Research into 'learning'

Ministry of Football is well-placed to conduct research into children's football development. We do not have the constraints of following a club philosophy, we have a very supportive group of parents, and we have enough children on our programme to conduct surveys and research projects that produce statistically significant results.

How does learning happen? What does learning look like? How should we assess the impact of development programmes?

What do children and families want and need from a children's football programme?

The above questions are tricky to answer and they spark lots of debate. 'Learning' is elusive: even defining what we mean by learning is controversial. And when we can see some 'learning' appears to have happened, usually over several weeks or months or longer, it is almost impossible to relate the learning outcome to clear, identifiable inputs (e.g. teaching). 

At MoF we don't feel we have exact answers to these challenges, but we love to explore the topic and find new ways of examining what we are achieving. It's not easy to measure all this, and this page will present more questions than answers I expect. Let's begin by watching the videos below and attempting to answer: How would you measure how much is being learnt by children in these activities?

Active Learning Time research by parents

Key finding: On average 82% of a Ministry of Football session contains Active Learning time. This is compared to just 20% of the average school PE lesson.

We know that children come to MoF sessions to play games. That is what they have consistently told us for over a decade. It is by far and away their biggest reason for attending the programme (we know because we survey them at least twice a year). We also believe that small-sided game play provides some of the very best learning opportunities we can offer. Decisions made in games are 'real'; there are many repeated ball possessions for each child; there is lots of involvement on the ball, around the ball, and away from the ball; repetitions of similar game situations are regular and can be learnt from (sometimes with the help of an expert teacher). So... it makes sense to measure the amount of game-time that children get on our programme, and use this as part of our understanding of how much learning is potentially happening.

'Active Learning Time' (ALT) is the amount of time in a lesson that children have the opportunity to move and learn by doing. It includes any and all opportunities that each child has to play and move. It doesn't include: Time sitting or standing in a queue; Time listening to a coach; Time watching someone else demonstrate something; Time "out" of a game; Time having a drink or going to the toilet; Time wasted because of a late start or early finish to the session.

Our first ALT research project took place in March 2011. This research studied the number of minutes in a MoF session that children are Actively Learning. This is in response to a recent study by Movement Dynamics, which found that children are only active for 8 minutes of 40 minute school PE lessons.

Our experiment: We used parents and spectators to help us with this research. 15% of parents used a stopwatch to record the amount of a one-hour lesson that their child was engaged in Active Learning. We defined Active Learning as any activity that gave the opportunity for movement, learning and play. Therefore the stopwatch was stopped when the child had a drink break or was listening to the teacher give instructions. This research was carried out across the following four age groups: 4-5 years, 6-8 years and 9-12 years.

Active Learning Time is important as it is a measure of the amount of 'learning by doing' that is happening in a session. At MoF we believe that children will learn to play football by playing football. Certainly there may be times when a coaches intervention can speed up the learning process or help add quality to the learning that is taking place - but the main learning that happens is dependent on movement taking place.

We found that: On average 82% of our session time gives children the opportunity for Active Learning. This varied from 75% to 91%, mainly depending on the coach and the age-group. The main reasons that parents gave for non-Active Learning time was when children stopped playing to listen to the teacher give instructions or ask questions.

We learnt that: We run intense sessions that are full of play. We identified that we need to be consistent with the number of drink breaks we give to each group, and that we can maximise Active Learning time if we give children something to do when they return from a drink break - such as juggling a ball or passing against the wall (this allows the children who only need a very quick drink to continue playing and learning).

Active Learning Time research in coach evaluations

At Ministry of Football we try to evaluate each new coach once a term. In these coach evaluations one of the key criteria that we assess is Active Learning Time. We see ALT as an important measure of the amount of 'learning by doing' that might be taking place for the learners. However, we don't use this to judge a session, only to provide a description of the child's experience and present this back to the coach for discussion and reflection. ALT is a measure of quantity and says nothing about the quality of the learning. The coach evaluations at MoF also look at the quality and relevance of the activity and coach interventions in the session, and provide an overall summary of quantity and quality of learning.

Below is a table of Active Learning Time in the classes we have evaluated since 2011. [Our sessions begin with a group warm-up with a ball each usually for 5-10 minutes. This allows children to get settled, coaches to prepare areas and equipment, and managers to arrange groups for the lesson. This preparation time is not counted as part the coach evaluation]. 

Average Active Learning Time in our evaluated sessions is 74%. [This % will be substantially higher for the entire hour of the session as we would add on the 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the lesson where each child is constantly active and moving with a ball]. 

Measuring 'learning' in small-sided games

How much learning is happening? I recently found the video below, which analyses 4 small-sided football and Futsal games and measures the number of touches of the ball and the amount of time the ball is in/out of play. I found it an interesting approach for trying to measure the amount of learning and involvement that happens in games.

