My favourite class at school was Art, simply because it was ok to stand up and walk around the desk. I wasn’t that good at Art – pretty average really – but the lessons just seemed to be more light-hearted and less obsessed with finding the only right answer the teacher had thought of. I hated sitting so still in the other classes and being taught in such a static and boring way. I ended up hating school, and couldn’t wait to leave. This is probably what prompted my fascination with other ways of teaching.
Now I run my own football teaching programme, I have the opportunity to create environments for children that are different – exciting, varied and child-centred. I have long been interested in the methods of Montessori teaching, and the more I find out about these methods the more I think we could learn from them in the way we teach sport to children.
I do not claim to be an expert on Montessori education, far from it. But here is what I have found out so far, and how I think it can help us as football coaches and directors of football programmes.
Mixed age environments
Montessori schools typically use three year age bands. Children move through these age bands, experiencing being the youngest through to being the oldest, before moving up to the next age band when they’re ready to do so. This means that older children often take the role of leaders and mentors, and play with and help teach younger children. Younger children have experience of working with older ones, and learning from their more experienced classmates.
In our football programmes and academies, as in our schools, we usually restrict children to only playing and learning with other children born in the same year. We use date-of-birth as the main identifier of learning needs. The oldest child (usually Sept-born) in this system will go from year to year, continually being the oldest. And the youngest will remain constantly the youngest. For many children, this forced and unnatural order will define them for years to come. We see in school exam results at all ages, even up to University entrance, that children born early in the Academic year outperform those born in the summer.
In football, as in school, we know that success (e.g. selection of players to elite programmes and top teams) reflects month of birth, with the vast majority of children in professional club academies born in Sept-Dec. Are they really the best players? No, they are the most effective players given the environments they developed in. And these environments are flawed because they never let the autumn-born learn with children who are older and more experienced, and they never let the summer-born be the leaders and role-models. In any learning activity there will be those who are struggling to keep up and those who are striving ahead, and many somewhere in the middle. It is advantageous for a child to experience being both a struggler and a striver. But the way we have set-up our learning systems, we often deprive children of one or other of these roles. It is my contention that the current model of schooling does not advantage those born in Sept-Dec, it actually disadvantages all the children. Football – and education in general – would be better for everyone if we provided mixed age environments.
Remember the days of street/park football? Age groups were hugely mixed, and all children went through the process from being youngest to being oldest. The older children provided role-models, and demonstrated learning for younger children who look up to them. As well as the sense of community this created, it allowed all children to see where they were on the learning pathway. Imagine street or park football if adults forced children into segregated groups and only allowed the kids to play with others born in the same year? Well that’s the reality of what we’re doing in our football schools and academies.
Age is not an indicator of learning needs. “What age should you start 1v1s?” I saw a coach tweet a few weeks ago. We all know that a group of six year-olds can be so different from each other. We need to create systems and programmes that allow children to be defined not by their age but by what they need to develop. And this will probably be best in a mixture of environments, some where they are the confident leaders and others where they need to watch and learn from their peers.
(Click here for a more detailed look at how we group children at Ministry of Football, and for an excellent video from Ken Robinson which discusses age and learning needs).
Motivation, Freedom and Ownership.
In Montessori schools, there is a belief that children naturally want to learn. There are no incentives for learning, and no punishments for not learning. There are no grades, no tests, and no homework. Montessori schools recognise that children will play naturally anyway, and they will learn through doing this. Children take ownership of their own learning by being given responsibility to direct their own learning activities. Children who are interested in a particular theme are allowed the freedom to explore this theme for as long as they need to. Children follow their interests, wherever that passion leads.
When I first starting coaching football, I used to plan my sessions in such detail that I knew exactly how long I would spend on each activity, what my progressions would be, and what questions I would ask (After all, I had gone on the FA courses, and this is what they said I should do!). I found that this worked for me well, and I became confident at delivering sessions and dealing with the inevitable indiscipline that will happen when you try to drag a group of children through a session that you have designed without their input.
After a few months of this kind of coaching I began to realise that this was not really what the children wanted. I was already frustrated with the constant questioning “When can we play a match? When can we play a match?”, and began asking myself whether my sessions would be more enjoyable – and (importantly) more effective in terms of learning – if I just let the children decide what they do, how they progress activities, and when they had their match.
