Philosophy of Packer Pedagogy: Vince Lombardi, Critical Thinking And Problem-Based Learning, 2nd Edition

Philosophy of Packer Pedagogy: Vince Lombardi, Critical Thinking And Problem-Based Learning, 2nd Edition

by Dr. David B. Pushkin

ISBN: 9781257975174


Published in Nonfiction/General, Medicine/Education & Training, Sports/Training, Biographies & Memoirs/Professionals & Academics, Biographies & Memoirs/People, A-Z, Science/Physics, Science/Education, Sports/Coaching, Sports/Football (American), Sports/General, Biographies & Memoirs/General, Science/Chemistry, Science/Mathematics, Reference/Education, Education & Reference/Schools & Teaching, Sports, Biographies & Memoirs

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Book Description

Dave Pushkin, a former football player-turned-chemistry and physics professor for 25 years, was greatly influenced by Lombardi's core principles, developing his own teaching practices from these principles as well as cognitive and curricular theories. This book presents an intellectual merging between Lombardi's principles with respect to football and educational theory, philosophy, research and practice.

Sample Chapter


Every stakeholder in chemical education, consciously or unconsciously, has an epistemological and ontological view of chemistry. In due time within this book I will share mine. However, as a chemical and physics educator since 1984, what I wish to share now are the influences on my epistemological and ontological views, the people and theories or beliefs that combined with my academic experiences, shape my pedagogical and curricular perspective, and provide the foundation to what “makes me tick” as a scientist and science educator.

How did I come to my perspective after so many years? Well, the list is incredibly long, if you think about it long enough, but for the purpose of this book, I’ve narrowed the list down to five very influential men:

John Dewey 1-2

Lev Vygotsky 3-5

Alan Schoenfeld 6

William Perry 5,7

Vince Lombardi 8

Okay, seems reasonable. Dewey. Check. Vygotsky. Check. Schoenfeld. Check. Perry. Makes sense in the context of higher education. Lombardi. Hey, wait a minute… LOMBARDI?!

Yes, Lombardi. THAT Lombardi! The “Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field” Lombardi. The “Power Sweep” Lombardi. Name on the Super Bowl trophy Lombardi. Exit 16W off the New Jersey Turnpike Service Area Lombardi.

Go ahead and laugh, my fellow science educators, but hear me out first. As a former football player before my teaching career, and an assistant high school coach during part of my teaching career, I have just a little bit of credibility on this topic, and after you read my argument, not only will you realize my helmet was indeed securely fastened during the twelve years I played, but Vince Lombardi is perhaps the most logical influence for the theme of this book and its title.

Allow me to introduce you to Vince Lombardi, beyond the basics…

· Born in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, New York, on June 11, 1913, eldest son of Harry and Matilda Lombardi, first-generation born Italian-Americans.

· Believed in a trinity of faith, family, and sports. Known for telling his great Packer teams that success would be theirs if they focused on just three things: their religion, their family, and the Green Bay Packers.

· A graduate of Fordham University, class of 1937, one member of the famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” on Fordham’s football team.

· Distinguished assistant coaching career at Fordham and West Point. New York Giants offensive coordinator during the late-1950s.

· A hall-of-Fame head-coaching career with the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins, 1959-1969.

· Died of cancer on September 3, 1970 in Georgetown University Hospital.


Believe it or not, that last bullet is not a typographical error. Folks, something many may not know about perhaps the greatest coach in the history of professional football is that Vince Lombardi’s first post-graduate job was as a high school chemistry, physics and Latin teacher at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey from 1939 to 1947 (coincidentally, one of his students was presumably actor John Travolta’s father!). Long before leading the great Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, Lombardi was developing the foundation to his coaching greatness through several basic pedagogical beliefs. For the purpose of this book, I will focus on four:

1. In addition to the ability to learn, ALL students need a desire to learn. For decades we’ve heard that all students can learn, and many educational movements have come and go in the name of this premise, including our current No Child Left Behind movement from the presidency of George W. Bush. However, Lombardi didn’t completely subscribe to this view. In other words, to Lombardi, learning is a function of both aptitude AND attitude. Being intelligent and merely “showing up” for class doesn’t guarantee becoming an educated person or a successful student, just as raw talent alone does not guarantee a hall of fame football career. Success depends on both the blessing of talent and the motivation to translate talent into performance skills. For all the educational reforms, creative pedagogies, curricular evolutions and technological advances we witness, LEARNING still needs reciprocal and collaborative effort from its intended target, LEARNERS.

