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05.10.20Perception, Learning and Expertise: Anton McCafferty’s Online Sessions

Last week I posted a couple of videos made by colleagues of mine at New York Red Bulls as they worked remotely with young athletes to develop their perceptive skills. In the videos, a coach asked players to watch for, study and analyze one very focused topic in a sustained way.

Today I want to share two more examples of the same task. These are fascinating for similar and different reasons, one of which connects to a key finding in the science of learning and I believe this makes it relevant to all educators, as opposed to just coaches.

Here’s the first video. The coach is Anton McCafferty and I think you can glimpse what is evident throughout his session: he is a master of culture-building. His sessions are safe and inclusive and playful but also serious, rigorous and stress accountability.

The clip starts with Anton showing the girls a very short video of a professional player making his first touch in receiving the ball. Anton has given them five topics to think about and he sets them to writing about it right away.

You’ll notice that he’s put a circle around the player in question to make sure that his students watch the right moment. I am going to come back to this later because it reflects his awareness of something deeply important: experts–like Anton–see differently from novices–like his students. If he said, “Watch the player who’s about to receive the ball,” it would be obvious to him based on the location of the ball and the positions of the players who that was. But it is NOT obvious to novices.

After giving his students the opportunity to think in writing about the question before discussing–which ensures that everyone answers, and increases their comfort in participating–he Cold Calls a student. But his technique is perfect. In a warm, easy-going voice he asks her, “Do you have an answer?” There’s no wrong answer to the question and his phrasing opens the opportunity for her to voice misgivings–“I’m not really sure” or “I didn’t see it very well”–or ask a question–“Can I see it again?”

He’s set her up to be successful, however–clear task; time to think; safe and warm tone–and her answer is good, so Anton ties it back to their shared vocabulary. What she is describing is an example of “awareness” he tells her. He’s pushing the team to speak the same language.

Later as she begins to struggle, he asks his students, “Can anybody elaborate on that?” He’s careful to honor the first answer by insisting they build off of it. This socializes his athletes to listen to another. And again we see his playful warmth. “Go on then. Talk to me…” It’s rigorous work but the tone is light and the feeling inclusive. You can see these themes play out for the rest of the clip. Challenging questions, accountable culture. Thea is Cold Called. Then Ingrid Cold Called and asked merely to respond: rigor in a warm, safe, and even playful environment. Glory points to Anton.

Now here’s a second clip from his session–it’s fascinating for a totally different reason:

In this video we see more of the same beautiful learning culture Anton’s built. This clip is slightly different in terms of task though because he is asking his students to predict what the player in the video might do with his first touch rather than analyze retrospectively what he did do.

He calls on Gia. “I’m confused,” Gia says. “What player are we talking about again?” This is a massive victory for Anton and his technique. If he doesn’t Cold Call, she just sits silently in her confusion. He’s brought the misunderstanding to light. But there’s such a feeling of safety that she is comfortable exposing her lack of clarity. And Anton responds “That’s alright, Love. We’re talking about this player here. What I’ll do is I’ll go to somebody else and I’ll come back to you…” [Which he does]

But notice the signal that’s starting to come in. Anton doesn’t realize it until later but most of the girls who share their thinking from this point on in the video have made a fundamental perceptive error. The black team is attacking and playing right to left. But they think they are defending and playing left to right. So when Sophie says she’d take a touch forward “between those two players,” she’s referring to the players to the right of the circled players. But for Anton, who is an expert, and who therefore perceives more accurately, it’s hard to recognize this mistake.

After all, he’s just shown them the white goal keeper playing out of the back and the black team intercepting. But then again what was obviously the white team playing back to their own keeper in the first seconds of the video was not obvious to them. They perhaps thought this was the white team attacking. At some point they became confused. Almost all of them. And so they spend several minutes in an apparently rich discussion in which their fundamental perception is wrong.

This is an outstanding example, in other words, of one of the biggest challenges of teaching. Teachers are experts and so it is very very difficult for them to realize the perceptive differences between themselves and novices. They say: ‘look at the problem’ and presume that students see a similar problem. They do not. And this tells us a lot about their receptiveness to discovery-based environments. Asked to learn from being presented with a real-world problem to study, experts “use deep…principles to categorize and solve problems whereas novices use superficial features,” Paul Kirschner and Karl Hendrick point out in How Learning Happens. Your level of knowledge determines your ability to perceive signal versus noise. So while learning to perceive is one of the most powerful things students can do–it’s what Anton is developing here–they are likely to learn from it in correlation to their degree of knowledge. And this means doing two things: investing intentionally in background knowledge first and checking for understanding constantly to make sure we know and can guide players eyes to the right things.

Interestingly, Anton has done both of those things here. He’s given his players five things to look for in assessing first touch. He’s circled the player they’re analyzing on the screen to ensure their proper focus. And yet they still mis-perceive. Which is just a reminder that despite great teaching students will always be at risk of basic perceptive errors that teachers as experts will struggle to recognize.

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