It's school gym, but not as we know it

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World-renowned authority on expandable intelligence, Professor Guy Claxton, will be discussing the 'learning-powered' school at the 20th SSAT National Conference this December. In a piece for SecEd's conference preview supplement, he explores some of his

Once upon a time, a village became worried about the fitness of its children, so the villagers built a brand new gymnasium, and filled it with all the latest equipment. They had cross trainers, steppers, pecs machines, dumbbells – and loads more.

Every day, after school, the children would walk down to the gym, sit quietly on the floor and learn about the equipment. They studied the history of the cross trainer and the construction of the pecs machine, and they calculated the weight of the dumbbells. Every so often they were tested on the knowledge they had gained, and they did pretty well (except for a long tail of children who didn’t). But to the puzzlement of the villagers, they did not seem to be getting any fitter.

So they sought high and low and appointed a new director of the gym. He was called the grand operational visionary executive, and he instantly saw what the problem was. 

“Tut, tut,” said the Gove. “You have been using quite the wrong equipment. I have been to visit a people called the Ebak who live in a far-away land, and I can tell you that those new-fangled machines will never build the kind of fitness our young people need. The Ebak have the solution. 

“You need to replace those tinny machines with tried and trusted equipment that has stood the test of time.” 

So out went the pecs machine and the stepper, and in came big old-fashioned medicine balls, low benches, skipping ropes and a lovely old vaulting horse. The Gove kept the dumbbells, because their value was beyond question.

Everyday, after school, the children walked down to the gym. They sat quietly on the floor, studied the history of the medicine ball and wrote creative stories about the life of the vaulting horse. They measured the strength of the skipping rope and calculated the weight of the dumbbells. 

Their understanding of the equipment was tested more frequently and more rigorously. The Gove found that the test scores went up by a percentage point or two each year and he was well pleased. But the villagers were puzzled, because no-one could understand why the children were still not getting any faster or stronger or fitter.

One day a woman wandered in to the village. She asked a passer-by why all the children were so fat and sluggish and why the grown-ups looked so perplexed and dejected. They explained their puzzlement and she went to see the children in the gym for herself. She said her name was Vita, which didn’t stand for anything. 

She hummed and harred for a bit and then said: “But they aren’t actually using the equipment, are they? They aren’t really exercising.” 

“What on earth do you mean?” said the villagers. “They are studying as hard as they can and they have some excellent teachers.”  

Vita said she would show them what she meant. She stood up, stripped off her jacket and started to throw the heavy medicine ball up and down in the air until she got red in the face. She stepped up and down on the low bench till sweat started running down her arms, skipped till she was out of breath, and lifted the dumbbells up and down till her arms were so tired they couldn’t lift any more. 

The villagers were horrified. “We can’t have that,” they cried. “The children will get upset if we make them struggle like that. They aren’t used to getting sweaty and tired. They will feel inadequate, and their self-esteem will suffer – especially the high achievers.”

“Tough,” said Vita. “If you want them to build up their strength and their fitness, they will just have to. No-one ever won the 100 metres by writing an essay about it.” 

The villagers grudgingly admitted she might have a point, so everyday, after school, the children went down to the gym. But instead of sitting quietly on the floor, they started to use the equipment to stretch their muscles, build up their stamina, become more flexible, and develop their co-ordination. 

Quite soon the children got used to getting sweaty, hot and tired, and they began to enjoy the experience of being really stretched – even the high achievers (though it took longer for them to get the idea). They became much more nimble and their stamina and energy increased by leaps and bounds. 

The villagers weren’t quite sure what they had unleashed and were a little daunted by the children’s energy – but they thought it was good. An important group of villagers called the Employers were very happy indeed. And so were the fitness coaches (called the Teachers), because most of the children had become a pleasure to teach. And they all lived vigorously and inquisitively ever after.

  • • Professor Guy Claxton is a world-renowned authority on expandable intelligence. This article features in the SecEd Supplement Innovating Learning, published this week. The supplement previews the 20th SSAT National Conference which takes place on December 4 and 5 in Liverpool. You can download this supplement by clicking here. Prof Claxton will be speaking at the event, when he will challenge delegates on developing the “learning-powered” school.


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