2. Students must master the basics as a prerequisite for moving forward in a course. Remember mastery learning? There used to be a time when teaching chemistry and physics used to be very sequential and building-block-oriented. Educators and their students didn’t move onto new content until all students demonstrated a definitive level of proficiency and comprehension. Now, course syllabi are covered at a pace predetermined by the number of pages in a textbook and the number of scheduled instructional hours. Comprehension and proficiency are quantified by either lowering the bar on exam scores or watering down assessments in order to ensure a statistically acceptable average score or minimum score, which is still a lowering of the bar on academic integrity. Hello?! Chemistry and physics are indeed very sequential and building-block-oriented, and integrated subjects. One cannot build a strong house without a strong foundation. Chemistry and physics are more than just courses dealing with word problems and lab experiments. Problems and experiments are based on concepts; a strong conceptual background lays a solid foundation for good problem solving skills and laboratory practices. All of this needs solid pedagogical and curricular practice. More importantly, there is no cognitive, intellectual, or academic guarantee that a learner will comprehend and be proficient in the basics of “chapters 1, 2, 3” while an educator moves along to “chapters 4, 5, 6” in the name of content efficiency. In fact, “chapters 4, 5, 6” should build upon and consistently reinforce the knowledge taught and learned from “chapters 1, 2, 3.” What good is teaching prerequisite skills if we don’t consistently review them as new knowledge incorporates them? That would be the equivalent of a football team practicing trick plays without making sure players already know the basics of how to line up on the field, snap a ball, throw a ball, catch a ball, run with a ball, or tackle the runner. Oh! Sorry… I witness enough of these oversights every Sunday I watch a professional football game on television. That’s why players commit penalties, throw interceptions, fumble the ball, and miss tackles. And these guys get paid to practice these skills day after day!

What’s the implication of this? We DON’T do enough reviewing and reinforcing prerequisite knowledge as we teach “new stuff”. We’re in such a rush to move along and cover voluminous syllabi of course content, students are left to choke on the dust as we leave pedagogical skid marks. I’m reminded of professional baseball players who are rushed through the minor leagues in order to fill major league roster spots. Some pitchers never learn to develop secondary and tertiary pitches after their fastball and curve and try to survive while batters continue to hammer everything they throw. Some hitters never learn to hit to the opposite field, or lay off pitches out of the strike zone, and end up flailing at pitch after pitch, year after year, never able to improve beyond mediocrity, eventually becoming has-beens.

Coach Lombardi advocated the fundamentals if not preached them ad nauseum. I remember watching an interview of another former great NFL coach, John Madden (yes, the same man associated with the computerized video football games), for ESPN’s SportsCentury documentary on Coach Lombardi (I’ve personally lost track of how many times I’ve watched it over the years). As a young coach in the 1960s, Madden once attended a coaching clinic where Lombardi spent hours lecturing on his famous “Packer Sweep,” also known as the Power Sweep, Student Body Left or Right. Lombardi called it his “bread and butter” play, his “signature” play, the one play his Packers would always be known for in terms of offensive dominance, and he went over and over and over it… and as several of his former hall of fame players would attest to, Lombardi went over it until they were completely sick of it!

The point is that Lombardi repeatedly drilled all the positional and strategic fundamentals to his players, and he didn’t go beyond skills development and running basic plays until he knew all of his players, from veteran stars to backups to rookies, understood how to be fundamentally sound. Even beyond the basics, Lombardi continuously reinforced the importance of fundamentals as his playbook expanded and players became more experienced. The foundation was never glossed over or taken for granted.

3. Simplicity of concepts provides opportunities for creative applications. One of Coach Lombardi’s most famous applications of a basic play was the halfback option. While coaching the New York Giants’ offense, Lombardi made a star of Hall of Famer Frank Gifford. In Green Bay, Lombardi made a star of Hall of Famer Paul Hornung. The halfback option derived from the power sweep, where the halfback could throw the ball downfield while on the run, adding an element of surprise to the defense. The main points were: (1) passing the ball is non-exclusive to the quarterback, and (2) running is non-exclusive to a halfback.

What’s the take-home lesson? Even if practice is “routine”, not everything one practices need be routine. And this is the premise of Problem-Based Learning and critical thinking (also known as situated cognition)! There are many core concepts in chemistry and physics; mastery of these core concepts creates many opportunities for teachers and students to explore a multitude of applications to those concepts (i.e., novel and highly challenging problems as opposed to trivial and repetitive exercises). Lombardi’s playbook was always the epitome of simplicity and brevity. His players mastered a handful of fundamental plays, yet those plays offered an unlimited number of variations, ultimately leading to a decade of championship dominance. One really doesn’t need a thousand-page chemistry or physics textbook with hundreds of end-of-chapter questions and exercises in order to learn the content or the art of problem solving. Having a solid core base of knowledge can build very broad and flexible thinkers as they encounter problem solving and conducting experiments. This can be developed with a completely different approach and curricular structure.

