OK, I’m not going to suggest that a global, multi-billion-dollar, once-every-four-years spectacle like the Olympics is comparable to an English lesson. For starters, in my classes at least, there are no fake robberies or gold medals for best student. But look hard enough and we can all learn a thing or two. Here are six points that occurred to me:
1. Preparation beats adversity
Rumor has it, an Olympic kayaker was practising in Rio when he crashed into a submerged sofa. This story may be apocryphal, but in the lead-up to the Games, the media’s focus was clearly not on Olympic glory. Brazil’s woes took the headlines: the Zika virus, the failing economy, the impeachment of the president, and the unfinished facilities. But in the end, the Rio Olympics were a triumph.
What’s the lesson for educators? We worry constantly about how our lessons will turn out. Human interaction always involves an element of unpredictability, but if we prepare well, the chances are we’ll avoid disaster.
2. Being there means you’ve won already
In Rio, there was a Refugee Team from countries including Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having fled their homelands, these athletes were effectively stateless. Several of them had lived in refugee camps, and one of them had crossed the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat. The Olympics is child’s-play to them. Their triumph was to be there at all.
We don’t always know our students’ life stories – what they’ve suffered and sacrificed to be there. Particularly in ESL contexts, some students may have escaped great danger to reach the host country. For them, obtaining any form of ongoing education is an achievement.
3. It’s about the participant
There are coaches and fans and journalists and sponsors. But the Olympic Games are about the athletes. In Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Education involves teachers and managers and institutions and publishers, lesson plans and materials and tests and equipment. But ultimately it’s about students. Experienced teachers understand that the focus isn’t on themselves; they realize the limitations of their lesson plans. Learning takes place inside the student’s mind and there’s only one person who can control that.
4. Try something new
The Rio Olympics had two new disciplines: rugby sevens and golf. These were an unqualified success. Fiji won its first ever gold medal (for rugby) – a great achievement for a small, underfunded country. At the Tokyo Olympics 2020, five more sports will be added, including skateboarding, surfing and baseball.
Educators, try something new! It might be a game; a role play; a change of classroom set-up (put the furniture against the wall!). Get the students to do a 10-minute teaching slot; combine classes to team-teach; bring in a speaker; take the class to a gallery or museum or park. You never know how it will go, but breaking free of routine often pays dividends.
5. Uphold the spirit
Many of us recognize that elite sport is tainted by corruption, commercialism, and performance-enhancing drugs. So forgive us our cynicism. But the Olympics always has feelgood moments and heartwarming stories, too. Usain Bolt secured his legacy as the greatest ever sprinter, but he also volunteered to guide a handicapped athlete in the upcoming Paralympics. In the women’s 5,000-meter race, Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino tripped, crashing out of contention, but helped one another up and over the line.
Education is about people coming together in an act of transformation. Students collaborate, work together to complete tasks, and develop a classroom culture. These factors are as essential as good sportsmanship is to the Olympics.
6. Involve the community
Several reliable sources claim that communities in Rio were displaced in order to secure the Olympic site. And just how involved were the people of Rio in decision-making about these Games? While the favelas (shanty towns) were represented artfully in the Opening Ceremony, no one actually from the favelas would have been able to afford a ticket to see it. At least one Olympic superstar knew this. When U.S. basketball player Carmelo Anthony had a day off, he went to a favela and played ball with local kids. He later posted a message on Instagram: “I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.” Anthony had been raised in a rough Baltimore suburb, so he could empathize with those kids.
Education is always more powerful when we do two things: (1) go into the community, and (2) bring the community into the classroom. The most effective learning isn’t separate from the outside world; it’s part of it. Wherever you are, investigate the possibilities for involving the community in your students’ learning. It enriches both.