Saturday, October 24, 2009


When people meet me for the first time, it is usually not the Aristotelian sophistication of my intellect, but, rather, the nearly Herculean perfection of my physique that positively arrests their attention. "How can I be more like you?" they ask, before adding, inevitably with a tone of remorsefulness, something along the lines of, "but I dream…"

I kid, I kid. I am, in fact, balding, gap-toothed, approximately porpoise shaped, and with each passing year new hairs begin to sprout from alarming places where hairs have no business being. This does not, unfortunately, include the top of my head. I am the apotheosis of every fitness magazine's "before" picture.

Having said all this, you are reading, comrades, not just the musings of a PhD, but a scholar whose arsenal of accreditations includes the necessary classroom work to be a certified personal fitness trainer. It's true. It is something I did back when I was young and fit, before the crushing gravitational pull of academe shortened and broadened my physique. And, as The Simpson's once said of becoming a police officer, you don't get to be a personal trainer overnight: it takes a solid weekend of training.

At any rate, my interest in matters concerning personal fitness remains, tucked away like a half-finished novel, awaiting better and fitter days. (On the issue of half-finished novels, incidentally: old friends can confirm that, age 17, I actually wrote a novel about a high school girl who falls in love with a classmate who turns about to be a vampire. I kid you not. But I thought the idea was stupid and clichéd and never pursued it after the 11th grade. Well, it was stupid and clichéd. But it turns out that stupid and clichéd can make you a billionaire.)

Okay: the point. Personal trainers will argue interminably about optimal exercise protocols for their clients: should they do cardio first, and then weights? Or weights first, and then cardio? Or is cardio even necessary, if weight training elevates the heart rate sufficiently and for long enough? And when they do weights, should it be with free weights or machines? What is correct number of sets and reps and at what speed should be they performed? The journals of exercise physiology and fitness magazines are full of articles on these issues. But these discussions often ignore the fact that for most people, the real problem isn't deciding on an optimal exercise program, it's that they aren't exercising at all, and that almost any safe exercise program would do them a world of good. Shiny new programs that purport to make exercise fun can attract people for a certain amount of time, but gyms make a killing off of members who pay their monthly dues and never go. What sedentary people need, is to be persuaded that to be physically active is a vital part of living well.

The relationship to pedagogical debates over optimal teaching methods couldn't be clearer. Open any teaching journal and you'll find articles contrasting this method of teaching to that, and in the past ten or fifteen years most of the discussion has been about how technology should be deployed in the classrooms. But these debates fast reach a point of diminishing or inconsequential returns, when the real issue is that a significant percentage of students are the equivalent of sedentary North Americans who have gym memberships but don't really use them. What they need is any good method of education to inspire them to get learning.

I don't deny that the question of how one teaches happens to be important as far as any given class goes, but the student engagement one achieves through technological wizardry and over-the-top pedagogical theatrics probably lasts no longer than the class itself, and may actually discourage learning in the absence of such wizardry and theatrics. (This is of special significance at a time when the evidence is conclusive that students simply aren't reading as many books as they used to.) The goal of any professor worthy of the name is to produce students who can go on learning after their formal education has ended. For those purposes the question of how to teach is far less import than the question of why we teach and why students should want to learn. The answer, of course, is because a good education, which is one that leaves us with a love for learning and method for doing it, can be a vital part of what it means to live flourishingly. But when our own pedagogical discussions center on such matters as how Twitter can make learning fun, or what the correct number of PowerPoint slides should be, it brings to mind the parable of the Zen master, pointing towards the moon, who looks down to discover that his students are staring at his finger.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by the imminent launch of my new blog, Suspended Judgment!

Anthony said...

Ahh! Physical exercise, my greatest nemesis. I don't have much to say on this myself, I know I should but prefer the comforting experience of doing nothing. :D

Cheers from Korea!

David said...

Excellent post, Graham.

This was the problem I had with teacher's college. The teachers there kept stressing how important it was to be fun, flashy, basically "cool". I can't remember how many times the teachers mentioned that "kids are used to being entertained, as a teacher you have to compete with commercials".

I understand the point of making learning more accessible at the high school level, to a point, but what is going to happen to these kids when they pick up a classic novel and find it isn't flashy enough for them? I suppose in our current high schools they can just go get the latest graphic novel version.

Kids will get their "fun" and "flash" from TV and other sources, and will miss out on a valuable part of an enriched life (not that there is anything wrong with TV).

Teaching kids why they should learn provides more of a challenge than making a lesson flashy or technologically up to date, and this is something that I found was extremely lacking in teacher's college. But then why should kids want to learn in an education system continually erodes incentive to learn by eliminating late marks, making failing next to impossible, and watering down the curriculum?