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Brain, Education, and Inquiry - Fall, 2010: Session 11B

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain, Education, and Inquiry

Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010

Session 13B

Facilitated by Evren

Athletics, Music, and Education



What role does repetition/practice play in the development of athletic, musical, dance skill/ability?

What role should athletics/music/dance and related activities play in educational curricular in general? 


Your continuing thoughts about this and its relation to the classroom in the forum below ....





Evren's picture


I think I was a little too ambitious with my topic, and I'm glad that it narrowed to sports, and as a result we were able to have a more interesting discussion than if it had remained more general and tried to encompass both sports and music. So, while we discussed sports a lot in class, I'll take this time to discuss a little bit about how music relates to education. While most people (myself included) would first think of learning a musical instrument as the connection between music and education, I believe that by itself music can be a strong form of education independent from a classroom. We can learn a lot from the world around us, and on the rare occasions that I watch the news (I at least watch the daily show a little more often than I do a standard news broadcast or read the newspaper) I feel that I gain a great deal of knowledge and information, and am forced to analyze this new knowledge, think critically, and eventually either develop an opinion or determine that I need to become more familiar with the topic before having an opinion. In many ways, music can have a similar effect. From Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" to Public Enemy being acknowledged as "the black CNN" (a voice for the black community, that was, and still is, often overlooked in mainstream news sources) music has served as an alternate medium to describe the world around us, the same world that we learn so much from, but from a different perspective. While classes analyzing music as a medium for education are becoming more common, they are still all too rare.

L Cubed's picture

Life Skills

I really enjoyed this topic and the discussion that resulted. Sports/athletics have been a major component of my life ever since I was young and my dad enrolled my sister and I in gymnastics. After doing that for about a year I remained active, playing street ball, wall ball, kickball, and tennis with friends. I did not participate in an organized sport again until high school and through college.

It was interesting to hear the discussion about competition. I think that I have always been more competitive with myself than anyone else. I am always focusing on how I can improve and reach my ultimate goal, independent of whoever my component may be. This is especiallly evidient in my involvement with the track team....It is kind of funny when I think about it, but everyone on the team including the coach knows that I do not want to hear my standing going into races or even who I am going to be racing against. In my opinion, that takes away from self-competitiveness and causes you to focus more on your opponent rather than yourself which is where a lot of the anxiety and nerves generate from- the uncertainty of what your opponent is capable of. Despite that, everyone always seems to be caught up in their abilities/accomplishments relative to someone else.

Given my own ideal of competition, participating in sports has taught me many life skills and lessons, perserveance being a major one. That inspite of whatever may be going on, if you keep your faith and never give up, succes is bound to come. Now, that success may not always come in the form that you would like or even within the time frame that you would like, but it is success nevertheless and will make you an overall stronger person while teaching you things about yourself that you probably never knew. In addition to perserverance, participating in sports has definitely taught me about team work, time management, confidence, hard work, dedication, determination, and RESULTS. 

LinKai_Jiang's picture

Playing nice is not my sport

I would have a sports story to tell until few months ago when I joined Haverford's Rugby team. I have always been one of the least athletic and the smallest guys in a group. But I've always been active: climbing trees and hiking for hours in the mountains in my home village in China. At the beginning of this semester I had the sudden thought to challenge myself and put myself under the discipline of a sport. And it happened to be Rugby that I've chose. Now reflecting back on the past few months, I've realized Rugby has trained me well mentally (my physical size is quite hopelessly the way it is). The first few sessions were very rough: I didn't know the game and I was not fit at all. I made mistakes constantly but I was never told to stop. The command was always try again, no rest, don't be such a ___, the practice does not stop because you've stopped. If I've reached my limit for the day nobody would blame me for sitting down. After a short while one gets the message: the biggest mistake is stop trying, all the others are salvageable.

Obviously I'm better equipped to take more strenuous practice and more harsh bollocking, but I don't think I would have continued Rugby in an ultra-masculine-unnecessarily-harsh team. I was lucky that I was pushed hard, and often to my limit, but never beyond it.

