Fit, Smart, & Patient: A Unified Model of Physical and Academic Excellence

Two weeks ago I posted an article titled, Fat & Dumb: The sad state of U.S. youth and how to fix it, which looked at the health and academic statistics of the United States population over the last 40 years or so. This article follows up on the points made previously, and adds to them a proposed solution.

WARNING: This article ended up being 3,000+ words and may be a hefty 15-20 minute read. I think you should absolutely read it anyway, but wanted to let you know what you’re getting into!


Before we begin, I want to share some background with you on myself. Why? Because the solution I’m going to give is a little radical, just like my career has been to date. I’ve spent a lifetime building a skill set that is decidedly unique, and so my thinking is often at a bit of a tangent to commonly held beliefs.

I am a non-traditional educator.

Unlike many, I didn’t come to teaching through an undergraduate degree; I feel into it. I found an early passion for instructing others while studying martial arts as a preteen and teen, and was given the chance to explore it with over 100 kids per day in a day camp during and just after high school. I kept that passion as I aged: I took a leadership role in clubs at college; I became a training/resource manager for my college student I.T. department; I offered tutoring & editing services to fellow students; and, I was always the guy in class who could explain something when the professor wasn’t around.

Professionally, I started writing and publishing articles on various topics when I was 21 years old. I took jobs that would put me into a position to train others (IT Help Desk, then Data Analytics, then Professional Skills Development in Office Automation), then finally found my calling as a group fitness and personal trainer who eventually opened his own gym. I am immersed in education and teaching every single day, for kids and adults alike, and I have been for over 10 years.

I am a well-trained, well-learned, credentialed professional who almost failed High School.

I barely graduated high school with a 2.2 GPA (which dipped down into the low 1.xx at some point), getting into college entirely on my SAT score, entrance essay, and sheer cheekiness in my interview. My high school was a good school but it left too many kids floundering who needed a different educational path. I was one of those kids, and only when I intentionally moved my education outside the traditional (i.e. last 2o years) path did I flourish. I learned how to learn my way.

Now, I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology (plus the credits for an unconferred B.A. in English), a Master’s Degree in Applied Information Technology, a Master’s Certificate in Database Management Systems, and six coaching certifications in the health & fitness field. I have been coaching fitness for 7 years and martial arts for 12 years. I spent five years as an analyst and corporate skills development trainer for two separate companies, one of which is the largest provider of online collegiate education in the world.

I am focusing on the time of my life that needed the most work.

What I’m presenting is a solution for the High School level, because that’s where so many kids are falling apart and falling out of the system. We need better solutions in place to help kids thrive as they make the transition to adulthood, and the majority of high schools are not doing that. How many 17-18 year olds are functional adults when that diploma hits their hands? I would wager it’s less than 10%. As a society we have been focusing too heavily on the wrong things, and ignoring the overall development of these young adults as something that can be pushed off until later.

A few decades ago, you were expected to be able to function when you graduated, and if you went to college you had the leg up, professionally speaking. Today, we don’t expect you to even function until you have a 4-year degree, and you’ll get a professional boost from graduate-level education. And the boost from a Master’s degree has become so minuscule that it almost doesn’t make sense. At this rate, 10 years from now you’ll need a Master’s or PhD just to land a job, and we’ll be keeping people non-functional into their 30’s. This is the path we’re on, and it is frightening. We need to change it.


Now that you know me a little better, let me share this vision with you. No one has ever accused me of aiming low, so this will get a little “Holy Crap, Really?!” in scope from time to time.

School Year, Terms, & Vacations

I am proposing a year-round school system. I’ll give you a minute to yell at your screen or call me an idiot or whatever makes you happy. Anyway, moving on.

In the United States kids are in school from approximately September 1st until approximately June 15th, with a few larger breaks of about 3-4 days spread throughout the year. This puts kids in school about 9.5 months out of the year with a large break for summer. But is the best way to do it? Enter the idea of “Summer Learning Loss” as an example why it’s not such a good idea to have that long of a break.

