Defining Success in Learning, or, So I’m a Runner Now

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.

25 thoughts on “Defining Success in Learning, or, So I’m a Runner Now

  1. Hello, Bud,

    Congratulations on finishing the 10k – that’s a nice distance.

    I have one question, RE: “Learners at school should be aiming to get from point A – unknowing – to point B – mastery of a concept or concepts.”

    What happens – in learning, not in running – if we intentionally remove the concept of a “Point B” ? Or if we explicitly recognize the value of multiple Point B’s, simultaneously?

    What I’m getting at is the option to define goals in learning as malleable and changing, like getting to the finish line of the race, but then discovering that what you thought was the finish line was actually a water break, and that the real finish line is three counties over.

    But in a good way.

    One of the things I loved about running (back when I had knees) and now love about bike rides is that feeling of being in the middle of it – I’ve definitely started, and I’m definitely not done, so all I have to do is be where I’m at.

    It’s an interstitial space, and what happens to our concept of learning if we define as the space between, rather than the goal?


    Bill Fitzgerald´s last blog post ..Hiding Behind Metadata

    1. Bill,

      Yes. What you’ve added and I didn’t say is that the experience itself is really, really important. I joke sometimes that the best thing about my running is when I’ve just finished – and I don’t have to run again for a while – but there are plenty of moments when I’m in the middle of the thing and I’m totally engaged in it. The sound of my breathing. Foot fall after foot fall. The magic of the world around me that I see as I move through it.

      I didn’t mean to suggest that wasn’t important. Essential. Magic. And worth remembering. Thanks for the reminder.

    2. Bill,

      One more thing – didn’t want to forget it. Sometimes, as you say, the best thing about a run – or about a wondering – is knowing it’s worth starting and fiddling with and exploring – even if there’s no sense of where a finish line could be, or where I might end up. I want learning to feel like that sometimes, too.

  2. First off, I’m impressed, proud and a tiny bit jealous, but mostly the first two.

    I’m sure you’ve read Frank Smith’s book about Learning and Forgetting and it reminds me also of being part of the club. You now call yourself a runner and participate in that community as an equal.

    I would also suggest that while you’re measuring much of your success in a metric, there are likely so many things that add to your success. Running with your wife and others (community), health and well being (joy) and yes actively pursuing tangible, measurable goals. I wrote a less eloquent post about my love of golf. While most focus on the score as a major point of success, I’d argue that it represents only one small part of why I love the game and how I measure success. Success for me is the accumulative experience that is part my personal performance but also the community experience as well as the enjoyment of the physical environment.
    Dean Shareski (@shareski)´s last blog post ..The Wonder Years


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