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Learning at its Best

The curriculum treadmill

Always wear the proper gear to the gym

I can still smell the high school weight room. I remember the day I tore my shorts (but not my boxers, thank goodness) squatting 455 pounds. Not a lot you can do in that situation, even if the captains of the girls’ soccer team are at the quad machine behind you. My strength coach (a former Mr. Connecticut) was there, too, adamant that I would finish the set, shouting something about legs-like-tree-trunks – in case the whole ripped-shorts thing wasn’t embarrassing enough. They don’t tell you about these things in Hulk comics and high school football movies.

Anyway, I also remember the teacher who ran the weight room after school. He was way into aerobics. I had to pay a price to lift weights whenever he was around – I had to run on the treadmill (or sometimes the stair master) for fifteen minutes.

That sucked. I was there for the bench and the squat cage. That’s what I wanted to do. That was what I found rewarding. That was where I knew what I was doing and learned to wear mesh shorts, not Umbros, to the weight room.

I am no longer remotely fit – don’t let the skating helmet fool you. I need a summer in the woods with Adam Burk and a bear threatening to eat me if I don’t do at least PS, like, 20X.

However, I still have a treadmill. I use it occasionally, and it still sucks.

And the treadmill makes me think that school – the way it is – sucks, too.

School is our curriculum treadmill. No matter what our kids want to learn, at school, we put them on the treadmill. No matter what our kids find rewarding, we put them on the treadmill. No matter what our kids know how to do, we put them on treadmill, and we set it to the pace of the school year.

We can say what we want about differentiation, but as it stands the school day is the school day, a class period is a class period, a marking period is a marking period, and a grade level is a grade level. Kids are not allowed to touch those pacing controls, no matter how variable their skills or interests.

Those barely ready to walk are made to run and told to get up when they fall down and get hurt.

Those ready to run do what we expect and we remain uncritical of them, ourselves, and what else we could be doing.

Those ready to run faster speed up and slow down and try to change their stride to play around on the track, but they have no where to go and no guarantee that any or all of their teachers will adjust the controls for them.

No kid gets a break. No kid gets to try a different piece of equipment. No kid gets out of the gym on our watch. No exercise done outside the gym counts.

We insist, and kids learn, that the treadmill is what’s good for them – that being on the treadmill is learning. We try to convince ourselves and our students that the treadmill is what causes learning – that the machine is in charge of their time with us – that its internal systems is responsible for the exercises we do. Those who fall are made to feel crummy for it. Those who are praised try not to cringe (mind like a tree trunk!). Those who are left alone finish their time and leave.

Moreover, we’re setting our clients’ goals without consulting them.

It’s Spring in North America. Throw a wrench in the curriculum treadmill. Throw away the little tab thing that lets it start. Kick off the gym shoes and get outside the gym. Let learning run free.

My strength coach embarrassed me sometimes, but he helped me accomplish my goals in the gym so that I could accomplish my goals outside it in playing ball and standing up to the bullies on my team.

The weight room advisor just made sure that I did what he wanted – that I ran – before I did what I wanted.

They both lasted a long time in the same school system. That’s the way it goes; teachers have competing values.

And here I am, wrapping up my tenth year. It’s no longer a question for me of who I want to be.

It’s a question of who I am willing to be.

I’m still tweaking those treadmill controls, but I’m also looking out the gym door. My students and I have some ideas to talk over with management despite all those funny looks from the other trainers, those captains, and the treadmill in the other room.

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


16 thoughts on “The curriculum treadmill

  1. Chad,

    Great post. Personal and from the heart and hip.

    I have been in your spot. I kind of dropped out (a la Leary – I tuned in…). Too much of going nowhere – just getting through the day and never having a moment to even ponder “making a difference”.

    Treadmills are good – but they need someone who is “there” on top of them.


    PS. by the way – my 15 min. of fame beyond teaching is and was holding world records over 100k / 24h and 48 hr on the treadmill!

    Posted by David | May 5, 2011, 8:13 pm
    • No wonder your enthusiasm is indefatigable, David – outstanding!

      I worry that for all I’m doing, I’m not helping my kids escape the game or change it enough (sorry to mix metaphors). I’d like to make more of the differences available to us.

      What are your top 5 curriculum hacks for public schools?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 5, 2011, 8:28 pm
  2. Sounds like a pretty good analogy to me. A treadmill also accurately describes the idea that everyone in a school heads in a direction, and that a room full of treadmills is much like a school district.

    Funny thing is, whenever I leave a treadmill, I feel a bit dizzy afterward. I wonder if that could be fitted into the analogy as well? Perhaps we stay on the treadmill because to leave it is to become uncomfortable?

    Posted by dwees | May 5, 2011, 8:17 pm
    • Thank you, David –

      Like a textbook or comprehensive computerized “intervention,” the treadmill is something you have to pay attention to or get tripped up by at the expense of noticing and learning about the worlds around you.