4. Lombardi believed that “winning isn’t a sometimes thing; it’s an all-the-time thing.” While I want students to be successful, I’m not looking at success or “winning” as the bottom line in a chemistry or physics course; it’s the steps one takes towards becoming successful or a “winner.” Paraphrasing Lombardi, thinking and the effort to learn is not a sometimes thing; it’s an all the time thing. I don’t see my “job” as a chemistry and physics educator to “make” students successful; it’s really to create opportunities for them to learn successfully, which requires a little “old-fashioned” ways, in many respects. Successful learning simply doesn’t happen on its own; successful learning is the result of mental engagement, as an active mind is the starting point towards successful learning.

Most importantly, as many of us have learned through the decades, whatever “creative” approaches we employ in the classroom must be done so with regularity. Ever wonder why “gadget” plays aren’t used all the time in football, or why they’re only successful sometimes? It’s because these plays are gimmicks, cute little wrinkles a coach will toss into the game plan in order to change the pace and trick the opponent. But gimmicks are only for cameo appearances; if a coach fed a steady diet of gadget plays into the flow of the game, not only would the opponent constantly be off-guard, so would his own players, never able to develop a rhythm or cohesive coordination.

Unfortunately, too many science educators employ their own gadget plays in their courses and classrooms. While the consensus among science educators is that “chalk and talk” lectures are bad pedagogical form, we often take the erroneous alternative of sprinkling in cooperative learning every now and then, or “Inquiry-based Tuesday”, or… well, you get the idea. We’re sometimes guilty of haphazardly using “anti-lecture” approaches, thinking we’re being progressive, when the reality is we’re trapping ourselves between a series of rocks and hard places, all in the name of breaking up the routine.

But as Lombardi and reputable cognitive researchers have learned and demonstrated through the decades, keeping a routine is the best pedagogical practice, even if one’s modus operandi is less than ideal or even a complete anathema to what we advocate. The goal is to make one’s pedagogical and curricular practices consistent, so learners develop consistent cognition. If one prefers to lecture, design lectures that merge the best of your communication skills with the best of your cognitive expectations for students. If you prefer cooperative learning, or inquiry-based, or seminar format, make that the standard mode of teaching-learning dynamic and stick with it throughout the length of your entire course, keeping in mind that this mode of practice needs to enhance both your teaching and students’ learning. If you want variety, lecture on Monday, do seminar format on Wednesday, and inquiry-based on Friday. But be consistent so you can develop and enhance a teaching-learning dynamic. Don’t just do things once or twice for sake of it. Make a genuine intellectual commitment.

What’s the implication? If we are to be transformative science educators and “produce” transformative thinkers, critical thinkers, and situational thinkers, we need to take a more revolutionary approach to problem solving by returning to the basics, reinforcing the basics, and creatively applying the basics. It’s not merely incorporating technology, or constructivism, Nature of Science, or even the History and Philosophy of Science. It’s incorporating all of the above and then some. It’s turning the curriculum on its ear, upside-down, inside-out, and reconfiguring science courses to be content-centered and problem-based.

What does it mean to be content-centered? When we re-envision a chemistry or physics course, the “star” of the course isn’t the teacher or students; it’s the actual content, the knowledge that shapes our epistemological and ontological perspectives. What does it mean to be problem-based? When we re-envision the role of problems, we need to use them as the metaphorical appetizer, entrée, and dessert of the content feast. No longer can problems be viewed as illustrations of textbook material or as review practice. The problem now becomes the “hub” of the entire learning process.

So now that I’ve introduced you all to the basic biography and fundamental philosophy of Vince Lombardi, the time has come for me to take you on a journey and witness the unfolding of a “new” pedagogical and curricular approach as it builds from each of his fundamental principles. My goal is not to teach you about football, but about an approach to teaching chemistry and physics that happens to evolve from a football perspective. I promise to minimize football jargon and clichés, but after reading this book, I hope you all feel like you’ve scored your own intellectual touchdown.


1 Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.

2 Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillian Publishing Company.

3 Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

4 Moll, L.C. (1990). Vygotsky and Education: Instructional Implications and Applications of Sociohistorical Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

5 Pushkin, D.B. (1997). Where do ideas from students come from? Applying constructivism and textbook problems to the laboratory experience. Journal of College Science Teaching, 26, 238-242.

6 Schoenfeld, A.H. (1978). Can heuristics be taught? In J. Lochhead & J.J. Clement (Eds.), Cognitive process instruction (pp. 315-338). Philadelphia: Franklin Institute Press.

7 Perry, W.G. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, a Scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

8 Maraniss, D. (1999). When pride still mattered – A life of Vince Lombardi. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Excerpted from "Philosophy of Packer Pedagogy: Vince Lombardi, Critical Thinking And Problem-Based Learning, 2nd Edition" by Dr. David B. Pushkin. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. David B. Pushkin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Dr. David B. Pushkin

Dr. David B. Pushkin

Dave Pushkin played high school and college football prior to a 25-year academic career as a chemistry, physics and science education professor (1984-2008). He holds Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees across the academic fields of chemistry, biology, physics and education.

View full Profile of Dr. David B. Pushkin

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