Friday, June 3, 2016

CrossFit Learning?

A friend of my son’s said that he started CrossFit to “outsource his motivation.” It is an idea that has stuck with me, and inspired me to start my doctorate, so that I can continue to learn deeply and reflect on teaching and learning.  I could learn by myself, of course, but something (a new mystery novel, a friend’s invitation to coffee, Facebook, a squirrel running across the lawn) always gets in the way. The “outsourcing” comes from reading lists, assignments, deadlines and expectations. I love it. I also started CrossFit to the astonishment of friends and family. Give me 10 books to read and I’m up for the challenge; ask me to run 10 kilometers (okay, 10 meters) and I’ll start to whine. Yet surprisingly, since it is a grueling one-hour work-out, I love CrossFit. Why? I’m not sure, yet, but I am hoping there is something in the process that I can bring back to the classroom to encourage kids to engage joyfully in the sometimes grueling work of learning. After all, CrossFit is designed to do what we try to do in K-12: teach anyone, no matter their skill level, across a broad range of disciplines.

Oddly, as I start to research CrossFit, the first thing I discover is that a lot of people think it is dangerously cult-like. What draws people and keeps them “entranced”? (I would definitely find this power useful with 12 and 13 year olds!) What makes it dangerous? And why do so many people attack CrossFit with such vehemence?

The danger, I’ve come to learn, is that the work-out is hard and because it includes a strong level of competition (at least, you are encouraged to improve and the side-by-side improvement of others may lead some to compete), the argument is that some people add too much weight too quickly, for example, and hurt themselves. Perhaps, as the critics argue, CrossFit can be blamed. Still, there are always choices and ways to scale the workout to fit your level, and the coaches (at least in my “box”) encourage good-fit and safe options. Surely we need to know our own bodies, our strengths and limitations. Aren’t we each in charge of what’s right for us?

However, the critics cite competition as over-riding our ability to make sensible choices. In CrossFit, although you aren’t competing directly against each other, not only do you do the workout side-by-side with others, but everyone posts their workout results publicly on a whiteboard daily, so you can compare your progress. (We always conflate comparison and competition, don’t we?) For example, in a recent workout (WOD in CrossFit talk) of 200 m run, 15 air squats, 10 push-ups, and 5 pullups repeated as many times as possible (AMRAP) in 15 minutes, I managed just over five and a very large, extremely fit young man half my age completed nine repetitions. Still, I didn’t feel in any way diminished by his success, but was rather inspired.  If I were alone it’s very doubtful I could have even completed five repetitions. I need to think further about the role of competition in the classroom, something that we’ve been eliminating as far as possible, emphasizing, instead, cooperation and collaboration.

I wonder if it’s exactly this element of competition framed within supported skill progression, that, like videogames, makes CrossFit so popular. Indeed, there are other ways CrossFit, like videogames, is “brain-friendly” (we are, after all, “wired” to compete). For example, it uses novelty – every day is a different work out. Not only does this capture and keep our easily jaded attention, but it pushes us to think about, rather than simply “do” the workout, maximizing our effort. The workouts in CrossFit are still just workouts, but the combinations are always shifting. I definitely think I could use this strategy more effectively in my classroom.

The level of challenge is high (some say extreme), but each workout has scaling options to make it accessible to anyone (consider the vast difference between me and the very fit young man!) and certainly simply completing the workout, even using every scaling option, releases the “happy” chemicals dopamine and endorphins. Posting times keeps you accountable to the challenge. Every workout is an opportunity to challenge yourself just a little more to perfect a skill, to add weight, to increase speed, to add more reps. It’s impossible to be “bored.” The movements change every 10, or at most 20 minutes and within those time-frames, there is often opportunities to progressively challenge yourself on a given task. This is the biggest challenge for classrooms, to choose tasks challenging enough for the most “fit” students with sufficient scaling options so that all students can do the same task, progress while doing it, and feel satisfied at the end.

The power of immediate feedback, something we already know is deeply valuable for learning, is available through the 12 – 1 coaching ratio. In weight sessions, the coach divides the group in half to better watch and support. I can’t get over how helpful small points are – core tight, eyes ahead, move your hands out slightly on the bar. I know how little help it would be if at the end of each workout the coach said – that was a C+. Next time, work on keeping your core tight. It’s the learning in the moment that matters most. How can I do this more in my classroom? (Yes, classroom ratios are closer to 30:1 but I know I could use the strategy of dividing students more effectively.)

Perhaps what astonishes me the most is the use of repetition. Although there is a new configuration every day, the format stays the same: “buy in” to warm up, skill development and then the workout of the day. (This formula of variety within routine is perfect for our brains!) In the skill development section, we gather in a circle to review the skill, even those who have practiced the same skill for several years. I love this unrushed awareness that complex skills take thousands of repetition, that the nuances take time, that review is essential.  I think about how I can do this more effectively on a daily basis.

Perhaps what makes CrossFit most “cult-like” is that it instills a sense of community. Every session begins in circle, and every person says their name and answers a question – favourite restaurant, least favourite CrossFit exercise (burpees almost always “win”), weekend plans. You begin to know each other in small ways. Encouraging each other is a part of the culture. Peer coaching and support during the workout are common; high-fives at the end are routine. We know that community matters in classrooms; we know that daily community routines can make a difference.
And still. While I think there are elements of CrossFit that we can weave into classrooms (and, of course, we already do), there is a reason, I think, that so many people relinquish their sense of responsibility during the training, why so many feel repelled by the movement and call it a cult. CrossFit taps into the way our brain works to keep us motivated. But it’s a mindless approach. We don’t make choices and decisions; we follow routines. Certainly CrossFit does not support mindlessness; it assumes its clients are already mindful. Yet mindless competition is dangerous; it’s the law of the jungle. A mindless community is a cult.

CrossFit’s methods are a path to fitness, but it is our daily mindful choices, even at CrossFit, that are the path to health. In schools, “brain-friendly” strategies can improve learning, but getting an education is something different. An education, to use today’s jargon, is mindful. Mindfulness demands slow time, down time, reflection, pondering. Mindfulness requires solitude and stillness. It is inevitably “boring.” Mindfulness, however, allows us to make just, good, wise decisions even when our brain is engaged by speed, variety, challenge, competition, community. Mindfulness comes, not only by sitting cross-legged on a mat and breathing deeply, but when we stick with a knotty math problem or write the third draft of an essay or read a difficult text. With a pipeline to distraction in our pockets and available 24 hours of every day, we need mindfulness more than we ever have before, yet instead we are all lured to find ways to make education like our phones, like videogames, like CrossFit, always on, fast, effortlessly engaging. Mindless. If we succeed I think we’ll be leading our children down a primrose path to learning, but we’ll fail to educate them.

For now, I’ll keep going to CrossFit. But I’ll keep my mind on. Will I use CrossFit techniques in the classroom? Certainly. But I’ll try very hard to remember that the most important part of education isn’t merely learning (oh, this is the low hanging fruit, isn’t it?), but something much more elusive.

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