Bloggin' 'bout science and life

Why Don’t We Treat Academics Like Sports?

It’s the first day of the 2013 college football season, next week is the first week of the NFL season, and so it is for high school football, too.  Every other commercial is a Nike vignette of a high school football practice telling the players to commit totally to their efforts to win.  If you’re not giving your all, you’re a loser.  And the players buy into it wholeheartedly.  Wouldn’t it be great if our schools (and society) celebrated and revered academic performance like it does sports performance, and motivated students to perform academically like we do athletically?  

Academic performance is seen as something to drag out of students, while sports performance is inspired. What if we motivated students in their academics just like we did for sports?  Instead of making them take onerous standardized tests, they competed against other schools in their districts and state for academic honor and glory – “Bob’s All-State in English.”

We should have serious academic leagues where schools go head to head (literally) against one another in student competitions of math, science, English, history, and social studies, just like football, basketball and baseball, and starting in grade school.  And parents should be on the sidelines, cheering on their teams.  What if we paid the best elementary, secondary and high school teachers who coached these teams like we paid football and basketball coaches?

The local paper would put the pictures of the best academic players in the paper and describe the games of knowledge – “Brenda Lehman made two amazing saves last night in the algebra competition, countering and then crushing the competition with a stellar display of polynomials.”

When I was in school, I played football, baseball and basketball, and I loved the competition.  I rarely got to compete academically.  The only real academic competition I ever had was in 7th grade in Coach Clark’s (the junior high football coach) civics class.  Each week the entire class would divide up in to two teams, and we would compete in a current events competition.  It was spirited, and students seemed to take it seriously – I know I did.  Such competitions are what motivate people.  Throughout school, I was always secretly proud every time I knew something that someone else didn’t.  That’s no different from being proud of making a great catch for a 10 yard gain, or hitting a smooth jump shot.

Competition energizes people to succeed.  Obviously, not everyone will compete at the same level. However, we shouldn’t make the academic competitions for the few at the top (think debate team or quiz bowl).   Imagine competitions between schools in various disciplines, and at various levels (Varsity, JV, Club, and intramural academic competitions), where school pride and school spirit are based on these academic competitions.  Academic games would make learning valued.

But how do we get there in this country of ours, where hitting people until you damage your brain is more valued than using that brain to succeed?  Every day I see Nike commercials of guys sweating and struggling to prepare for making “the” hit in the big game.  I want to see Nike commercials that also show guys and gals struggling to understand natural selection for the big game.

P.S. I’m talkin’ about Are You’re Smarter Than A 5th Grader?  The problem is that most of us would starve if playing that game was our sole source of income.



Dining Set


Struggling For Academic Success


  1. James Skelton

    I think some are/ have been trying. The problem is, it doesn’t make for much of a spectacle. Here’s a few examples from your old neighborhood, and one that is nationally recognized.

  2. Thanks James. But I’m talking here about a more fundamental shift in how teachers and parents and students themselves think about education, motivate students (not just the very best who are on quiz bowl or debate teams). Moreover, getting past the attitude that academic prowess is simply a “gift”, but it’s something you need to struggle for just like making yourself better at football (see here).

  3. Zach H

    Academic competition would necessitate some sort of tracking. People seem to be opposed to this if done explicitly (but don’t seem to mind nearly as much if it is done via self-selecting through parents and charter schools).

    Also, this kind of evaluation can lead to troubles similar to standardized test. When you introduce an element of competition, that becomes the end goal rather than the learning process. You see this in math competitions, where top problem solvers for hours-long exams often don’t have the patience to transition to problems solved on a time-scale of weeks or months. They become incredibly adept at certain “tricks” that are designed more than anything to make simple problems look daunting.

  4. Thanks Zach. But I’m not talking so much about the actual competition as I am the attitude about academics. Determination, perseverance, and struggle being the norm and being revered. Listen to the NPR podcast link in this post.

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