We Treat Learning Like We Treat Weight Management (12 minutes)

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What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.  Or, as Norm MacDonald puts it, when used literally, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you much weaker and will probably kill you the next time.” 

I have always disliked that metaphor, but especially after my wife became deathly sick and people would write it in cards or emails.  (Only worse was, “God won’t ever give you more than you can handle…”  Don’t’ get me started.) 

But in general, I actually like metaphor.  My Master’s Thesis was about narrative after all.  And metaphor is a powerful component of narrative communication.  Yes, metaphors almost always break down – there is almost no perfect allusion or analogy – but metaphor can help people relate to ideas or concepts that aren’t necessarily front and center to their lives.  For example, body metrics as a metaphor for education.  See if you agree:

If you read my blogs with any regularity, you know that I often write about weight.  I’ve struggled since my early days, with my elementary gym teacher and his buddy (the typing instructor) actually mocking me during physical fitness testing calling me, “tubby” as my classmates snickered and laughed. Over time I have yo-yo dieted, going up and down with every discernable metric.  I have also tried tirelessly to find stasis, from technology to supplements to infomercial promises…I have tried low fat, low carb, no carb, heavy weights, heavy cardio, and any number of things throughout my lifetime.  I honestly think I can speak to body metrics (my obsessive hobby) as well as I can speak to education (my passion), as I have studied both extensively for years.  So let me start with grades and weight.

Evander Holyfield is anything but obese

Evander Holyfield is anything but obese

Grades are to education as weight is to health.  That may seem good to some, bad to others, but let me unpack that statement.  Weight has been “normed” for years, leading to calculations like the BMI (body mass index).  Scientists (as well as medical professionals, insurance carriers, etc) expect everyone at a specific height to have a specific weight, otherwise being labeled as overweight, obese, etc.  Of course those metrics fall completely apart when dealing with athletes.  In fact, the more athletic, the more problematic weight becomes.  Why?  Professional athletes, who train regularly, can have 5% body fat, but can also be highly over the norm of weight due to muscle mass.  So, back in the 80’s, magazines famously ran stories saying Evander Holyfield (heavy weight boxing champ) was clinically obese, at least according to a BMI calculation.

Likewise, we have grades.  There is an assumption that good grades somehow equal other things like intelligence or success.  While grades matter less and less, almost immediately upon graduation and entrance into the workforce, grades equating to success is particularly troubling when looking at the litany of entrepreneurs and business executives who failed.  Similarly, students who accel, perhaps beyond genius levels in a specific discipline, often struggle mightily in others.  So, when averaged together, a math genius (for example) who struggles in Literature or History looks quite average if calculating GPA from grades.  Eric Barker explains in the following video research from Boston College expressing that those students with the best grades are not the most successful in attaining wealth, position, or status.  In fact, the average millionaire had only a 2.9 GPA in college.  Barker goes on to explain that great grades is suggestive of a person who can follow orders, but likely struggles to lead. 

Perhaps a better indicator of body health would be body fat percentage.  Beyond simply discussing waistline, which like most factors discussed here, should not be averaged for the determinacy of health (according to ergodic theory), actual percentages of body fat are far more indicative of a body that is likely to have less break-down than weight.  The problem is that body-fat is much harder to measure, especially if needing to be accurate.  In other words, body-fat percentage is the “outcomes measurement” of body health

Outcomes, if done correctly, marginalize comparisons of people.  A person should be acknowledged as proficient or master, based on whether or not they met the outcomes, not based on a comparison to others.  Outcomes measurement ensures a holistic view of learning, moving up to less observable goals, but down into the weeds of objectives, criteria, etc.  But, like a scale is used to measure weight and make assumptions, outcomes are harder to measure, making simple tests leading to grades more appealing as an easier, if less-than-representative choice. 

Things break down even further when exploring the “calories in” vs “calories out” dilemma.   This seems best compared to the idea that time equals learning.  Sigh.  Nutritionists and medical professionals alike will tout this as the “simple but effective” recipe for cutting body fat, losing pounds, etc.  But this over-simplification can be debilitating to some. 

