclusions. I realized I needed to wait longer before I swung. I realized I had to stop swinging at inside pitches (the ones that almost hit you.) I realized that I had to stop swinging at pitches that looked good but yet dropped in front of my feet. I realized I had to see the bat hit the “sweet spot” on the bat. I realized I needed to change my whole approach to hitting in fact.

OK. I realized a lot. I had come to many conclusions. Now what? Just do it, right? Aha. Not so simple.

You can’t just do what you know you should do. Why not? Because your unconscious isn’t listening to what you have to say.

You can tell yourself to do this that and the other but your “self” isn’t listening. Did you ever wonder why what you learned in school isn’t still in your head, or why you can’t remember what your wife wanted you to get on your way home? Or, why the things you hear about that will help you   improve your business or make more money or be a better person don’t actually ever get executed? The answer is simple: you can’t learn by listening – not from teachers, not from your wife, not from helpful suggestions from wise people, and not even from yourself.

Why not? Because it is your unconscious that is in charge of executing daily activities -- from swinging a bat to driving home to talking to people you want to make an impression on, to getting along with your wife. Your conscious can make decisions, but your unconscious pretty well does what it is in the habit of doing. The unconscious is a habit-driven processor. It says stuff you didn’t mean to say, comes to conclusions you didn’t know you believed, and in general is running the show.

 Bad habits, as they say, are hard to break. Actually, all habits, good or bad, are hard to break. A new swing is really hard to develop, as is a new way of selling, or a new way of treating people, or driving a new route home. Education that tries to instill new habits, where there are no old ones, tends to work rather well. Young children learn from their parents by unconsciously copying everything their parents do, including things the parents would just as soon not see their children doing.

The real value of education is in the creation of new habits. This can only be done in one way. The unconscious only learns in one way. It learns by repeated practice. The only teaching that really works is the observation of good role models and the kind of mentoring that helps someone execute better while they are trying to copy what they see others do.

And this brings us to a key question about education. How is a high school football coach different from a high school history teacher?

Before we attempt to answer this question we need to consider why it is an important question to consider. In general, I think most people would agree that the behavior of these two types of teachers is likely to be quite different. In our mind’s eye, we see images of yelling and crude behavior versus refined lecture and discussion. But, let’s get beyond the superficial stereotypes and think about what they teach rather than their style of teaching it.  

The history teacher at his worst, teaches facts, and at his best, teaches careful analysis of sources of facts and consequences of events.

The football coach at his worst, teaches that someone could never possibly do something because they are fundamentally bad at it, and, at his best, coaches someone to do something better than he or she could ever do before.

The history teacher teaches the conscious.

The football coach teaches the unconscious.

Education, or more accurately  - school - is a conscious affair.  We discuss history -- we don’t do history. We are frustrated when what we learn in school is forgotten years (or even weeks) later, but we fail to understand why it is forgotten. We see ourselves as deserving of blame when this is far from the case. All those facts, – gone. Algebra problems you were once good at now look like they written in Chinese. What happened?

The problem lies in the nature of school itself -- what is taught and how it is taught.

If you really want to learn something, or to teach something, it is important to understand what happened. It is also important to understand why the football coach is more successful. Thirty years later his charges can still catch a pass, and they have not forgotten how to tackle. They remember it all.

What is the difference? And, more importantly what can we learn about learning by examining that difference?

One place to start is in understanding the difference between conscious and unconscious knowledge.

The football coach doesn’t need players who can discuss football he needs players who can execute. Because he is interested in execution he does not dwell on the issue of passing an exam about football or being able to write an essay on football. In fact, many people could pass such an exam or write such an essay who could not begin to be able to catch a pass. (Often they are called sportswriters -- or fans.)

We can talk about what we know consciously. This ability to discuss conscious knowledge does not relate one way or the other to the ability to execute using unconscious knowledge. Conscious knowledge has next to nothing to do with unconscious knowledge.

How does conscious and the unconscious interact? As long as we see ourselves as rational beings who can think logically and make carefully reasoned decisions about our daily lives, then education indeed should be about the promotion of reasoned deliberation and the gaining of knowledge that will enhance our ability to reason. But, suppose this conception we have of ourselves and our ability to reason logically is simply wrong? What if it is the case that we can’t actually reason logically at all?

All of our education system depends on the “pure reason” assumption.  The assumption is that we teach conscious minds that are capable of logical thought, can remember what they were told and can think clearly about the consequences of their actions based upon all this knowledge. But the reality is that it is the unconscious mind that can be taught, it is the football player who really learns.  The history student simply learns for a short time and then forgets what he has learned and is incapable of ever making serious use of what he or she has learned. He can sometimes recall it while playing Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy, but the usefulness of the knowledge almost never extends to helping with decision making.

The conscious isn’t really capable of retaining what it has learned in any useful way, in part because what it has learned usually does not relate to anything it will later be called upon to do. The unconscious, on the other hand, is always ready to learn in the service of doing, because that is what it has always done.

Education Outrage Archives

Return to Archives index