What the marathon teaches you about education

Posted on 27-04-2019

In my book Making Good Progress I developed an analogy between education and marathon running. Put simply, you wouldn’t train for a marathon by trying to run 26.2 miles in every training session. And in the same way, you shouldn’t prepare for an exam by doing exam-style activities in every lesson. I’d never run a marathon at that point, but I was influenced in this analogy by work by Michael Slavinsky and Daniel Lavipour, two educators and athletes who gave an incredibly thought-provoking talk about education and sport at Globe Academy in 2015.

Last September, I got a charity place in the London Marathon for Robes Project, a south London homeless charity.  The many hours of training I am doing now have given me the chance to ponder the links between marathon running and education in even greater depth. So here they are – what marathon running has taught me about education.

Marathon running definitely is an appropriate metaphor

I know some people don’t like using sports-based metaphors for education because they feel too competitive. But of all sporting endeavours, the marathon is one where you really can choose to focus on your own performance, not those around you. Most marathoners compete against their own personal best more than the people around them, and I think that is an attitude that’s good to have with education too – as long as you have done the best you can do, that’s what matters.

Measurement matters

The reason why you can compete against your personal best in marathon running is because of the wonders of measurement. Imagine the ancient Greeks, who had no really accurate and precise measures of time or distance in the way we do. If an ancient Greek runner wanted to measure how fast he was running, he basically had to run a race and measure himself against other people. We can only measure ourselves against ourselves because we can measure time. Educational measurement is not as precise as timekeeping, which is why sometimes we are forced to rely on ranking. But the advantage of more sophisticated measurements like those produced by comparative judgement is that they effectively provide you with a ‘time’ for your educational performance, which then allows you to create your own personal best. Measurement matters!

Measurement of the small steps matters too

We need accurate measurements of time and distance in order to run a marathon, so that we can measure the final performance accurately. But we also need accurate measurements of the small steps that make up training, and these are often very different to the end goal, and require very different measurements. For example, I measure how long I can hold a plank for, how long I can balance on one foot with my eyes closed for, and how many kilograms I can leg press. Even when I am running, I’m often running at a different pace to the marathon, or doing intervals or speedwork which require different measurements. These activities and measurements matter too. Likewise, grades and scaled scores can tell us something useful about the final academic performance, but they aren’t really that useful in individual lessons. You can measure the final analytical essay on the causes of WWI with a grade or scaled score, but in an individual lesson at the beginning of a unit you might be better off with a bunch of closed questions about what the names of the main pre-war alliances were and which countries belonged to which alliance. Basically, performance and learning / training are not the same thing. The aim of performance is to perform. The aim of learning / training is to develop the mental schemas / physical adaptations that will allow you to perform, and these can take very different forms.

Taper, don’t cram

You can’t train for a marathon in two weeks, and you can’t acquire a complex skill in a few weeks either. Of course there are cheats and hacks you can do when you are running out of time, and we all know that with some exams it is possible to cram for them the night before, achieve an OK grade, and then forget everything you know. But if you really want to master an academic skill, you can’t cram for it. You need a long-term plan. One of the really striking things about marathon plans is that most of them require you to cut back on your training in the last few weeks – the taper. Imagine if we did this with exams. Imagine if we had such a well-designed plan – let’s call it a curriculum – where all the lessons and resources and practice were organized in such a way that a couple of weeks before the exam you actually did less work and just focused on sleeping and eating well so you were in good condition for the exam. I said this to one friend who’s a teacher and she said, well that’s where your analogy breaks down – of course you need to be revising the night before. But what if we don’t? What if we could design a curriculum so well that it led to secure mastery which rendered late night pre-exam cramming irrelevant? Maybe I am being too idealistic, but maybe if as a society we put as much resource into curriculum design as into athletic endeavours, we could achieve this goal.

It’s not just about you

We might want to encourage a focus on a personal best rather than a rank order, but both a personal best and a rank order neglect wider social aspects. Any attempt you make to fulfil your own individual potential depends on the help of others, and likewise, it’s probably good to see fulfilment of your own individual potential as the first step in helping others to fulfil theirs. The marathon couldn’t take place without hundreds of volunteers, and the willingness of millions of Londoners to have their Sunday disrupted. (My parents live in Wapping so I am particularly aware of this – if you live in Wapping then you are basically locked in to the place for the duration of the marathon!) One of the reasons volunteers and Londoners are happy to make this sacrifice is because of the huge sums of money the run raises for charity. In the same way, teachers and parents and society make sacrifices so that children can learn – but one of the reasons we are happy to do this is because we hope that when those children grow up, they’ll use their skills for the good of society and not just for their own advancement.

It is about willpower but it isn’t about willpower

The marathon is often portrayed as an epic test of willpower, of cold early morning runs and slogging on with another step when you have nothing left in you. And in lots of ways that is true. It is hard, and you do need to put in a lot of effort. But in lots of ways it is not all about willpower. The whole point of the training is to make running for a long time feel easier. So far, that is working. I now need less willpower to do an 18 mile run than I did for an 8 mile run when I started training. And that isn’t just a subjective feeling – my heart rate measurements show this too. I am now capable of running the same distance and pace as I was back in September, but with a much lower heart rate. The same output requires much less effort. Running has become more of a habit. The same is true of education. If every time pupils write an essay it requires a herculean effort of willpower and motivation, ultimately they won’t want to write essays and they will get demoralized. If the process of teaching them to write essays breaks each step down and embeds them as a habit, then they will be able to achieve the same output – a good essay – with much less effort.

Some things are out of our control

Up until a week ago, I had been very lucky with training. I hadn’t got injured, or got a cold, and I’d barely missed a training session. It was all going beautifully. And then…on Good Friday I developed a nasty pain in my ribs. I had bruised an intercostal – a totally freakish injury, and I am not even completely sure how I did it. For a while I thought I wasn’t going to make the race. And even though I will now make the start line, I haven’t run for 9 days and running at top speed is still a bit painful. Similarly, you can wake up on the morning of an exam with a terrible head ache, or you can get a series of questions about a topic you find particularly difficult. Some things are out of our control, and luck always plays a part in human affairs. But if you have prepared as well as you could have, and hopefully enjoyed the process of training as well, then it is easier to cope with the vagaries of fortune.

I am running the London Marathon for the charity Robes Project, a south London homeless charity. You can donate here.