As I watch, along with a few billion other people, the World Cup soccer matches, I am struck by how consistently the players and coaches – and also the “wannabees” who pontificate on TV – focus on emotion. Before, during, and after every game, commentators make predictions, interpret live action (e.g. “the momentum has swung”), and explain the final results in terms that are often strikingly emotional: “Spain wasn’t emotionally ready to defend its title so soon.” “The US goalie is not confident enough to compete at this level.” “Brazil has enough resilience to bounce back from the emotionally devastating tie with Mexico.” “Ricardo will play better today; he will believe in himself again after the two goals against Germany.”
All of this emotional talk is, at first blush, quite curious. After all, many of the players at this level have devoted most of their lives since early elementary school in honing the skills, strategies, and knowledge required for the game – many have been essentially professional athletes since middle school. And indeed we all marvel at the amazing physical capabilities of Neymar, Rodriguez, Messi, Ronaldo. But the players, coaches, and announcers all recognize also the enormous power of “non-physical” factors – emotional preparation, resilience, motivation, expectation, self-perception, “team spirit,” – on the actual outcomes of play. It is no surprise that professional coaches are valued (and highly paid) not just for their technical and strategic knowledge but for their ability to motivate and stimulate peak performances from these highly skilled athletes. That is often what makes the difference.
From a neuroscience point of view, reading is a lot like soccer. (Excuse me, a lot like Futbol.) It is true that the two domains look very different because of the kinds of motor skills they require (although skilled readers do amazingly skillful things with their eyes). But, like soccer, reading is a very complex human behavior for which human brains were never evolutionarily prepared. Instead, both soccer and reading are social constructions and both require long, long, apprenticeships in a supportive community of practice (there is no other species that comes even close to either playing soccer or reading),. Those extended apprenticeships are essential for a number of reasons: to automatize basic skills and perceptions, to develop effective higher-level skills and strategies, to sustain and motivate the enormous effort required to develop fluency and expertise.
Experience teaches us – as does neuroscience research – that motivation is the essential driver not only for learning, but also for the development of effective communities of practice, and for peak performance along the way. For those reasons, UDIO – the primary literacy platform of the Center – begins not with the basic skills of reading, but with the basic motivation for reading. UDIO uses new media as a lever to support apprentice readers, especially struggling readers, in an active, authentic, demanding, and highly motivating community of readers that will sustain the long practice that they will need, and love.