In the classrooms, it is tricky to figure out how far we can push(or encourage if you prefer) the kids. I feel like the American classrooms are too "sanitized." It is important to ensure a safe learning environment for the kids, but even for older students there are so many things a teacher cannot say or do in a classroom. Lawsuits and complaints are so easily provoked. I taught high school students English in Vienna last semester. The classroom environment was pretty open. There were few restrictions on what a teacher can or cannot say. I freely said f*&k and s*&t when I deemed appropriate to connect to them and to make my point. When a student brought up Notorious BIG and some of the scenes, I went along with the discussion which required me to say some things no American school will allow me to say. My hope was that I could meet the student wherever they are and challenge their perceptions of the world from there. I feel like an overly sanitized environment does not allow me to do that. Going back to Rugby, all the cursing and bollocking do not diminish the potential value of the sport.                 
















jessicarizzo's picture


I second your point about oversanitization.  Not primarily because I've felt oppressed by a ban on profanity in the classroom... but then again I study theater.  More because I think there's a reluctance to really disagree.  Sometimes with the professor, but that problem is as old as dirt.  Weirdly, I see a hesitation to say "I don't see it that way at all" to a fellow student.  Do others experience this?  When there's a discussion going on, if someone wants to challenge what another student is saying they have to do it very tentatively and apologetically.  With all kinds of qualifiers, assuring the group that they're certain we all actually agree, but just let's push this one point and see if I can get you to rephrase it so that I can understand how we're really on the same page.  But I mean I totally get where you're coming from. 

I don't think we should be trying to pounce on one another, always trying to prove each other wrong.  And I think some of the overly-deferential stuff I'm talking about comes from a fine and noble quakerly impulse to respect everybody.  But I think it kind of handicaps discussion sometimes, where a more ferocious debate now and then might help.

FinnWing's picture

  I agree that a classroom

  I agree that a classroom should be a place of honesty, and sometimes honesty involves totally disagreeing and possibly having an actual emotional reaction to something that another person says.  I wonder if we were sometimes permitted to be more emotional in class, if we would then also learn better by engaging the cognitive unconscious a little bit more.

eledford's picture

Anything you can do, I can do better

I wholeheartedly agree that this was such a fantastic topic to bring to the surface. On a personal basis, playing sports (and music) since elementary school has always been an important outlet. Practices were always grueling, but when I finally mastered the chromatic scale or perfect execution of a play, it was totally invigorating and made me want to do it that much better. I've also learned so many things from playing sports -  how to come up with solutions, communication, self-control, execution, leadership...... the list goes on. But a truly important aspect I can take from athletics was to understand the room for learning new ways to do things. In other words, recognizing the capacity for creativity - trying out new techniques. This was a fun way to do it for me and although I mostly remember important moments from games and such, I suggest that my unconscious took away a bit more in ways I don't fully realize. (Much like the sudoku example given by PG).

Also, what's wrong with competition? I know we spoke of how it's taboo nowadays, but I've always loved it in the sports arena. It's funny how we brought up the Honor Code here at our institution/s with respect to not really talking about grades - however in many classes I find my classmates constantly asking for the class average on a test, to compare how they did against the mean. THE GRADE IS THE ONLY THING OF INTEREST!!! Our society is competitive, and while it is so I find it hard to understand how to make education less competitive. Yet also, why is it unfair to be competitive? I think we learn a lot from it, when not focused on the grade.

Kids need creative outlets, like sports. A teacher should take the time to find out what is important to the student, what the interests are and then try to use these aspects as tools for engagement. Kids also need to simply talk things out. I fondly remember as a child coming home from school and eating dinner with my family, rambling on about what I learned. But the things is they engaged in the conversation too - asking, discussing, debating, informing. Encouraging talk outside of the classroom is crucial.

Ameneh's picture

I really enjoyed this class

I really enjoyed this class and think it was a great topic/area to talk about. I’m especially glad that competition and competitiveness were brought up. When we think of competition, what comes to mind (for me at least) is winning or being better at something than others. However, I think competition is much more constructive and valuable when it is more internal. Comparing oneself to others and judging victory or success based on that seems to stray from the very purpose of competition: improvement. For example, if a superbly talented athlete has much weaker team-mates, he or she could be “the” best without being “his/her” best. I think this distinction is very important. I’ve never been very sporty at all and there was more to it than my utter lack of athletic ability. I seemed to me that it was always like being in a prolonged fight. If the focus was on improving oneself, challenging oneself, pushing your limits, we would gain so much more. Like we’ve said many times in class, individuals are all different. Why, then, should we judge ourselves relative to other people? This applies to education as well. I’m not quite sure how applicable this is, but if students could set their own goals, work at their own pace and be judged only relative to their own performance, wouldn’t things be much better. Having said that, though, I think learning to be part of a team is also invaluable, but less so for the competition and more for the lessons learned from working with other people and being part of a team. 

