Imagination more important than knowledge – Part 3

The nature of experiential learning: assimilation and accommodation.
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is considered the father of children’s cognitive-development theory and amongst his significant observations on how children learn are two critical ideas: the concepts of assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation suggests that we first try to place new experiences within our existing understanding of the world, while accommodation suggests that when a new experience cannot be explained by what we already know, we either ignore the experience, perhaps forever, or create new understanding. In these ways, assimilating new information allows us to deepen our existing understanding, while accommodating new information allows us to broaden our knowledge base. Learning over the course of a lifetime becomes a never-ending, spiraling process in which we continue to accumulate knowledge on a wide range of subjects, while adding layers to the information we already possess.

We can only assimilate new information within knowledge that already exists, such as when a player who habitually curves the ball with the laces learns to drive the ball in a straight line. Conversely, introducing a crossing and heading practice to eight-year old players who are just beginning to feel comfortable with the ball will not result in learning because they have no prior need to cross and head (failure to assimilate) and they are not intellectually ready to attending to this aspect of the game (failure to accommodate). Because the information is beyond their capacity and motivation to learn, no new learning takes place.

The nature of experiential learning: contextual interference theory
Shea & Morgan first published their research on the phenomenon of contextual interference in 1979. This theory suggests that leaning is more personal and permanent when it is untidy and unpredictable. Contrary to expectations, when we are faced with the performance of a repetitive learning activity, such as passing back and forth, our brain adapts to t he mental effort required to succeed and then tunes out. It would appear that after a few repetitions the novelty wears off and the motivation to attend to detail is lost.

While we do, initially, demonstrate improved technical proficiency in learning from repetition, the ability to reproduce the technique at a later time, particularly as skill (the application of technique) in novel situations is not retained. In contrast, when practice involves, for example, receiving balls arriving indiscriminately at different heights, speeds and spins, and particularly when there are a number of additional variables, such as opponents to factor into the technical and tactical solution, our brains are required to pay close attention in order to adjustment our responses. Because the responses are similar (receiving a ball), yet different (trajectory of the ball, surf ace required, position of attackers and defenders), the next action interferes with the encoding of the last action, forcing our brain to constantly create connections between each event.

The weave of mental links between t he range of possible technical responses and the associated tactical contexts make learning more permanent and the ability to successfully improvise made more likely. Contextual learning is not clean and predictable because there are many different ways in which knowledge is being constructed, and sensory information may fi nd relevance to performance immediately, tomorrow, years later or never.

Creativity and youth
There is a famous anecdote in education about the young child who is told to draw a tree. The child draws what looks like a trunk and adds branches and leaves a nd then colors the trunk purple and the canopy blue with yellow spots. It is a very bright tree.

When the teacher sees the tree, she tells the child that it is not a very good tree because trees have dark trunks and green canopies, except in the fall when they may be red or orange. The child is upset that the teacher didn’t like her version of a tree and obliging ly draws another tree in the way the teacher had suggested. The original drawing was crumpled up and thrown into the garbage can and the child never drew a brightly colored tree again.

Youth is the time to play and experiment. Youth is the time to imagine and dream. Youth is the time to make mistakes. Youth is the time to succeed and be told everything is good. Youth is the time to lay the
foundation. Youth is not the time to build the roof. Create an environment; talent will come.

Tom Turner is a U.S. Soccer National Staff Coach, Region II Boys ODP Coach, Ohio North State Director of Coaching. He can be reached at

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