I can attest, first hand, that calories in / calories out means very little for my (personal) body metrics.  Edging closer and closer to 50, as with most people, it is harder and harder to lose weight.  But as a person who enjoys the use of technology, I can tell you based on the calculation of every possible caloric indicator over multiple years, this “truism” is just not true for me.  During my most recent 6-month slump, I found that when I was consuming an average of 3500 calories per day, I was gaining ½ pound per week.  When I changed my eating habits to a 2,000 calorie per day diet (for 6 weeks), I lost exactly 0 pounds.  When I then downshifted to a 1600 calorie per day diet, still nothing happened (except I got very cranky).  A nutritionist told me I was “too low” at 2,000 calories, so I bumped up to 2,400.  Still no loss of weight nor inches. 

You’ll start to hear a lot of back-peddling when you bring that story to a nutritionist.  (At least I did.)  “Well, it matters what kind of calories you ingest.”  2000 calories of sugar will spike your insulin levels over and over, making it impossible to use your fat stores, is one theory.  (Similar to a bad match between learner and instructor or learner and curriculum.)  Some will tell you that if you aren’t getting enough sleep, food deprivation doesn’t matter.  (Don’t those things matter in education too?)  Some will say thyroid or other hormones matter more (like learning disabilities).  Others will tell you it matters what time of day you consume the calories.  (Much like researchers suggest some learners should be finished learning by noon whereas others should not start until 10:30am.)

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The same way, we see that time rules the education game today.  Seat time, class time, direct instruction, homework time, school start times, and more are what we measure and what we use to set many bars.  How long should it take someone to learn fractions?  The answer, according to our school system is that it should take every student exactly the same amount of time.  Should it matter that some people mature faster, slower, with “spurts” at certain times, or more?  No.  None of that should matter.  Should all 9th graders learn algebra at 8:35am?  That was how it worked at my high school.  We group people based on age (time), we give them exactly X amount of time to learn, and we test them when it’s over (but typically not before) to see if it worked.  If not, too bad.  It’s time to move on.  What if they say they were bored for weeks because they understood it sooner than everyone else?  Too bad.  Sit there quietly and don’t work ahead.  Time should overcome hunger, bullying, exhaustion, ability…time in / time out.

Ironically sleep, exercise, and using the brain for creative purposes have seen similar results for brain research in terms of both weight management and learning.  But neither is typically of focus, seeing gym, music, and art classes disappearing from education just as experts suggest food trumps exercise for weight. 

At the end of the day, as Todd Rose explains so effectively in, “The End of Average” it is wrong to tell people there is only one way to diet, just as it is wrong to say there is only one way to learn.  The variables are far too many.  My first time dieting (in my 20’s) I stopped drinking soda and started jumping rope.  I lost 10 pounds the first week and another 15 pounds in 3 months.  But the second time I tried losing more weight, that strategy didn’t work.  So I tried Atkins.  It worked to a small degree.  Then I tried the Mediterranean diet and on and on.  And slowly, over 10 years, I lost about 40 pounds.  In the past 10 years, I’ve lost another 15 pounds.  (Yet I am still “overweight” according to BMI.)  But in the past year, I have been struggling again.  I tried a vegetarian diet and gained a pound.  So I tried the ketogenic (keto) diet.  According to the bad breath and the strips, I was in ketosis for 3 months.  I didn’t lose a pound nor an inch.  (Although once I was done trying, I brought bread back into my diet and gained weight even though my caloric intake was the same…sigh.)  The point is, if you search the web for failed diets, you’ll find millions.  I was shocked that the keto diet didn’t work, until I started finding thousands of posts by people who said the same thing.  The point is, there is no one way to maintain a healthy weight.  I know stand-up comics love to tell you try eating salads, but it is so much more complicated than that.  But I would argue, learning is far more complicated than body health.  There are more variables, more opinions, less understood about the science behind it, and on and on. 

So, when you look at the concept of grades, GPA, time on task, etc., I hope you start to see the problems.  This is not a blog suggesting grades be thrown out or that testing is from the devil.  Just like weight is a decent, although extremely contextual signal for me, the body owner, it can be useful.  It’s super easy to measure, so it can help me start to see how things may or may not be going, assuming I understand the flawed nature of the number.  Likewise, it might be helpful for a doctor.  When our 11-year-old lost 10% of her body weight after a 2-month stint of food poisoning, followed by stomach pains, it was a valuable marker to move in the direction of tests that did matter.  And as someone who wants to put more data in front of my doctor rather than less, I feel the same way when it comes to teaching.  Grades and GPA in the hands of a student, teacher, and even parents is likely beneficial.