      Is it worth conditioning ourselves to a single system of schooling? Do we use our treadmill skills when we get off the treadmill? Does it have to be this way?

      No, no, and no, I’d wager.

      How would you hack the treadmill?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 5, 2011, 8:33 pm
  3. I’m a sucker for a good metaphor, and this is a good one.

    For me the connection lies in the fact that treadmills suck because they’re boring. Most people do other things while running which takes their mind off that this is likely the most uninteresting thing that they will do during the day.

    Treadmills are a poor substitute for getting out and exploring the world outside the gym or outside the basement. And the same can be said for school.

    Thanks for the thoughts.


    BTW, I just posted an entry that speaks about breaking some of the monotony of school through the honouring of spontaneity. David Wees had a comment that I’m still turning over in my mind.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 5, 2011, 10:39 pm
  4. Oh, I got to recomment!

    Treadmills are good. Really good and a good metaphor for both thinking about teaching and also (and more importantly) learning. why?

    Well as you suggest, treadmills can be boring or repetitive. They suck. But why? Because the spirit is not committed. That’s what is wrong, NOT the treadmill. You can run all day on a treadmill if you are committed.

    So the metaphor to me is more about that there is no harmony between selves and the doing. That in a nutshell is the problem with education these days and it won’t be solved with any tweaks, add ons, reorganization or gadgets. It is a problem that there is no purpose. With purpose, the walls don’t matter, the treadmill doesn’t matter – the spirit will sing. it truly will.

    Let’s not blame the treadmill, blame ourselves.

    I think of what my hero Yannis Kouris wrote me once before a big race. “Only when olives are crushed, do they give us their best”.

    But I digress – to your point Chad. You ARE doing enough to help your kids escape the game. Just by asking the questions you do. You reek of it , they smell it. You are just too close to see it or like the phrase, “the eye cannot see itself”. Keep on…… there is no magic place. focus within, even on a treadmill.


    PS.Oh, I got lots of hacks. Mostly its how you look at ’em….. (but keep smiling)

    Posted by David | May 5, 2011, 11:32 pm
  5. I’m new here and I don’t want interrupt the celebration. But, I don’t get this analogy. Aerobics are good for you. The life-long benefit of a treadmill is something the original post begrudgingly admits. Lesson taught, learned and remembered.

    Would that his instructor had found a more inspirational way to instill that lesson. But, bravo for a coach whose lessons are remembered years later.

    I’ll admit that I love treadmills. Could run on them for hours–helped me train for a marathon. Press a button, incline; press another and faster I go. I can run the program that I tried yesterday at a higher/lower level. Bottom line: I am in control.

    There are things that students don’t like to do. There are things that I don’t like to do–like squats. But, if I am going to be in shape, I need (to learn) the fun things and the not so fun ones, too.

    I agree that we don’t want to put young people on conveyor belt. But, I understand that not all my students will agree with my choices (pedagogical or curricular).

    Posted by WJS | May 6, 2011, 1:40 am
    • Thanks, WJS!

      What I object to is the treadmill and nothing else. It didn’t matter to that weight room teacher what I wanted to do when I arrived. He gate-kept the parts of the weight room I wanted to use. I ran at practice. I wanted to lift weights in the weight room. I arrived with my own interests and purposes that were aligned with my goals, and adult control won out every time we were in conflict.

      As a system, our schools privilege the treadmill over the kids. The kids are not in control of the treadmill the same way you are. They are not choosing the treadmill the same way you are. They are not invested in marathon running the same way you are. I, however, am n awe of your running and say, “Bravo/a!”, to you.

      I would finally also suggest that being remembered is not the criterion by which to judge teachers as being bravo- or brava-worthy. The lesson I learned here was not the one that the teacher tried to teach. I didn’t learn to value aerobics from him.

      I hope I’ve been able to clarify my point – certainly jump back in with questions and arguments! Thank you for being here!

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 6, 2011, 9:01 am
  6. I think that we may be on the same page here. I agree that there needs to be an integration between self and purpose. I think that this is the true meaning of the term “integrity”. I also agree that our schools today lack purpose…or perhaps we’ve tried to tie too many purposes to the institution. I do see schools concentrating more on the symptoms of success, rather than success, itself. (What do we mean by success?)

    You’re right…I don’t think that there is any value in blaming the “treadmill”, but we can blame the attitude that sees the treadmill as the only way to “fitness”.

    I think that the take-away from your comments–for me, at least–is the importance of commitment and engagement…this all stems from a personal sense of purpose. Schools assume a shared purpose, so we have to find ways of getting the commitment!!

