Stepping Off the Treadmill

When one is on a treadmill one has to keep going at a steady pace, with eyes forward. Concentration is required to keep from losing balance and falling off sideways or being flung off the back. There is no chance to stop and consider why one is walking, much less notice that one is not actually moving forward despite considerable and consistent effort.

This week, I stepped off the educational treadmill, the one I have been on for 25 years as a teacher, and 17 years before that as a student.  The ridiculous ritual of exam week proved to be the final tipping point. The traditional educational paradigm suddenly did not make sense to me anymore.

Here is what happened this week.  All my high achieving kids did very well on their exams.  Great job kids! They do indeed deserve to feel good about the fruits of their hard work.  Yet I am left with the question “Was it really  necessary to test them?”  They had already learned the material during the term. In a way, it was somewhat of a waste of valuable educational time for them to prepare for, and sit through, three hours of moderate level suffering  in the exam. Wouldn’t we have achieved more, moved forward in learning and had a better experience doing a cool new lab or other active and collaborative learning experience?

As far as students who have been struggling with the material all along, after giving thousands of exams over the years I can say from the cumulative data,  studying for an exam only rarely results in mastery of material students had not learned earlier. Instead, it usually serves to beat those kids over the head, one more time, in case they don’t already realize it, that they still don’t get it, and are still doing poorly. (Didn’t I write a post about this?)  So wouldn’t these students also have been better served by a well designed, active and collaborative learning experience that might actually have strengthened their foundational understanding?

Why do we do this at all, much less do it three times a year?  (My school is on a trimester system.)

It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify the purpose of exams to my students.

Meanwhile I believe we also need to consider the emotional consequences of exam week.  Raise your hand if you loved exam week?  Don’t jump out of your seats all at once with your boundless enthusiasm now! Do I need to state the obvious that this is a week of drudgery and suffering for all, and perhaps even anxiety for many, students and teachers alike?  So we are adding unpleasant associations for kids about school.  This cannot be helpful on multiple levels.

Thrashing around the web for answers or alternative ideas, I found this. Yes, it is longer than the standard 2 minute video, but do click on it. It will take just 11 minutes to transform your perspective on traditional education.

Don’t be like me and wait 25 years to wake up.

Animation courtesy of of  Royal Society for encouragement of the Arts

Quite enlightening, isn’t it?

Well, once you have seen that the emperor has no clothes, it’s pretty hard to convince yourself he is wearing cloth made of golden thread, isn’t it?

The view from off the treadmill is quite startling.

The first thing I noticed is all those nice folks toiling away on the treadmill, not realizing there is a moving rubber belt beneath their feet. We have all been accepting the treadmill like cattle do not fight the barbed wire fence, or my chickens do not wonder about the coop I built for them. We know how to survive on the treadmill. Its demands are comforting in their familiarity. Just keep walking. Do not question it. Stay upright. Look at all the other people walking the same way. We must be doin’ it right… right? 😮

The second thing I’m now realizing is there are in fact, many other people who have stepped off the treadmill too and are also trying to find a new direction. I had never fully understood what these people were wrestling with before, while stuck attempting to keep up on the treadmill myself, but they are out there if you look for them, on Facebook, or twitter, or goodness, right here at Proctor Academy too!

Now here is both the joy and the challenge which seems to come next with stepping off the treadmill. What direction is best to go?  Maybe there are many “correct” answers?

Let us ask ask some young people for ideas, perhaps very young people. After all, 98% of kindergarteners are geniuses at this sort of thing.

Maybe that is because they have not yet spent time on the treadmill?


About Sue Houston

I've been teaching high school science for over 25 years. The more I learn, the more questions I have about how good education really works. This blog is an attempt to explore the fundamental question of "How do Kids Learn?" This blog will include posts related to technology in education, neuroscience, behavioral science and real life experiences in the classroom. Please, I invite you all to join the conversation in the comments sections. Perhaps together we can find more insights into how kids learn! If you are a student, educator, or past student (that covers everyone, right?) you have something to contribute! :)
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3 Responses to Stepping Off the Treadmill

  1. maisymak says:

    Well, I will say that you are doing SO much right. Your classes are so full of energy and enlightenment! Two years in a row and my daughter is still raving. She even loved her final 🙂 I totally get where you are coming from. It’s very good to get off the treadmill and reassess what they heck we’re doing (treadmills are totally different than running outdoors b/c on a treadmill you don’t actually “go” anywhere 🙂 So, teaching something like, A&P, I see the value of a final. Repetition is essential to really “learn” all the bones, muscles, etc. Perhaps high school finals are not as important as say, medical school, but that constant studying so it “sticks” in the brain and knowing you’re going to “see” that material on a “final” test is perhaps motivating to remembering it…? Agree about treadmills: they’re hideous. Lacing up your shoes and seeing the big, wide world is a totally different experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Houston says:

      Thanks Amy, I absolutely agree with you that repetition and circling back on the material is very effective and important, especially for topics like you are teaching, learning bones and muscles and so forth. The scientist in me also really likes that final “data point” on how much the students have retained. These are the reasons I have always been in favor of exams.
      This fall is the first time for me that the final exam ritual has shown up for me in such a different light. A big part of this was indeed the nearly universal success of your daughter’s class. I think they knew the material quite well even before they studied for the exam, and maybe this is because a lot of it was more skill based, and they had already been using those skills enough to have them ingrained.
      If I had a time machine I would go back and take that three hour block of time and design a really fun laboratory activity they could do together, one that would use and reinforce what they had learned so well, and also move them forward to the next step of learning.
      Last spring in biology we used that 3 hours for the pig dissection and that turned out to be a pretty neat idea. The kids had already been tested extensively on all the human body systems, so applying that knowledge to the dissection worked well.
      Well… I certainly don’t have the answers at this point, but it is so much fun to “step off the treadmill” and feel free to question if the rituals we are all used to, are actually the best way to spend that valuable time with our students. There are probably a variety of good answers to that question, including a final exam, or an in class lab, or student presentations, or something we have not thought of yet ;).


  2. Pingback: A Moment of Clarity | How Do Kids Learn ?

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