But when you put those same markers and measures in the hands of others…like weight in the hands of insurance companies or the federal government, that’s when you end up charging world class athletes more money for insurance because their BMI suggests they are overweight, if not obese.  I was given a life-insurance physical a year ago.  That is exactly what happened.  Every definitive test came up almost perfect, except one.  Blood pressure – perfect.  Cholesterol – perfect.  I have been sick, keeping me from school / work for more than a day only 3 times in my life.  I exercise 5-6 times per day and I eat well under the “recommended” caloric intake, including the consumption of what are generally considered “healthy” foods.  But the one test I failed was weight.  At six-foot-four-and-a-half inches, weighing 251 lbs, my BMI is 30.1.  (A BMI of 30 is “overweight”.)  Chest size, bicep size, waist size – none of those things matter in the calculation.  It’s just weight.  So, when I looked at the nurse and asked about extenuating circumstances, she flatly said, “nope, that’s how it works for everyone.”  She explained that I could be an ultra-marathon runner and it wouldn’t matter.  My BMI is my BMI and that is all that matters.  Half an inch taller or a few pounds lighter and I would have paid $100 less per year, but it was not to be. 

Similarly, grades calculating up to a GPA matter for some.  Again, it can be quite helpful for a learner to see if they are on track.  It can be a helpful tool (assuming there are MANY others) for a teacher / practitioner.  But in the hands of a district, a college entrance board, a Dean, or a congressional subcommittee…  That number is so incomplete, it’s like flying a plane at night with a sexton and a compass.  You could do it, but why would you?  Yes, it is true that poor grades might be a sign of cognitive trouble or academic immaturity.  They also might point to motivation issues.  They could point to trouble with a teacher.  But without doing any follow up whatsoever, simply taking the grade at face value, then we are short-changing our students at every turn. 

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As stated before is the irony of grades after graduation.  Most companies never ask for a transcript, and for the few who do, it is only for those seeking their first job out of college.  (Working inside education may be an exception.)  After that, grades mean almost nothing.  The only time I have heard a person’s grades mentioned were when they brought the topic up, because she wanted the room to know she was valedictorian.  Okay…  What companies instead seek are the things that grades, which become so easily gamed by both students and teachers, can diminish.  After all, if the grade is all that matters, then trying new things and failing (actually promoting learning) will be negated.  Teaching to a test, jamming information into short-term memory only to be lost a few weeks later will be the norm.  Critical thinking will be lost.  Problem solving based on context will be supplanted with algorithm practice absent of context. 

In life, while there are few universal truths, we should leverage them if they exist.  In terms of body health, it is currently agreed upon that sugar has no useful place in the human diet.  Exercise of some sort is good for your body.  Sleep matters.  Water matters.  But after that, it starts to get murky.  Likewise, there are a few things we can anchor to in learning.  Re-reading and highlighting do not lead to learning, but desirable difficulties do (Make It Stick, 2015).  Sleep matters; exercise matters; pattern finding matters; food matters (Brain Rules, 2014).  Lecture isn’t optimal for anyone and only appeals to a tiny percentage of learners, while active learning (although what that “looks” like can seem ambiguous) is far better for learners (How People Learn, 2000).   Your belief in your ability to learn likely matters more than curriculum (Mindset, 2007).  But already it is starting to get murky. 

Is weight calculation vs grades a perfect metaphor?  No, there isn’t really such a thing.  But I hope it gets you noodling around with how we approach learning from a different lens.  Oh, one last thought.

As a person who has royally messed up my body’s ability to metabolize anything due to yo-yo diets and more, imagine the damage to a person who has gone through poor learning environments repeatedly.  When the strategy for learning is one-size-fits-all, promoting time, tests, and grades as exclusive measures, it’s no wonder students get to college without much ability to think creatively, let alone critically.  It’s probably time for a radical diet of active learning at that point.  The measures may not budge at first, but eventually they likely will, and the student can become a lifelong learner, connecting education to real experiences, while never fretting about grades again.

Good luck and good learning.