Education as Boot Camp

Most mornings at 5:30 a fitness “boot camp” takes place in the schoolyard across the street from my house.  I am usually up and sometimes take my dog for a walk before the kids wake up.  On our daily wander my dog and I often pause to watch people in various states of fitness and exhaustion moving from station to station doing mountain climbers, push-ups, odd looking lunges, stepping up and down on things and wiggling this huge rope.  The fit as a fiddle fitness instructor flitters here and there, keeping them moving, motivated and from hurting themselves.   I  admire their determination and walk on.

Four hours later I passed the same schoolyard on my way back from dropping my youngest daughter at her school.  From the looks of it, another boot camp was going on, as people were moving from station to station doing jumping jacks, push ups, and the like.  I looked harder and realized the people were kids, and the class was gym.  My third grader waved to me after a doing a set of mountain climbers. The gym teacher told her to do her exercises right and to move to the next station.

Where to begin.  Let’s go back to the 5:30 crew, which is made up of people who are sincerely interested in getting or staying in shape.  They pay the money, get up at an ungodly hour, and work their butts off.  So a good model for kids?  NO and yes.

Let’s start with NO.  The most crucial difference between what the kids and adults are doing is voluntarism.  The adults signed up for it. The kids did not.   As anyone knows who has taught in involuntary situations (aka k-12), students actually wanting to learn what you have to teach makes all the difference in the world.  This mimics how learning happens in the real world-someone wants to learn something so they find someone who knows it and the rest is history.  We have all have had thousands of these teachers, people who teach us just when we need to know it.

So lets get back to the people doing odd things at stations.   At 5:30 in the morning the instructor is teaching her students, teaching them proper technique and how to push past their threshold.  At 9:30 am the gym teacher is teaching too, but most likely the studnets are learning something quite different.  My daughter came home complaining about the torturous gym class.  This from a kid who loves to run around the playground all day.  She was learning to hate exercise because she did not understand the point.  The point became doing what she was told to do, which is too often the biggest lesson schools teach.

So there’s the NO.  Now on to the yes.  Growing up playing sports meant practicing, practicing and more practicing.   Footwork drills, batting drills, shooting drills, drills, drills, drills.  We practiced for the game, which was why we were all there, why we had come out for the team.  It is why we had lifted weights in the off-season and secretly taken performance enhancing drugs (only kidding!).  The point is that these drills had meaning because we brought it to them.

Now imagine if there was no game.  Imagine we just showed up and did drills that made no sense to us- that had no meaning.  Why would we keep doing them?  Now that becomes the more interesting question, one I am afraid to put to my third grade daughter.  But for the purposes of this post, the critical difference between the two boot camps is the meaning and motivation the participants bring to it- including the teachers.  The first teacher has a motivated class who have all made the sacrifice to be there for a reason.  The second teacher has a gaggle of third graders who have no idea why they have to jump in, out and around a hula-hoop for thirty second, and ham it up accordingly.

Too often schools put teachers in the position of the gym teacher, who then must end up forcing kids to do something that they do not want to do because it is not meaningful to them.  What is meaningful to a kid? Lots, just ask them.  Most kids have lots of things they want to do and learn, projects galore, experiments out the wazoo.  This is where the teaching begins, where a small and traveling boot camp can pitched around a compelling problem that morphs with the work.  Ok, want to learn about x, we got to read about it. Can’t read, ok, lets work on that.  Lets write about it.  Let’s work to polish this writing because we are going to send it to…and on and on.

Academic skills come in the cart pulled by a mule called interest.