Learning as Exercise


Hard to believe the summer is already over. It’s mid July and I’m back in meetings to prepare for another school year. Professional development is hit or miss, but I always appreciate talking shop with fellow teachers. You can always glean insights, even from people who teach a different subject.

In a conversation with a P.E. teacher this past week, I was struck by an observation about his course which can and should be applied to academic subjects.

The topic was the use of “choice” to increase engagement in learning. Obviously, students will be more engaged if they have some agency over the topic of learning or the manner in which they learn it. The P.E. teacher explained that, in his high school course, students develop their own exercise program based on personal goals. The teacher helps each student develop a program, and then supervises its implementation.

In the academic subjects, despite whatever choices might be given during a particular lesson, at the end of the day (or the unit, or the year), everyone typically gets the same assessment on the same topics.

Imagine if we did that in physical education. Imagine if the final exam was to bench press 200 pounds. If you can only bench 180, that’s a B+.

That would be ridiculous. Some students are cross country runners, training for endurance. Others are volleyball players who want to jump higher. Others don’t like sports, want to find a simple exercise routine to maintain basic health.

In the academic areas, all students are asked to bench press 200 pounds at the end of the year. That’s what most final exams look like, that’s what all standardized tests look like.

It’s ridiculous.

Even within an academic discipline, each student will have different proclivities and interests and desired outcomes. Not everyone cares to read the same genre of literature. Not everyone needs to learn the same level of math.

So why are we measuring everyone the same way? It makes no sense.

Practically speaking, implementing the exercise program model would be difficult. Teachers would need to drastically change their approach, and they would need access to a versatile toolbox of resources. Administrators and politicians would have to find new ways to measure student and school performance.

But stress levels would go down, everyone would be a lot happier, and learning would skyrocket as students would be free to pursue their own interests. Most resources are available for free at public libraries, or could be accessed through community partnerships.

I guess I’m just tired of pedagogical techniques that reinvent the wheel for how to get more students to bench press 200 pounds. Mental attributes are diverse as physical attributes. We should treat them with the same openness to individual development.


Author: Billy

High school teacher and blogger.

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