[A couple of things to note in these videos: 1. Look at the pitch size for the girls in the second video, and how the girls have to bunch together in order to be within distance of a pass. This is a good example of where competition is not planned to fit with  the real needs of the children. 2. The support and encouragement of well-meaning parents in the girls Futsal video. Shouting "kick it!" isn't in any way helpful and just helps create an environment where children are pressured into booting the ball away. 3. In both the videos we can see substitute children sitting on the side - in the 5v5 game, nearly half the children are sitting watching].

I wanted to know how our own competitions compared to this, so I recorded two-minute segments of our 4v4 Mini-League games to compare them. The MoF 4v4 Mini-League is an indoor, short-duration competition for primary-school aged children. Here are the videos.

The table on the right shows what I found. The first four rows of information are from the videos in the original comparison of Indoor v Futsal, and the last three rows are an analysis of the three 4v4 games from our Mini-League. I have never been convinced that 'numbers of touches' is a good proxy for learning so I have added in 'number of deliberate, successful passes' and 'number of dribbles' (a dribble defined as three or more consecutive touches of the ball for the same player).

For me, the more interesting analysis is where we look at total involvement and learning per child. In the MoF 4v4 Mini-League we have no substitutes, each team has 4 players and they all play all the time. In the Indoor videos (1&2) you can see that each team has a squad of 9 and those that aren't involved are sat on the side watching. In the Futsal games we can assume that they have a squad of 8 and use rolling subs. Therefore, we can look at total involvement and learning per player - shown in the table on the right.

If we multiply these involvements into a 40-minute game of football, and average across the different formats we get:

  • Indoor football (videos 1&2): 36 touches, 6 passes and 2 dribbles per child.
  • Futsal (videos 3&4): 76 touches, 11 passes and 4 dribbles per child.
  • 4v4 Mini-League (videos 5-7): 173 touches, 23 passes and 15 dribbles per child.

So if we use passes and dribbles as a proxy for learning, then:  There is four times more potential learning in 4v4 Mini-League than in the indoor examples given, and over twice as much potential learning in 4v4 Mini-League when compared to Futsal.

So what can we understand from this?

  • Firstly, the variable that has most impact in this study is the squad size compared to the number of children playing at any one time. Or in other words the biggest factor in determining learning per child is how many children are sitting watching as substitutes rather than playing. Now, we can say "there's a solution - get the subs playing a game of their own on the side" - but there isn't any side in a Futsal court and there is only limited space in the indoor games in the first two videos. We need to think very carefully when organising children's football: How many subs do we really need? Could we make more teams with smaller squad size rather than having squads of 8 or 9 with only 5 playing? For Ministry of Football, we need to look at this closely as we start our venture into the world of Futsal.
  • Secondly, not enough thought is given to developing appropriate competition in children's football. Competitions for children should fit the child in the same way their shoe does. The children should not be shoe-horned to fit the competition, rather the competition needs to be tailored to the needs of the children. Just look at the attempts of the girls in video 2 to see an example of competition that simply doesn't fit. Children need different sizes of pitch and different formats of the game dependent on their ability and physicality. Girls are generally different from boys and will need this to be taken into account. The width of a pitch should not be wider than the child's ability to accurately pass the ball from one side to another.
  • Thirdly, notice how in the 4v4 Mini-League videos we have rules where children can dribble back onto the pitch from the sideline or from a corner. As well as encouraging dribbling, this also reduces the amount of time the ball is out-of-play as it gives children more options for how to re-enter the pitch from the sideline.
  • Finally, the ball in Futsal seems to allow more dribbling to take place. This isn't noticeable from the stats but there are a few moments in the Futsal games where the ball falls and is easily controllable while in the 4v4 Mini-League the ball bounces higher and is harder to control onto the floor. I think the learning here for Ministry of Football is to use a Futsal in the Mini-League in future.

Finally, let's look at one more video. This video is taken from a Ministry of Football skill development session and includes some of the children in video 7. They are playing a 3v3 game - which is the staple diet of MoF skill sessions for this age/ability-group:

The ball is in play constantly. In 40 minutes, there will be:

MoF Skill Session 3v3 (video 8): 323 touches, 27 passes and 40 dribbles per child.

So this is where the real 'learning' happens!

In keeping with the Long-Term Athlete Development model, children's sport should be about moving and enjoyment. Organised 'club v club' competition may play a small part in this - if it is done well, it should aid learning. However club v club competition should not be the focus of learning at this stage (unfortunately it is in most clubs). As the Maths test provides the teacher with information on how well she has taught, so organised football competition will provide the coach with information on where  the children are at and what they need next. The key focus on learning in children's football should be in high-intensity, high-movement, high-activity skill sessions. Programmes need to built around opportunities to play, learn, and move. No children should be on the sideline watching, pitch sizes need to fit the needs of the learners, and small-sided formats such as 3v3 need to be the main ingredient in games.

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Mark Carter

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