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Program Design: From Formality to Facilitation to Freedom

By Liam Connolly January 2, 2017

I am not an expert in educational pedagogy and teaching methods. One year of teaching English to South Korean middle school boys leaves me woefully unqualified to address the intricacies of education. That said, while in the classroom, I came across an approach that has informed much of my professional work with children since:

Known as the Gradual Release of Responsibility, the model calls on the instructor to, throughout the course of a lesson, shift responsibility and focus to the students: I do, we do, you do. It is this structure that informs my approach to program design in sport for development.

While living and working in South Korea, I had three distinct opportunities to use soccer to connect with kids; in each circumstance, my role was different, reflecting the three components to the Gradual Release of Responsibility.

I Do: Formality of Teacher-Student Learning

I do. It’s direct instruction in which I set the parameters, tell participants the rules, and give them a purpose. I transfer my knowledge directly to them; I speak and they listen. I have complete responsibility for learning.

The first experience was coaching recreational soccer with 8 to 12 year olds on Saturdays and Sundays at a state-of-the-art facility recently built by two former South Korean National team coaches. Practices were planned in advance, approved by my supervisor, and we had all the bells and whistles a coach could want. Kids came, I taught them the fundamentals of the game, they played at the end, and then left. Another group of kids would soon follow.

We Do: Facilitation of Peer-to-Peer Learning

We do. It’s guided instruction in which participants interact with me and collaborate on problem solving. I speak and they listen; they speak and I listen. I share responsibility for learning.

My second experience was running my own team at the school at which I taught English. It was an all boys middle school with a dirt and rock field and no formal team. I was given complete autonomy in running practices a couple times a week, with the exception of conceding fitness and disciplinary duties to the gym teacher who knew nothing about soccer but seemed to genuinely enjoy forcing the boys to run sprints.

These boys were older and our sessions were more fluid. I would identify needs and work with them to address gaps in their skills and abilities. Every practice session had an element of a conversation in which we worked together to understand the team’s shortcoming and how to remedy them.

You Do: Freedom of Play

You do. This is independent practice in which participants apply what they’ve learned. They take everything I’ve taught them, remold it, consider it in their own context, and reproduce it in a way that makes sense to them. They speak, I listen. I release all responsibility for learning to them.

The last experience was playing informal pick up soccer with many of those same boys who I coached on Friday nights at a nearby turf field outside an elementary school. On any given week we’d have from between 4 and 40 boys show up to play and games would seem to organically develop. One corner of the field received peripheral light from street lamps, but the rest was almost completely dark.

There was no agenda, no inherent leader, and structure was almost completely absent. Even during the course of a full-field game, other neighborhood kids would be sharing the space and playing their own iteration of the game. The kids who showed up and I were on the same level; no one was more of a teacher or student than anyone else.

The Outcomes

At the club, we worked with the apex of structure; things ran smoothly, I knew what was on the docket with each session, and the roles of coaches and players were well defined. Participants gained skills over the course of their time there.

At the school, structure was generally defined by how I felt on the day; I generally managed to put together a logical session, goals and outcomes may have changed on whim, and I was as much a coach as a teacher and friend (the line between teacher and friend is not as stringently drawn in South Korea, particularly with foreign English teachers, for better or worse). Participants gained skills and some sense of empowerment when consulted on the needs of the team.

At the playground, there wasn’t an ounce of structure; some days, I’d knock the ball around with a few boys from the school, other days, it’d be a group of unknowns, and yet other days, it would be 36 on a field made for 8-a-side. Also, everyone was on the same level: player. Participants honed skills, help all the power, and had the opportunity to continuously return to the base reason they started playing: for the love of the game.

Intention in Program Design

If the measure of success was in soccer skill, it came with the formal structures, but if the measure of success was positive relationship building (and possibly even positive role modeling), I believe that Friday nights were an unmatched victory.

I work in program design at AMANDLA EduFootball, so while the bleeding heart and idealists conjure that image of kids being present and living in this care-free environment of uninhibited play, I’ve been charged with being the one to watch from a distance, attempt to bottle that up, institutionalize it, and reproduce it elsewhere. Life skills are taught, not caught.

Those of us who work in program design are in a constant struggle with context and intangibles to create an equation through which we can give as many kids from as many situations that which they are seeking—role models, life skills, social inclusion, fun and play, improved soccer skills—because at the end of the day, we all gained a lot from Friday night pick up, but it was so centrally dependent on the individuals.

When I left, the dynamic changed substantially, and while I have no clue whether their experience got better or worse with my absence, and while the people will always play a significant role in defining the outcome of an experience, program design attempts to create a structure that shifts the responsibility for positive outcomes from being solely on the shoulders of the coach to also being supported for the programming that guides interaction.

At the end of the day, mountains of research into sports-based youth development continually come to two primary conclusions: in creating the most advantageous environment for kids to learn and grow, it is imperative that they (1) are provided with a structured and consistent environment in which to learn, and (2) develop strong and positive relationships with adults and peers as role modeled by their coach. Therein lays the purpose of programming.

We gain so much for unstructured play. I will make no argument against that–my childhood memories are overwhelmingly saturated with made-up sports, street hockey, backyard soccer, and playground football. Missing from those experiences—but present later in life—were the role models and guiding forces who would implicitly and explicitly teach me how to grow. Program design, as I see it, is a constant process of reassessing the appropriate dosages of the ‘I do,’ ‘we do,’ and ‘you do’ over the course of daily sessions, over the course of annual cycles, and over the course of our presence in areas of need.

After all, when all is said and done, those of us working in development, particularly in the international context, should all be looking to gradually release responsibility. We are in the business of putting ourselves out of business.


sean says

I think you're right that unstructured play is crucial. When we grew up, however, our unstructured play was always shouting distance from mom or dad. They often told us "don't go further than the corner." I always felt like I was an unsupervised kid but somehow if I scraped my knee a parent was suspiciously quick to respond. Giving kids a sense of unhindered freedom but keeping a close eye on them and providing structure at times is the best way to go. Keep up the good work Liam sounds like you are enjoying your work!

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