The Nostalgia Bias – in Teaching and Basketball

If you are a basketball fan, I can almost guarantee you have had a conversation about how much the game has changed. Some fans even say they can’t watch it anymore because it is so different. Interestingly, these people often have very specific evidence of why the game is so awful today – clearly you watched last night’s game, so stop telling me you can’t watch it anymore.

Watching James Naismith’s teams rattle off a thrilling 10-8 victory and replace a few peach baskets would be brutal to watch by today’s standards. Watching Bob Cousy dazzle us with his impeccable dribbling (because you weren’t allowed to even think about putting your hand on the side of the ball without being called for a carry/palming then) is entertaining, but in his own words, “What I was doing 30 years ago, now every 12 year old is doing in every school yard across the country.” Except for the diehard UNC fans out there and the nostalgic 80s fans, I doubt that many would want to watch this 4 minute clip of Phil Ford toying with defenders for more than a couple minutes.

The game has changed, in this case for the better. No one who watches that clip can possibly say that the shot clock made the game worse, although I’m sure there were many reluctant fans at first. I wonder if there were basketball experts who questioned Bob Cousy’s style as being detrimental to the game. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should change a game purely for entertainment purposes, but the fact that it happens to be entertaining is not evidence that the quality of play has somehow decreased. (The traveling, however, may be the evidence you need to make that argument.)

Most fans are simply biased to the era that they grew up playing and watching the game, a nostalgia bias. Those that suffer from this affliction have difficulty seeing how amazing the players are today. They may not be Kobe or Shaq, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, MJ or Hakeem, Cousy or Wilt, but they are great nonetheless. Remember, according to sports illustrated, MJ was the next Dr. J. At the early stages of his career, a lot of people probably said he couldn’t hold a candle to Dr. J. Clearly, things change.

MJ Dr.JMJDynasty

For those of you who aren’t basketball fans, but educators or parents instead, consider this.

When I walk into a day of parent-teacher conferences, I fully expect to hear some iteration of, “But they did it this way when I was in school and I turned out alright.” What the parent is really saying is, this newfangled way of teaching isn’t necessary. How long do you think parents have said this? Probably as long as we’ve had parent-teacher conferences. Yet, no parent would ask us to teach their child the same way their grandparents were taught in school. So let’s be honest – we are all biased about our own educational experiences. When parents make this claim, I am glad to hear that they are nostalgic about that time and consider their experience a positive one. I’m sure that there were lots of positives to take away. But let’s not let the bias of nostalgia stop educational progress.

Here’s how I would like to respond: “Do you think that teaching and education reached it’s peak while you were in school?” If it did, we’re in trouble. I loved my teachers and my overall experience, but I prefer to believe that there was, and still is, a lot of room for improvement. I won’t claim that every change has been for the better, but I know that our knowledge of children and learning styles is more advanced than ever before, the number of options available to students and teachers in terms of resources feels endless*, and the opportunities for students and teachers to share and develop their work are incredibly powerful. If we don’t use these new tools and this new information to improve our teaching, then we are failing our students.

As a coach, I would not try to teach a player to play exactly like Bob Cousy or Phil Ford, and I would not tell a teacher to teach exactly like Socrates, Marie Montessori, John Dewey, or Nancie Atwell. I would strongly encourage my basketball players today to watch film of the all time greats, because there are so many things to learn from them. I would encourage young teachers to read the works of the all time greats. Use what they did well and then make it better. If we don’t use their great work as a launching point for greater teaching, I am sure we would not only be disappointing those great teachers, but also limiting the possibilities for our students.

When you take the skills and strategies of the greats, you end up with a player like Lebron James – a 6’8″ power forward who would have been told to play like Charles Oakley in 1992, but instead became, well, Lebron James. You also end up with a teacher who achieves world peace in fourth grade, and a teacher who convinces a city to believe in their children.

4th grade world peace
John Hunter playing the World Peace Game with his students.

I am confident that we can respect, take pride in, and praise the great teachers and great teaching strategies that came before us, yet still look to improve. Keep your nostalgia, just eliminate the bias. Recognize that this is the work teachers do every day. We stand on the shoulders of those that came before us and build towards an even brighter future for our students.



*I know that the endless resources can also be problematic at times, i.e. your student’s or child’s Google search ending up in a completely different place than anyone had hoped or wanted.

One thought on “The Nostalgia Bias – in Teaching and Basketball

  1. I had a great experience with my teachers in school – if I could have become a professional student, that would have been my dream! But when I see what goes on in my school today, compared to what I experienced, there is no comparison. We need to keep moving forward!


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