Learning in the Long Run

Tough of the TrackSome kids hate sport; I loved it. One of my earliest memories is of running laps around my grandmother’s front lawn just to see how long I could keep it going before falling exhausted on the grass. I’ve no idea what  ‘made me’ do it, but what I do know is that it came from within me; there were no extrinsic rewards. Thus began a lifelong relationship with running, and despite some long periods apart, especially during my student days when the art of rolling and smoking one’s own cigarettes was much more in keeping with the zeitgeist than running around in trainers and shorts, we have needed each other ever since. Mark Rowlands, the runner and philosopher whose fascinating Running with the Pack I have just finished reading, describes his relationship with running like this:-

If I am thinking at all when I run, this is a sign of a run gone wrong – or, at least, of a run that has not yet gone right. The run does not yet have me in its grip. I am not yet in the heartbeat of the run; the rhythm of the run has not done its hypnotic work. On every long run that has gone right, there comes a point where thinking stops and thought begin. Sometimes these are worthless, but sometimes they are not. Running is the open space where thoughts come to play. I do not run in order to think. But when I run, thoughts will come. These thoughts are not something external to the run – an additional bonus or pay-off that accompanies the run. They are part of what it is to run, of what the run really is. When my body runs, my thoughts do too and in a way that has little to do with my devices or choosing……………

At its best, and at its purest, the purpose of running is simply to run. Running is a member of the class of human activities that carry their purpose within themselves. The purpose of running is intrinsic to it. That, I would one day realise, is important.”

Mark Rowlands, Running with the Pack

Lately, I have also been reading a number of blogs and articles where sporting analogies are used to describe improvements in learning. It is very tempting – there seem to be obvious similarities, such as personal targets, improvement plans, training schedules and so on – and the concept of ‘marginal gains‘ for example, adopted from the training methods of the highly successful British cycling team and its head coach Dave Brailsford, has gained a great deal of currency in educational circles recently. So far, so convincing, but it is around the point where comparisons are made between education and competitive professional sport that I begin to feel a bit more uncomfortable with the analogy; when exactly did learning become a ‘competition’? If we look at one of the most successful educational systems of recent years – Finland – we can perhaps see why the sporting analogy doesn’t quite fit. In his new book, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Pasi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), Director General of CIMO in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, dismisses the received wisdom that making students and schools more competitive benefits all of us in the long run, and even goes so far as to use an enigmatic quote from his fellow countryman and writer Samuli Paronen:  “Real winners do not compete.”

While some countries, such as the USA, love to talk about competition, their international education ranking, as measured by PISA, continues to tumble. Finland, on the other hand, has no lists of ‘best’ schools or teachers; the main driver of Running-with-the-Packeducational policy is cooperation. Finnish schools assign less homework, engage children more in creative play, and have no system of school inspections. Teachers are highly trained, highly respected and trusted to do what is in the best interests of all children in their care. On average, Finland accepts only 10% of applicants into its teaching universities. Applicants must not only have strong academic records, they must also possess interpersonal skills that will enable them to teach well. Next, Finland’s teaching students must complete a 5-7 year course of study, earning both undergraduate and master’s degrees. Once the newly qualified teachers are placed into schools, they will be paid well (with no student loan debt since their university education is free), while also having autonomy to adapt a loose national curriculum into one that meets local needs. They are free to choose their own teaching methods as they see fit, given ample time each day to collaborate with their colleagues, and are expected to attend continuing education classes throughout their careers in order to learn and improve their teaching methods. There are no private schools in Finland, and no standardised tests.

Come to think of it, the Finns have a pretty impressive athletic record too, especially in distance running and field events, so they certainly know how to compete, but perhaps they also recognise that sport is a distraction, not life itself. Which brings me back to the sporting analogies. I’m sure there are comparisons to be drawn between education and sport, as indeed the contribution of physical exercise to cognitive development is well documented, but perhaps the competitive aspects of professional sport are not the best place to start. It may well be that when we use the language of sport, the kind of sport we have in mind is a thing of the past, of a purer form like running itself,  from an era when sport looked less like big business and more like games, or indeed play. I’ll leave the last word with Mark Rowlands:-

“When I run, I know what is important in life – although for many years I did not know that I knew this. This is not so much knowledge newly acquired as knowledge reclaimed. When I was a boy, I also knew what was important in life. I suspect we all did, although we did not know that we knew it. But this is something I forgot when I began the great game of growing up and becoming someone. Indeed, it is something I had to forget in order to play this game at all. It is one of life’s great ironies that those least in need of understanding its meaning are those who most naturally and effortlessly understand it . On the long run, I can hear the whispers of a childhood I can never reclaim, and of a home to which I can never return. In these whispers, in the rumours and mutterings of the long run, there are moments when I understand again what it was I once knew.”

Mark Rowlands, Running with the Pack

See also:  Premier League  Psychologist Hired to  Boost Exam Results

Footnote: Finland has a population of 5.4 million. Scotland has a population of 5.25 million.


Looking for Patterns

Call me crazy, but I don’t think we have yet begun to realise the full significance of recognising ‘patterns’ in learning across the curriculum. So much so in fact, that one of my favoured Seven Reading Strategies for exploring a text, whether the text is written, spoken or visual, is Looking for Patterns. Where once, as a young English teacher, I would often spend time creating a set of close reading questions to try to elicit the main points from the study of a text, or to start a discussion, now I would do it quite differently. One of the strategies I would use is simply to ask students, working in pairs or groups, to identify any patterns they can find, and begin the discussion from there (*note that this is only the start of the discussion, not an end in itself). In that way, the students are not immediately playing the ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ game,and the questions raised are ‘real’ questions, in the sense that the learners genuinely want answers to them.

The patterns identified will usually include elements of the plot (if there is one), structure, elements of grammar, layout, use of graphics etc. Some will focus on language patterns, the repeated use of particular words, images or symbols, and the recognition of common themes in a text or group of texts. So whether you have set out to teach an aspect of language, or structure, or author’s purpose and viewpoint, you are in a very real sense teaching these things because you have been asked to, and the difference is tangible.

One of the most obvious contexts for this kind of approach is when studying poetry. Ask students to read and listen to this classic poem, From a Railway Carriage by Robert Louis Stevenson – listening is important since many of the patterns are aural – and write down as many patterns as they can find. Now use their findings to explore the significance  of the patterns, their contribution to the whole text and the overall effect in terms of the writer’s purpose. By learning this simple strategy, and using it regularly to compare and contrast different texts, students begin the journey to becoming more sophisticated readers, with a growing understanding of the concept of ‘genre’, which, after all, is simply the study of patterns in literature.

mapping51.39.jpgIt isn’t only in the study of literature that patterns are important however: patterns in number, musical notation and in art immediately spring to mind. I was also intrigued to find this link recently to a fantastic resource called Mapping History, a site created by the University of Oregon. Thanks to Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers for bringing it to my attention, and for the following insight:

“Some of my favourite social studies lesson plans included having students use maps to analyze data and identify patterns in history.” Richard Byrne

It stikes me that the ability to recognise patterns is an essential element of reading, and of learning, regardless of the curriculum area or context, but as always of course I would love to hear from you on whether, and how you think it might apply in your own particular area.