Last Fall, I began a new learning adventure, one that many of my friends and family have been on for far longer, and with more success, than I. I started running.
I began with a series of training exercises that took me from no distance to being able to run a 5K (3.1 mile) distance. I ran my first 3.1 mile run on a treadmill in December. That was, for me, a pretty big deal.
But it was nothing compared with the first time I strapped on a bib number and ran in my first road race, a 4 mile event in Loveland on Valentine’s Day with Ms. the Teacher. Crossing that finish line was a real achievement. And it set me up for my next goal – running in my first 10K, the Bolder Boulder, here at the end of May.
That’s me and Ms. the Teacher after the race. I can’t tell you how good it felt to run that race in, for me, the amazing time of an hour and seven minutes. That’s not fast, by any universal human standard, but it was, for me, a pretty big deal.
And as I’ve become a runner – one who runs habitually and regularly, one who chooses to run as opposed to doing something else – I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I’m learning about myself and goal setting and learning. I’ve often thought about the connections between my developing habits of running and the arena of my work life – education.
Now, I’m pretty sure that it’s both obligatory and cliched that I’m writing about how my running experiences connect to my work as an educator, but bear with me.
Runners are folks who set goals for themselves and then work to achieve them. They use clocks and other gadgets to track their progress over time and to set and track goals. I use a little app called Runkeeper that helps me to track my runs and my time. When I run on a road, the app uses GPS to map out where I went and how long it took me to get there. I do many of my runs on a treadmill, and track those slightly differently, but still am able to see my progress over time. I’ve built a little data dashboard for myself via that app and my data tracking. It’s similar to how I track my weight, eating habits and activity using my Fitbit pedometer.
When runners run road races, I’m learning, there’s a shared purpose – we’re all trying to get from point A to point B – but we each have our own goals and plans for how to get there. How fast we’ll go. What pace we’ll keep. Which parts of the road we’ll use. Stuff like that. While we’re all at that same place at roughly the same time, and we’re all doing the same thing, we each have our own plan for how we’re going to get there.
School, it seems to me, should feel like that.
Learners are folks who wonder about things and set goals for themselves to help them get better at wondering. Learners at school should be aiming to get from point A – unknowing – to point B – mastery of a concept or concepts. More broadly, seeking a degree or a diploma or the completion of a course or grade level. But we should be setting our own goals perhaps on how to get there. And while we’re all at the same event – school – we’re each running our own race, or should be. We should be tracking our progress in some way, and working to improve as we’re able to, but we shouldn’t be so obsessed about all getting to the finish line at the exact same time. Seems to me that there’s plenty of pressure on students and teachers and anyone learning anything that we’re supposed to all arrive at the finish line together.
But what is success in learning supposed to be like? As a runner, I’m successful if I meet my goal to cross the finish line in roughly the time I’ve set for myself, but if I finish slower or faster, I still cross that line. Am I unsuccessful if I finish slower than I meant to? Faster? Ms. the Teacher, who ran the Bolder Boulder with me, had a goal of finishing in under an hour. She blew past that goal, finishing in 54 minutes. I finished almost fifteen minutes slower than she did. Were we both successful? I’d argue yes, we were. She’s been running for longer than I have, and she has successfully completed many more road races, and far longer ones, than I ever have. But we are both successful runners, participants in a culture about shared activities and individual goals. If my standard of success were the elite runners that run 10Ks in half the time I took, then I’m a failure.
But I’m not. I’m a successful runner so far, and judging by the number of folks standing on the sidelines and rooting for me and all the other huffing and puffing folks with me in the road, plenty of people recognize that I didn’t fail.
My success was judged, not by some outside observer, a third party off in the distance, but by me.
So I wonder about cultures of learning that could look more like cultures of running. Learners are all on the same trail, or at least similar ones, but we make it down the trail at different speeds, with different plans for how to get there. And our schools and learning cultures should be helping us to get better, to improve, without too often requiring that our success be defined by how the elites in our culture perform. And I wonder how we can build tools and resources that can help us to set, track, and achieve our goals more than the goals of the elites in our midst. As a runner, I’m comparing my today self against my yesterday self, and aiming for my future self to be in a better place than the today self I’ve got right now. So long as I move along a trajectory of improvement, one set both by me and by the folks organizing the races – plotting the starting and finish lines, making sure the cars stay out of the course, and ensuring there are plenty of resources and water stations along the way – then I’m moving towards success.
I want “learner” to be a mantle that people choose to take up and work at. I want learning culture to be about that.