ellenv's picture


I was also glad that the topic of competition came up in this discussion. For me, sports were never a place of competition between people and instead they were a place of competition with myself. That being said, I usually stuck to team sports and when I did try individual sports I did sense more competition between individuals and so I promptly quit those sports. It was always drilled into my head that in team sports you "win as a team and lose as a team." This made me feel like I had less responsibility on my shoulders and I could improve my abilities simply because I wanted to, not because I had to beat the individuals on the other team. Sure, I was happy when we won, but it wasnt the end of the world (most of the time..) when we lost. Where I did feel the pressure of competition between people was in the classroom. In my orchestra classroom we consistently had "Challenge" days where we were forced to challenge other individuals in the class for higher seats. I found these Challenge days to be horrible. Not only was I being compared to other people purely on a single ability, it was also being done publicly and it had a grade tied to it. Supposedly the orchestra was a "team" of sorts, but I really dont believe it. We might have been working together to create a single sound but it was the one place in my life that I felt the greatest amount of competition between people. 

I dont think competition needs to be eliminated in school, it just needs to be redirected. Critical thinking and learning to learn are a form of internal competition. In learning to learn and critical thinking, you are pushing yourself to go beyond what you already know or think. If competition is eliminated from school completely, you will end up with a school full of students who are indifferent to the educational process.  

FinnWing's picture

Sports are da bomb

  There are few things in life that are greater than sports and that is my honest (and terribly biased opinion).  The repetition that getting good at a sport requires is a great lesson to learn about succeeding in other realms of life.  In Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell the author makes the point (and maybe a fairly obvious one) that practice makes people better at things, the amount of practice that he says makes people great (outliers) is 10,000 hrs.  Sports showed me that you could take a bit of natural ability and stretch it very far through practice, and that this process was often quite enjoyable.  As a very shy kid growing up, I struggled socially for a long time (I was held back in kindergarten because I was so shy and had so few friends).  Yet sports helped me a lot because I loved them and because being good at sports made one more popular at my elementary school.  In fifth grade, cross-country was the bee's knees, on the first day of practice I think I surprised everyone (including myself) by being really good at it.  Being good, and having a great coach, encouraged me to practice and get better.  It taught me that practice really does help one to improve.

  Translating this indulgent story to education, things like sports, music, dance, etc., give students more opportunities to excel and find a niche.  Education is about more than learning multiplication tables and state capitals, it is about learning to learn, forming good habits, and being a member of society.  If a kid is into sports, then he/she will probably be inclined to practice, and also learn to make a team better (admittedly, I learned more about team work from football and rugby than cross-country).  These skills are really great and translate into many skills that are not measured on IQ tests or standardized tests.

Note:  This becomes very indulgent, so be warned that the next paragraph is about my high school football career 

  Evren, I really appreciate you broaching this topic because it is one that I forgot how much I cared about.  One of the most meaningful life lessons that I ever learned came on the football field.  As a freshman, I was miserable, I did not start any games and I realized that I needed to work really hard and learn how to be good.  So for three years I worked and as a junior I started on defense as a safety.  That summer I worked out everyday and did everything that I could to be a great football player.  I learned to watch film and about reading a defense and my senior year I started as a vastly undersized middle linebacker and fullback.  I was named team MVP and a league all-star on team with a 7-4 record (a great accomplishment for a team that had not had a winning season for many years before that or since then).  Looking back, these experiences taught me that if I was not good at something now, then I could be good at it, I just needed some time and some passion.  This really taught me that if I do what I love then I can be great at it.  

Angela DiGioia's picture

Return to Learning Outside of the Classroom

I couldn't agree more with FinnWing here.  As I mentioned in class, I've played soccer since I've been two or three and some of the most valuable lessons that I've never learned, and, also the ones that are more difficult to teach in a classroom, have been learned by playing sports. Teamwork, sharing, communication skills, losing, and competition are just a few that I can think of where I actually learned how to exhibit them by practicing them on a field.  Going back to our conversation in class, where the topic was brought up that when you repeat something over and over again, you get better at it, it struck me how important playing sports (or any team activity) is to a child's development.  When the unconscious learns at a young age how to share or communicate with other people on a field or in a band/choir/art studio, etc, it learns to do it better over time; the unconscious has developed that skill and has an accumulation of data points for which the conscious storyteller can develop a story for how the brain has learned the skill over time.  I couldn't agree more with FinnWing about how important playing sports/or any group activity has been to my personal development, and to children's in general.  One other interesting thought...can we extend this thought to having siblings and how siblings interact from a young age?  Are only children's development of interpersonal skills and how to deal with things like competition, sharing, etc, more delayed because they don't have any siblings to interact with at home (brains interacting)?


jessicarizzo's picture


I hated sports when I was a child.  I still hate sports.  I really hate sports.  I meet people who play sports and have to overcome a strong and deep-seated prejudice before coming to like or respect them. 

