Less is More and other lessons from the Olympics

Like lots of people, I’ve caught Olympic fever this past week. That was aided by the fact that my partner lives in Vancouver and managed to get us tickets to one of the women’s hockey round robin games, so I actually got to go to the Olympics (in a crazy trip that involved my running out the door an hour after planning the trip and arriving in Vancouver by bus at 1am, but oh well). The game itself was (as expected) rather lame. The US women blew out Russia 13-0, and the score was only that low because the Americans stopped shooting the puck in the third period in a rather sporting display of restraint. Sadly, I have no photos because we decided not to deal with the security hassles of bringing a camera to the game. Vancouver was a complete zoo, but the weather was lovely, and fortunately, I had a nice, reasonably quiet place to go home to. I would not have wanted to be there as a genuine tourist, staying in a hotel in the middle of everything. The best part was walking around hearing all the different languages. It really is pretty cool to see people come together from all over the world more or less peacefully.

At any rate, I started thinking about some of the lessons that sports people have learned over the last half century or so (actually I haven’t a clue about the timeline) about developing physical fitness and about preparing for high level competition, and noticed that a lot of those lessons seem lost in our culture when it comes to intellectual and mental development of normal people.

Despite the “no pain, no gain” attitude that’s prevalent in a lot of sports, sports physiologists have learned that more is not always better, and athletes rarely train by just constantly upping the pressure. We know now that rest is as important as hard work. It prevents injury, but it’s also the resting and healing part of training that makes your muscles stronger. Runners don’t just do longer, faster runs every day. They alternate long, slow days with shorter, more intense days, and only occasionally do full-speed, full-length runs.  Athletes in lots of sports “taper off” their before competitions so they’ll be well rested.

This is a lesson that seems pretty much completely lost on our school system. Of course, one way in which we push for more, more, more is to create school standards that require that students master more and more ‘facts’ about more and more topics. We’d end up with brighter, more thoughtful students if we backed off on how many facts we demand they learn and let them engage deeply with fewer topics, preferably topics that are relevant and interesting to the individual student. But that’s not really what I’m getting at. Dr. Montessori noticed a century ago (and many others have also noticed, including Rudolph Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf school movement) that over the 12 to 20 or so years that students are in school, the usual approach is to consistently up the pressure by demanding more production of more complex work with progressively higher stakes, on the assumption, I suppose, that students’ (academic) competence increases steadily over the years.

On the whole, competence does increase, but I’m not so sure that it’s such a steady, consistent plod from incompetence to competence. Certainly in my own life, I’ve ridden ups and downs of intense intellectual progress and total disinterest in learning much of anything. Even within a given school term, I go through periods of intensely focused hard work (where I might spend 10 hours a day in the library working) and other periods where it’s a struggle just to haul myself out to a coffee shop to read a few pages. I usually kick myself during the ebbs in my focus, because I’ve been told that a good student should always be working hard (in fact, harder), but I’m not sure I’m being fair to myself. Maybe those rests happen for a good reason.

Besides those individual cycles of work and rest, I’m convinced there may be developmental cycles that everyone goes through (though not, necessarily, at exactly the same time). Middle school in particular, is a notoriously hard time for lots and lots of students, a problem which we often blame on puberty. (Sometimes it’s blamed on the difficulty of adjusting to higher expectations and the different structure of middle school, but why it should take three years to adjust to moving from class to class and having “finals” I don’t know. If it really does take that long, we ought to be asking what’s going on.) From what little I understand of adolescent psychology, puberty probably is the culprit in some sense. The brain goes through all kinds of changes in early adolescence, so in some ways, it’s like a second infancy. In other words, there are more important things going on for an average 13-year-old than pre-algebra homework. The problem though, is that we always ask “what’s wrong with these kids that they can’t do what we ask them to do?” We almost never ask “what’s wrong with what we’re demanding of kids that makes it so hard for them to meet our expectations?” I don’t know what the solution is, but acknowledging that there might be a natural ebb in intellectual focus during puberty and that this doesn’t presage the end of the world would be a good place to start.

The third way in which we might get more by doing less comes in the work cycle of each day. If you’re lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, you may have noticed that there are times of the day when you are very focused, and times when it’s hard to get anything done. I usually have a very productive, focused period for a few hours every morning, and that’s the best time of the day for me to do anything important. The few hours after lunch are usually totally wasted. If left to my own devices, I’ll nap, read a floofy book, or surf the internet during that time. If I’m forced to go do something, I can do it, but no matter how hard I try, I’ll take more breaks, zone out more, and take longer to do things in the afternoon. Some of these cycles exist in the school day (we have not yet entirely eliminated lunch breaks), but recess and other rest breaks are getting squeezed more and more by the demands of “raising standards,” and even when students get cycles of work and rest, they all have to be on the same cycle, not on the schedule that works best for them.

Another lesson I think schools could learn from sports comes in the form of learning mental fitness. It is practically normal for high level athletes to work with sports psychologists to help them manage the pressure of high stakes performance. They learn to stay in the moment, to visualize their performances, to breathe deeply and consciously, and so on, and as a result, they actually get better at focusing, at managing their fear, and at controlling their emotions. I was going to say that school rarely requires the same kind of high pressure performance as sports, but given how many states now have one-shot, high-stakes standardized tests that can determine students’ futures, I’m not so sure that’s true. The idea that the mental foundations of learning (concentration, etc) and of social interaction (responding intentionally instead of emotionally, controlling impulses, etc) can actually be learned seems to be pretty much lost on the mainstream school system, though there are signs that mindfulness education is making its way into some schools, so maybe there’s hope here.

As I’ve studied meditation, I’ve gotten to be more and more convinced that there’s a lot to be said for teaching formal mindfulness techniques to children, not so much as a spiritual practice (whatever that means), but as a way of resting, as a way of improving concentration, as a way of helping with anxiety (a problem for many, many students, especially with the rise of high-stakes standardized tests), and as a way of helping students learn to control their emotions in order to handle intense situations more calmly. Given all the problems with violence in schools, that last one seems especially timely.

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One thought on “Less is More and other lessons from the Olympics

  1. Very well said, and excellent food for thought! Another thing to remember is that when stuck on a left-brain type problem, a great solution is to shift to a right-brain type activity… The answer to the problem will very likely materialize when you give your analytical side some time to rest and re-group.

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