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It takes a team

By Dale Blyth

In sports, we know that it takes a variety of skills to win, and a variety of players to make a team. So why do we measure the success of every student by comparing their scores on the same few tests, all of them cognitive?

We know intuitively that success, whether in school or life, depends on many factors -- intelligence, academic skills, personality, and relationships. Paul Tough calls this oversimplification of skills the cognitive hypothesis. It can cause us to ignore anything but math and reading scores in our push to close the achievement gap or create a work force for the 21st century.

Research increasingly shows factors such as grit, self-control, the ability to work with others, and sense of self-efficacy are critical for success of many types (see for example the National Research Council's report Education for Work and Life. Yet we continue to seek to oversimplify what it takes to succeed.

Team sports are all around us. Even people who do not like sports hear about it. We need a frame that intuitively fits and is easily understand by many different people.
I think the metaphor of team sports is useful for framing the many ways that young people can learn and succeed:
  1. It takes a team of skills -- Both winning and learning require a number of characteristics that work together. The balance of these strengths can vary from one player to another. Some have are good at reading, others can work very hard. A young person's overall success depends on the team of skills and attitudes they bring to life and learning.
  2. It takes a team of players -- The parents, teachers, neighbors, and youth workers who help them practice success, expect it of them, and support them over the long haul act as a young learner's support team.
  3. It takes a season -- In sports, one good game does not make a wining season. For youth, it is not about success on one test that matters most, but success in a variety of activities and challenges.
  4. It takes a league -- a set of fans, rules and sponsors who help things come together so the games can go on. It is not left just to owners (school districts) or to the players unions (youth). Rather it is important enough that we work together to create mutually reinforcing efforts to make it happen -- much like cradle to career collective impact efforts try to do in communities.
If we thought more about success as a team sport we would make more progress. A team sport where we develop strong individual players who bring a team of their own skills and attitudes to the game, A team sport where we help players work together to achieve success. A team sport that has measures of success that are not dominated by only one perspective but add up across the season. A team sport that has the necessary coordination and integration to keep the enterprise of learning thriving in our communities.

In a few weeks I will have the great pleasure of becoming the Howland Endowed Chair for Youth Development Leadership here at the University of Minnesota. As I begin this year as endowed chair, I believe we will find ways to improve the chance for success for individuals and for the team.
What works or does not work for you about this analogy? Do you use a different metaphor for what it takes to support young people's success?

Dale Blyth, Extension professor, School of Social Work, College of Education and Human Development *
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  1. Dale, I do appreciate this metaphor. The concepts of skills, players and teams is easy for me to understand.
    Often when working within communities we see duplication of effort. This can be seen when multiple agencies, formal or informal, work to meet the needs of those they serve. Who do you see providing leadership to the 'league' that will help things come together so the games can go on?
    Is this a role for a public institution like the University? Do we wait for independent community organizers to create the 'league'? Does the league develop naturally with no need for an organizer?
    Who, or what, is the force that can work within communities to pull people together that will allow more effective opportunities for all youth to learn, and succeed, while limiting the duplication of effort?
    I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Mark,
    Great questions about the nature of the "league" and who starts and runs it. In much of Europe, the government sets up the league through youth policies that set a vision, goals, and measures. These then help create a context for cities and others to manage their "teams" to support youth.
    In the US, unfortunately, national youth policy is largely absent and certainly not establishing "leagues" designed to suport the development and learning of the whole child. Even states are mostly not fertile ground for this work currently. In the US, I have begun to see mayors and intermediary organizations starting to try to put in place "leagues" that can help organize, support, and champion the things needed for you success. When done well, for example Providence Afterschool Alliance, it can be very powerful.
    The work on collective impact by FSG and the Stanford Social Innovations Review (for example Kania and Krammer, 2011) provides valuable insights into what it takes to do collective action well and in some ways is a model of how a league might operate with common goals, shared measures - think win and loss records and players stats in terms of the analogy, mutually reenforcing activities (so it is a league and not random acts of sports), constant communication, and a backbone organization - the league office.
    Thanks for the questions!