This experience, together with my own experience of learning, has confirmed my belief that children learn best when they are fully engaged in what they are doing. A child who is absolutely immersed in the joy of passing the ball against the wall does not need to be stopped to move onto another activity just because that is what the session plan says. And nowadays when the children ask if they can play a match, I do just that: play a match.
How many of us as coaches really understand the motivations of the children we coach? In the absence of this understanding, we assume that children all want to become professional footballers. I dare say that for many children this is something they’d love to happen, but is this really the central motivation for nagging mum or dad to take them to footy early? Or is it that they just want to play with a ball, be with their friends, score goals and have fun? One of the problems I see at professional academies is that they use the incentive of professional football as a carrot which silences the children and makes them complicit and unrebelious. If that carrot was taken away then the children would soon get sick of adult-centred sessions and agendas (and you’d know it cos they wouldn’t come back the following week). It is a shame that some of our best young footballing talent is being nurtured in environments that don’t allow the children to direct their own learning.
The Montessori classroom: Exploration
The Montessori classroom places special emphasis on the materials it uses to help children learn. These materials are interesting, varied, challenging, practical, and age/stage-specific. Importantly, the children are able to use these materials on their own. Children in small groups (or on their own) can move freely to use what they want when they want.
The philosophy is that children who are free to choose what to do within a specially constructed environment will act spontaneously for optimal development. The underlying assumption is that children know what’s best for them in order to learn, and their natural instinct for learning will lead them in the direction they need if they are left surrounded by the right blend of engaging activities and materials.
Think of a playground. Or think again of street or park football. Do children need adult supervision when learning through play and exploration? Are they able to choose what they want to do, how they want to explore, and when they need a break? I recall football in the park being a mixture of all kinds of football games, dependent on who was around and what mood we were in. We might start with a game of Headers and Volleys, and then move into a match when a few more people arrived, and then play 3-and-in for a bit after that.
Montessori classrooms acknowledge that not all children need to learn the same thing at the same time. As football coaches, we often develop sessions and activities (and objectives for these activities) which assume that all the children need to learn the same specific skill or technique in the same week. Some programmes have a rigid curriculum: In week 5, we will teach Passing and Receiving. There is nothing wrong with this, but I think it is important to then let the children decide how they will learn and explore this topic.
A football programme I helped set-up a few years ago had lots of small-sided pitches for the children to choose from. Some pitches had two-goals at each end, others had end-zones, while others were of the normal format. There were a set-up of rules and conditions with each pitch, written down like a menu, and the children could choose which of these to use and how to use them. If our topic for the week is Passing and Receiving, then a clever coach will be able to design the small-sided pitches and menu of conditions such that the topic is a natural learning outcome of the games the children play.
As coaches of football, we have all heard the expression Let the Game be the Teacher. But how many of us let the children decide what the game is? And how many coaches develop environments which allow children or small groups of children to move freely from activity to activity as they wish? The benefits of this are the development not only of skilful footballers - but of self-confident, creative, independent learners and leaders.
Montessori teaching and learning materials are typically simple and straightforward. The learning environments are as natural as possible, and schools make use of nature to help children appreciate the natural outdoor world. For me these principles have very solid applications for football:
Things you don’t need in order to play and learn football: A state-of-the-art pitch, a referee, goalposts that take 20 minutes to assemble, a complex session plan with cones everywhere, all the kids in replica Chelsea shirts.
Things you do need in order to play and learn football: A ball.
How do we learn?
This is a question which is often over-looked. Many teachers and coaches don’t really have a good answer for this, perhaps because learning is such a complex process. A Montessori school believes children learn best when challenged to do something practical and hands-on. Learning is best when it is self-paced, challenging and collaborative.
As adults in a children’s world, we are often guilty of setting limits to what we think the children can learn. We provide challenges for the children which are often too rigid, and sometimes don’t allow the children to come up with answers that are outside of our own perceived best answer. This is dangerous as it implies that we adults know everything. This is simply not true.
