Why Harry Redknapp is the best instructional designer this industry never had

As the approver-in-chief of our blog is an Arsenal fan, I’m unsure that this entry will ever make it on to our website, but here it goes anyway.

This Sunday (26th February), Spurs will make the short journey to face neighbours Arsenal, in a fixture commonly referred to as the North London derby. Historically, Arsenal has been the better side, winning 61 of their meetings in contrast to Spurs’ 48. Yet the recent form of both teams this season has led many commentators (and indeed Arsenal fans) to publically share their opinion that this fixture is Tottenham’s to lose. And most have credited this reversal in fortunes to their manager, Harry Redknapp.

I’m not so naïve as to believe that Redknapp’s success hasn’t been due to a combination of factors – notably that he seems to do rather well in the transfer market. However, what’s commonly cited as his predominant strength is the value he places on simplicity of instruction. “People say it’s a complicated game now,” came Redknapp’s voiceover in a video the BBC ran last week, “but the last time I checked there were still two goals and the ball was still round, so it can’t be that much different.”

It may be a blunt assessment of the modern game, but the statement perfectly espouses Redknapp’s instructional philosophy; to encourage behavioural change, you don’t have to make learning needlessly complicated.

Capello, Ranieri, Scolari, Ancelotti – the dogma of the beautiful game had it that if you wanted to be the best, your club needed a manager who was the football equivalent of a chess Grand Master. These managers would graft their technical vision and tactics onto their players; make them run the lines that they wanted them to run on the pitch. “Players” wasn’t really an accurate term for members of these squad; “puppets” is perhaps more apt, if rather cynical.

When Redknapp took charge of Spurs, they were bottom of the Premier League. Without being too reductive, what he did was to give the team the freedom to play without technical and tactical restraints. Most managers would have been terrified by the thought – but what Harry was doing was to let his players play. His success in this approach is evidenced in the fact that one year later Spurs had qualified for the Champions League. Results aside, his players have given his approach the greatest endorsement, agreeing that Redknapp makes the game enjoyable for them.

Instructional design that focuses on unnecessary technical aspects is akin to the ultra-tactical approach to football management – you might get the result and encourage the behavioural change you’re after in the long term, but it will take longer to embed the knowledge and will be a struggle for your learners to adapt to. You also find that as soon as a situation alters from your predefined “gameplan”, or the process you’ve outlined step-by-step-by-yet-another-step, your learners won’t be able to adapt.

At the very strong risk of resorting to cliché and treading old ground, the best instructional design encourages behavioural change by allowing learners to relate information to frameworks they know already, a process of rediscovery and revision; not redesigning the wheel. More importantly, it tests them first, and only steps in to give corrective feedback if required. Let learners prove what they already know before adding to it if necessary; don’t burden them with unnecessary statistics or feedback.

So, how can we adapt Harry’s instructional style to design a process learning course, for instance? Well, give the learner the objective of the process (put the ball in the goal), their role in the process (play on the left, halfway up the pitch), and let them know the way to go about achieving the objective (shoot, or pass it to a player wearing the same shirt as you who can).

Does it need to be much more complicated than that? In some circumstances, maybe, but I bet if you think hard about it there’re a lot of subjects that come to mind that are currently befuddling learners in their complexity that can be put in uncomplicated terms. This then gives scope for learner creativity and improvisation, something that Nick Simons has discussed in his previous blog.

It’s not about dumbing down content – it’s about having the courage to be clear and trusting what your learners already know. That’s what ‘arry ‘as recognised – what’s the least you need to tell them?