Sunday, December 23, 2012

An interesting question in regards to teaching

News flash: new research shows that if you run, you get better at running
To me it was news that this was ever in doubt, but a recent post on a New York Times blog (okay, not so recent, but a smart education professor just sent it to me) tells us there is a hot debate over whether running should be taught, and that scientists in England have done a study showing that runners develop more efficient form "just by running more."

Apparently the runners in the study increased their "running efficiency" (oxygen used at a given pace) by nearly ten percent over a ten week period in which they were given no instruction, they just ran.  The scientists say that the runners all learned to bend their knees and ankles more at certain appropriate points in their strides, and all learned to be less "wobbly in the rear foot," whatever that means. 

The post made me think, naturally, about reading; perhaps, like running, reading can be improved just by doing it? Hm...

An interesting question
The most eye-opening thing in the post was not the (somewhat predictable) result that regular running made people better at running, but a little paragraph near the end of the post in which the researcher who led the study said that the results ""raise an interesting question in regards to teaching people to run."

What was this interesting question?  The next sentence in the article began: "'If runners can self­-optimize,' as the women in this study seemed to do, then..."

Okay, how would you finish that sentence?  What interesting question does the study raise in regards to teaching people to run?  I myself thought the question was going to be: "Why bother?"

But no!  The interesting question about teaching running that this study raises for the researcher is not, "Why bother?" but instead: "maybe we should teach runners to learn to understand how the movement feels to them."

Ha!  This woman has done a ten week study showing that people can improve on their own, without instruction, and her conclusion is that maybe we should teach people to learn to understand how the movement feels to them?!

I mean, I am not against mindfulness.  Far from it.  I recently spent a weekend at a Buddhist monastery, and it was great!  Pay attention to the way things feel to you, by all means.  It will help you in many ways, and it might even help your running, and your reading.  But if non-teaching works well for some things, why not just leave it at that?

Interestingly, non-teaching doesn't work well for everything...
The runners in the experiment all learned to bend their joints more efficiently, and all learned to be less wobbly--so maybe those aspects of running aren't worth teaching. None of the runners in the study, however, learned to land on the middle or front of the foot, which some scientists (and, if I remember correctly, the running tribe in the book Born to Run) say makes the stride more efficient and the runner less injury-prone.  So maybe people do need to be taught that?

This result goes along with what I've been thinking about "Visible Learning" and "Direct Instruction" and so on.  There are very likely some things (math?) that require more explicit instruction, and some things (reading?) that require less explicit instruction, and even within a discipline, like reading or running, there may be some things that require more or less explicit instruction. 

One might think that this conclusion--use direct instruction when it's helpful and don't use it when it's not necessary--would be obvious to everybody, but it's not obvious.  We are, I hope, nearing the end of a counterrevolution against the progressive education of the seventies and eighties, and we have gone so far that people like the researcher in the running study cannot imagine anyone learning anything that is not taught--even when she has herself just completed a scientific study showing exactly the opposite.

Teaching or no teaching, you can't run better if you don't run at all
Again, no matter how we are teaching, we need to make sure kids are reading enough.  So I'll close with this old chestnut (table from Allington, numbers originally from here):

Reading Volume of Fifth Grade Students at Different Levels of Achievement

Achievement                         Minutes of                                       Words per
Percentile                            Reading per day                                     year
90th                                           40.4                                             2, 357, 000
50th                                           12.9                                                601, 000
10th                                             1.6                                                  51, 000

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