Baseball Cards and Sticky Learning

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Those of you who know me personally recognize that I am a lifelong baseball fan who is passionate about both the game today and also its history. I can trace that passion to two early activities in my life. First, WGN-TV in Chicago broadcast every Cubs home game when I was a youth, so I had an early view of baseball in my home. Second, the son of friends of my parents gave me a handful of baseball cards that he no longer wanted. Very quickly, I learned to play with those cards

These initial baseball cards, and the many additional cards I would acquire through the years, helped build a greater interest in the game as well as a better understanding of baseball itself. I would read and reread the backs of these cards, study the statistics, memorize personal facts, and pull out the cards of players when I saw them on television to learn more about them.

While collectors today protect their cards in plastic sheets to secure their value, I played with my cards. I divided the players into teams and pretended I was making trades to better the clubs. My own games were created, and I collected and tabulated statistics from these games. In addition, I used the information on the reverse of the baseball cards to create my own themed teams—the all-Illinois team, the all-body-parts team (led by former Cub players Bill Hands and Barry Foote), the all-August team (my birthday month), and many more.

As a result of playing with my cards, I have an overall knowledge of these players from the late 1960s and 1970s that surpasses my memory of more recent players. Because I used the baseball cards and didn’t merely display them as some sort of shrine, my learning about these players was far more sticky and long lasting.

I have moved past the stage of playing with my baseball cards. But maybe I should not have given this up. As I engage in nostalgia from my youth, it seems to me that these baseball cards provide me with an education lesson.

In the classroom, what type of learning is the “stickiest”? Does it come from notes and worksheets? Or does it come from active engagement with the lessons? For many students, a larger connection to the content is necessary. One way to build this connection is by “playing” with the new ideas in a similar way to how I played with my baseball cards.

Many educators feel the pressure to “get through” a certain amount of content each year. As a result, transitions from one topic to the next move quickly and time invested in “playing” with these ideas is not present. But this time of intellectual play is both enjoyable and important to a greater long-term connection to the content.

So what does this “play” look like in the classroom? Let’s explore with this example: Imagine that you are studying people related to a topic, such as Bible characters, great scientists, or figures from history. Now use the examples of my baseball-card play to create sticky learning. Just as I recategorized the players by pretending I was making trades, you and your students may choose new categories for your characters based on the era in which they lived, the challenges they faced, or their physical characteristics. Build evaluations on these characteristics. Create teams and make “trades” based on qualifications you or your students identify.

Similarly, have students collaborate to create a game that involves these people. Have groups explain the game through oral and written directions. Play one another’s games. Reflect upon what you have learned about the people who were a part of these games.

Finally, if you like class debate, have individual students or groups create their own “all-time” teams. Who are the all-time innovators in biology? Which Bible characters overcame the greatest obstacles and still maintained their faith? Which historical figures had the greatest impact on the world in the seventeenth century? Your approach to academic play is only limited by your imagination as an educator.

All of these are ways to “play” with learning. When I want stickier learning about baseball, I find ways to play. It is even more important to apply play for stickier learning in our schools. What are your plans to apply this type of play even more intentionally in the learning process?


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About the Author

Dave Black

Dave Black is the Director of Lights Academy at Lutheran High School in Parker, Colorado. An education veteran of more than 25 years in Lutheran schools, he is passionate about sharing Jesus with students and families every day and in leading innovative learning initiatives that embrace technology tools. You can read his latest posts here.

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