The world of football will change dramatically over the next ten to twenty years. We can have a good guess as to what it might look like in that time, and therefore what a child of today needs to learn in order to thrive in the football of the future. But we don’t know for sure what tricks, skills, knowledge and ideas will come to the fore in the years to come. As I said in an earlier blog: “One day someone will do something with a ball that we never thought was possible — and would never have dreamed to teach”. So we need to leave the door open for children to create their own answers – they might appear a bit wacky to us sometimes, but that is the genius of childhood. Remember: That wackiness might just be what helps that child to thrive in the future – whether that be in football or whatever else they choose to do.
Montessori schools encourage divergent thinking and innovation. Anyone who has seen the England football team play any time in the past 20 years will know that divergent thinking and innovation is sadly lacking when it comes to our national team. Could it be that these traits are coached out of youngsters by well-meaning teachers when they are still in their infancy? As coaches we have an enormous responsibility not to put a ceiling on the children’s learning.
The role of the teacher
So far you’d be forgiven for thinking that while we were enjoying unadulterated football in the park or street in our distant youth we were actually experiencing a perfect Montessori education. And you’d be right, to an extent. But there was a critical element of the Montessori method missing: The Teacher.
A Montessori teacher is not like a traditional school teacher. They do not stand at the front of the class, and are not the centre of everyone’s attention. They are not teaching everyone in the class the same thing at the same time, rather they work with small groups within the class or 1-on-1. They let the activity be the teacher, rather than teach by direct instruction. They stimulate learning and development through interaction with the environments they have carefully created. And they allow uninterrupted blocks of work time where children can get lost in the flow of what they are doing.
We recently did a study of children at Ministry of Football to see how many minutes of each hour’s session were spent in Active Learning. We defined Active Learning as activity that gave the opportunity for football movement or play with football-relevant learning. We asked parents to measure the amount of time in the hour that their child spent in Active Learning, stopping the clock when the child was taking a break, standing in a queue, being talked to or instructed by the coach, watching or anything else that prevented them from play. What we learnt was that the main barrier to the children learning was the coach talking.
As a teacher we need to give instructions, and we sometimes need to demonstrate and give examples too. But are all these instructions and examples always relevant to the whole group? How often do we need to stop the whole group in an hour’s session, and for how long do we need to stop them in order to make our point? After the Active Learning research at MoF, I challenged the coaching team to deliver a whole session while only stopping the entire group once or twice. Try it - it’s much more difficult than it seems. You will need to find other ways of progressing the children’s activities, usually by dealing with children 1-on-1 or in small groups. In doing this you will be teaching much more effectively as you will be able to teach more specifically to the actual needs of the children you are talking to (rather than the group as a whole).
Every year, I put job adverts out for coaches for the Ministry of Football programme and I usually get over 100 CVs back. Of these some are invited in to watch sessions, assist on sessions and then – (if we haven’t scared them off!) - take activities and sessions of their own. As I evaluate these new coaches and decide whether they would make a good new member of the coaching team I ask myself: What has this coach added to this session that wouldn’t have been there if the children had just come in and had a match (like they used to do in the park in the old days)? I am looking for coaches who are able to observe an activity and see when a child needs an extra challenge, or notice when someone is not really included in the learning process because they are finding it too difficult to get involved. This is when a good coach will act, and usually they don’t need to stop the entire group for several minutes in order to do so. The specific detail targeted for the individual child is much more important, and will sink in much deeper than broad, plenary discussion.
As I’ve already mentioned earlier, one of the key skills of the Montessori teacher is to prepare the learning environment. The activities and materials which the children use, and the environment in which they use them, are key influences in what the children learn and how they experience that learning.
Football has a glorious opportunity to be different from main-stream education. But many of our football structures and programmes copy the same principles as the school system: single year age-bands, direct instruction from the teacher, and detailed session planning and delivery without involvement or ownership from the children. These need to be challenged as there are possibly better ways of doing things.
The Montessori method gives us examples of how we can approach teaching and learning differently, and is useful to consider when setting-up football programmes and teaching within those programmes. The potential results of implementing Montessori principles and structures in football coaching are impressive: Children who have a lifetime love of learning, who are independent, can work well together or on their own, take responsibility, and take the initiative. We need young adults like this. And if we are to keep up with the rest of the world, we need young footballers like this too.
Video: An interesting discussion on the benefits of Montessori education from Trevor Eissler: