Who doesn't love a good marathon?

marathon I came across this quote last night while reading the chapter titled “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” in Gladwell’s Outliers. My experience teaching Algebra last year, to a group of students who began the year many years below grade level and were faced with the reality of needing to pass the state math exam in order to graduate, would have fit nicely into his chapter. He argues: “We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as innate ability. You either have “it” or you don’t. But…it’s not so much about ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try…success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after only thirty seconds.” My question here is this: How does our school best teach these ways of being? How, from the very earliest ages, do we inculcate persistence, doggedness, grit, and a determination to do whatever is necessary to learn?

Or better yet, how can we, over the course of twelve years, build students who enjoy and thrive in situations that require intense effort over long periods of time? And, how do we develop students who know, deep down, that they will be able to understand any concept they choose to master…students who believe that learning and mastery is a choice rather than a gift or the result of fate or happenstance?

This conversation can go in many directions…I am imagining an elementary curriculum that intentionally includes the development and celebration of extended focus. A curriculum that consistently includes activities that require students to stick with complex puzzles over long periods of time. Perhaps, for instance, a curriculum that consistently includes time when students return to the same “impossible puzzle”, many days in a row, until they are finally able to enjoy the sweet reward of success after days and weeks of concerted effort and thought.

I am fascinated, right now, with the potential power of including periodic “focused learning marathons” in the curriculum, as a consistent, expected, and cherished part of what makes our school different. These periods of intense, focused effort could take many forms. One possibility would be the adoption of monthly math, reading, or writing marathons – an expectation at our school could be that, once per month, students, faculty, and parents would engage in a 10-18 hour event that is entirely focused on mastery or making significant progress in one specific area or project.

These could take place all day Saturday, or perhaps sometimes they would take the form of an overnighter, or a series of after-school events. Perhaps during these events, instead of a five-day week, our school calendar is adjusted so that the community participates in a regular schedule Monday-Wednesday, a 12-18 hour marathon on Thursday, and then a day off on Friday?

Or, perhaps once per semester, an entire week of classes is devoted to one skill area – what would happen if our community celebrated the joy of reading with a reading week, where everyone (parents, teachers, and students) focused on nothing but reading? Workshops on speed reading, slow reading, analytic reading; book groups; EXTENDED periods of independent reading; out loud reading…Or if mathematics was the focus of our entire school for one week?

Or, optional full-day marathons during summer, winter, or spring break?

We took this approach last year when preparing students for the state math exam. 13 1/2 hours was our longest math marathon (the students participated in many 8-10 hour marathons as well). Certainly, mathematics learning grew in leaps and bounds during these sessions, but by far the greatest growth was in students’ characters – in their abilities to push themselves beyond the point they thought possible; in the breadth of experience they viewed as enjoyable; in the closeness and cohesion of the learning community to which they belonged (community through shared struggle and conquest!). It is certainly not too much to claim that our math marathons, for those students who chose to participate consistently, were personally transformative.

Gladwell seems to measure “meaningful learning” by the extent to which the connection between effort and results is obvious to students. He argues that students find academic work meaningful for much the same reason that an independent garment worker or wet rice farmer finds her work meaningful – when they are able to see a clear connection between their effort and the results of their work…when the intensity of their work is directly reflected in the “payoff” they receive. In this sense, learning marathons have an advantage over the more traditional learning schedule: Students who take part in a 10+ hour learning marathon, whether they be math, reading, writing, etc., are able to clearly see significant and immediate improvement in their understanding and skill level. Rather than plodding through a subject and experiencing often imperceivable growth, they are able to witness and celebrate their obvious leaps in understanding and achievement. One reason learning marathons are empowering is because they clearly tie work to results.

It is not a surprise, then, that quite quickly, students began to enjoy and look forward to our evening and weekend math marathons. Significantly, students did not fit the marathons into their previously existing constructs of “fun”. The marathons were certainly not enjoyable like a party is enjoyable (though we did have food, snacks, and the occasional fit of sometimes delirious group laughter). It seems clear that taking part in multiple sessions of intense and extended focus expanded our students’ spectrum of what an enjoyable human experience can be. They learned, perhaps most importantly, that extraordinarily hard work, over a long period of time, particularly when others are engaged alongside you, can be one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable of human experiences.

I wonder about a school that deliberately mixes “low-intensity” learning (the classic 60-90 minutes per day for each skill or content area) with consistent periods of intense, long-term focus on one skill, idea, or concept. I think the benefits could be extraordinary…if nothing else, our kids would not be intimidated when faced with a college term paper or with the need to read an entire college text in one weekend…they might even see such tasks as an enjoyable challenge.