Just being honest.  I know this is wrong.  And I'm sorry.  I'm trying to change. 

That's the unconscious.  Now, during all those very unhappy recess hours spent playing kickball in fourth grade (it was mandatory.  they said it was important for the children to learn to play nicely with one another), my mind was working overtime to formulate theories to justify my contemptuous feelings towards my peers... mindless grins on their faces, gleefully trotting their unvarying path around the diamond... sometimes a few of the boys even got all piqued about it.  Red in the face, shouting at one another and stamping their feet because they disagreed over whether a ball was "foul." 

That ball was always foul to me. 

I did not understand this enterprise.  Still less did I understand the pity and terror it seemed to inpire.  If I got the third "out" and my team was no longer "up," we would retire to the outfield (where at least I might be left alone long enough to get a good daisy-chain started),  but inevitably the changing of the guard would come again.  I would be encouraged to "hustle" back to the infield.  Again, I would be led to homeplate, as Abraham led Isaac to the altar.  Again, the ball would roll towards me, (usually) make contact with my foot, and richochet off in a direction predictable only by principles of chaos theory we are still years from understanding. 

Then we would be "out" again.  The hellish cycle would only continue.  So, whence the pique? I wondered..  There seemed.. and yes, seems to be as little room for variation and engagement as in the "power teaching" classrooms.  A good way to train soldiers, not thinkers.. or people. 

epeck's picture

regarding training "soldier, not thinkers"

Reflecting back on my high schools sports experience, I definitely became sort of conditioned to follow the rules of the sport and the team, but I also did a LOT of thinking (maybe sports like track or swimming etc. are more conducive to thought during the sport) and a lot of what I thought about what my individual potential and how I could get better, even though I knew I was never going to be a track star...This self-reflection (and maybe a little bit of discipline) is what has carried over into my academic life, not the arbitrary rules of the sport. 

Like Jessica, I hated team sports as a kid and would have been much happier reading or playing other games, but even those experiences helped me determine what I like and don't like.  Maybe hating team sports helped push you towards drama?  I think even all of the mandatory team sports kids are forced to participate in (which can be terrible at the time)  can help teach kids what they like, don't like, and might be good at. 

Another thing we didn't talk about in terms of sports was that having kids get rid of some excess energy could be great for classroom performance.  We've talked about energetic kids before (the dancer story), and maybe even if these kids don't  always enjoy things like gym or teams, using up all of that energy could allow them to be better able to pay attention in class.

eledford's picture

"This really taught me that

"This really taught me that if I do what I love then I can be great at it. "

So true! It's interesting that many people choose certain pathways or professions because they think they are good enough to do it well, even though they may not be truly passionate about it. But maybe we should be approaching it in the opposite direction as you say. I completely agree that if you do what you love and let passion and determination be your driving force, then great things will come of it. This is enough for me to point me in the right direction/s.

simonec's picture

i suppose that

one thing about sports that i find to be particularly relevant to "traditional" classroom experiences would be the inclusion of a sort-of "you can always be better" mentality. There was an honesty to my sports experiences - we all knew who the best players were, and that not everyone on the team would ever be as good as them. however, this knowledge did not make us stop playing hard, but rather try to get better for the sake of the team. upon reflection, i realize that in my educational career i felt much more discouraged by teachers then by coaches - coaches seemed to understand that even if i would never be amazing, if i worked hard i could get faster/stronger. in school, when i realized that i was not a "math-minded" student i think i kinda just gave up... maybe i needed a math-coach? someone to admit that no, i would never be great, but that did not mean i should not strive to be better? what blocked my ability to take my "sports-mind" with me into my academics? 

eledford's picture

it's interesting that with

it's interesting that with many sports, we emphasize the "team" aspect about it, yet with traditional education, it's often about improving scores or techniques on an individual basis

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