    Looking forward to more discussion…it expands my thinking!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 6, 2011, 6:34 am
  7. I’m hoping that something from my last comment makes sense…making breakfast, getting kids ready for school, and trying to comment on an important topic!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | May 6, 2011, 6:36 am
    • It makes sense, Stephen!

      if I was a kid, rather than a teacher who wants to be teaching, I would be plugged in, playing a tap-tap game, or staring out the window like the kid in his eponymous Buddy Mondlock song. As it was, I doodled the hell out of everything to survive the boredom.

      David, I agree complete about purpose and the self, but I’m wary of any system or machine that tries to monopolize that purpose or the self. I don’t think one machine or system provides a healthy education. Even a machine tailor-made for a task is tailor made for a task and is destined to be gamed, hacked, or become rote. But, yes, let’s hold ourselves accountable for using them however we do.

      Share your hacks!

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 6, 2011, 8:51 am
      • Chad,

        Totally agree – purpose should be something from within, that YOU buy into – whatever the age. It also has to do with community though, nurturing a shared vision. We don’t have one in education at the moment.

        I think it comes down to curiosity – we’ve gotten so far away from that. That in a nutshell is why I’m into tech – not for anything but it takes us on a journey of discovery, it breaks down the walls that kept knowledge caged in.

        But yes, we have to turn off the machine. You comments got me thinking of Einstein. Gonna make a presentation of his quotes because he speaks to the problem you raise.

        Hacks? Well here is one I used to do with my grade 4s. I’d start the lesson and “wink”. I’d explained it to them before – it is called, “let’s play I teach and you learn”. They loved it! And it set them up to always remember the lesson that schooling is one thing, education another. We had a riot playing school and maybe they even learned multiplication with large numbers!

        I also hacked by allowing my students to tune out whenever they wanted. They had a special card they could use. Industrial education makes us work on its schedule – I never saw that as right.

        I also really invested time in gathering stories in my head. I had (and still do) a hundred stupid stories that still teach a lesson. We’d take endless story breaks. Narrative, really is powerful for learning and again, industrial education boxes that into “English” or “creative writing”. OMG.

        Just a few hacks. Maybe others can add some more ways to modify the treadmill.


        Posted by David | May 6, 2011, 10:31 am
  8. Love this post! Personal, profound, deep and relevant metaphor. It definitely has me thinking about curriculum planning.

    Posted by johntspencer | May 7, 2011, 5:22 pm
  9. Most treadmills have a kill switch if you fall off. Let’s teach kids and parents how to use the kill switch.

    Posted by Jamie | May 7, 2011, 8:54 pm
  10. Oh Chad! The sweetheart photo of you in the skateboarding helmet has me swooning. Really…That combined with the lift digits and the mesh shorts image…

    A wonderful post. I guess in addition to everything else already said here, the real shame is when you start thinking that the treadmill is like actually doing something real with your body, outside and unpredictable, full of ambiguity and challenge, with lots of opportunities to fail.

    I had yet further experiences this past week of the difficulty of transforming the public education sector in a huge public school district–even when the team of leaders is really up for the challenge. I become increasingly convinced that the way the sector may be most effectively challenged is from outside, from innovations and school models that disrupt the monopoly.

    I really sense you are moving the same way Chad, inevitably and inexorably.

    I will try to write a blog post about this. But the challenge is how to stay in the system that seems to move only at glacial, incomprehensively unseeing pace, and still believe that change is possible in one’s lifetime. And not to see that efforts in one’s own classroom, however valorous and well informed, are futile given the rest of the system.

    Got that skating helmet available Chad?

    Posted by Kirsten | May 9, 2011, 4:57 pm
    • I have two skateboards and two helmets in my classroom at all times for skaters in advisory and for the limited kind of shop work I can offer students who want to take something apart and put it back together again. No weights, though.

      I was talking with a friend today about why people stay in the system, so I’m looking forward to your post. I think we’re stuck in a loop resisting outside change while the outside changes more rapidly than we can dream of as yet, and the public school system (which I see as a kind of I/O between teachers and commerce) keeps on simultaneously bringing in new outside product and limiting teachers internal innovations. Throw in that conversation we’re not having – as a nation – about the purpose and needs of a contemporary education, and it’s a fine mess.

      I’m also becoming more convinced that teaching through experiential learning – whether it’s game-, project-, or service- based – isn’t a test prep panacea. It’s too different. The kids getting those kinds of instruction would pass the tests anyway, and the kids getting test prep aren’t generally getting any kind of in-depth experiential learning in their atomized AYP-content classes. Standardized testing is a failed paradigm, a red herring, and a Spanish Prisoner dilemma asking teachers to play Promethean con-men forced to choose between themselves (test prep) and kids (authentic learning). I’m curious about what Ron Berger would say to that.

      It is a shame when we think that we cannot exercise without the treadmill, or that our current school system best embodies learning, or that we are dependent on it – as it is – to learn.

      Thanks, Kirsten –

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 9, 2011, 6:32 pm

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