SLL is the statistical loss of knowledge that kids experience between the last day of school one year and the first day of school the next year. I love infographics, and Oxford Learning has a great one that sums up the stats as of 2015. Click the image to view it in a new window and larger resolution. The stats are…not so good. Have a look for the full story, but here are the major takeaways that bother me to a significant extent. Every summer, students are losing…

  • 1 month of overall learning
  • 2.6 months of math
  • 2 months of reading

But surely these students are relearning the skills they lose quickly and making progress? Well, not really.

It takes about 6 weeks of remedial instruction to regain lost skills from SLL. This is almost the same length of time they spent on summer vacation, which means we’re spending  about 14% of the school year just getting caught back up. By Grade 6, kids who experience standard SLL are an average two years behind their peers. It can take 2 months for a student’s brain to shift from Summer Vacation mode back to Learning mode, delaying learning further.

The reality is, summer vacation was created so that both urban and rural families would have the same educational calendar each year. It served no other purpose than to create a standard. PBS has a good article about it here. The problem is, the standard doesn’t serve the educational needs of kids, and that’s what the school system is supposed to do. The length of time off is doing more harm than good.

PROPOSAL:

  • A four-term, all-year school system broken into 13 week segments of 5 weeks on/1 week off/5 weeks on/2 weeks off that starts on January 1st.

BENEFITS:

  • Provides more time in class (~200 days yearly) than the current system.
  • Provides 12 full weeks of vacation to students and teachers.
  • Spreads vacation out throughout the year, with only 4 weeks in colder months.
  • Removes the confusion of having the school year start/end on a different schedule than the standard calendar.
  • Provides graduating seniors with additional time to prepare for college entrance (essays, tests, etc.) since standard college terms will still begin enrolling in fall and provides them time to be accepted into summer college courses.
  • Removes the Summer Learning Loss

Class Room Learning

Lecturing is broken and ineffective. In high schools and colleges, the “sage on a stage” method of teaching has been the standard for hundreds of years, but studies find that it just doesn’t work. When students are taken from being passive learners (i.e. listening to someone talk) to active learners (i.e. participating in a discussion, mini-quizzes, etc) they are much more likely to not only stay in the class, but also to pass the class. A summary over at ScienceMag.com goes into more detail, but the conclusion is clear: kids don’t need to be talked at, they need to be engaged.

Engagement is a nebulous term to define and can include many different things.The overall key, though, is to make kids think and interact with the lesson, thus improving neuron activation and retention. Get them interested to get them learning. One of the easiest ways to do this is by actively providing feedback on what they’re learning as they learn it. Here are two ways to learn the countries on a map as an example (both are active, but one has an immediate feedback loop):

Method 1: a map shows up with the names of countries. The student memorizes them over a few minutes and then is tested on them using a totally blank map. This is pure rote memorization with an end test element. It can be effective in some cases, but not everyone does very well.

Method 2: a map shows up and the name of one country is placed in the correct area, then disappears into a word bank. The student then is asked to place the country name into the correct placement immediately, reinforcing the learning. Repeat this for every country and then for the whole of the map.

In the second case, retention improves by about 40%, which is not a small thing. This is only one example of active learning and how it benefits kids. Add to this discussion groups, essays, etc. and you can easily build a curriculum that is centered around doing rather than listening to improve learning overall.

Additional to the method is the intent, which is just as important. You learn certain things so that you can use them in real life and other things so you can forge a path to even higher learning. Almost every level of learning has applications for the information, such as learning low level math as a segue to higher level math. You may not use calculus very often but you’ll certainly need addition/subtraction daily. Students need to be able to abstract the uses of information at different levels, learn how to apply them to different situations, and think critically about the way their knowledge can interact with the world.

In STEM subjects, I propose a system similar to Khan Academy. Students learn individual topics, are tested on those topics immediately, and then review portions they didn’t test well on. This is instant feedback on small bits of knowledge. Then, as they move forward they are given new material that builds directly on he old material. They are again taught small concepts, relate those to broader topics, and are periodically tested on their total learning to assess progress or loss, to guide review. Here’s an active example:

John learns addition in Math 1.1. He spends 5 minutes watching a video on how it works, then is given some sample problems that he has to do. He learns simple addition (0-9) very quickly and gets stuck when he gets to three digit numbers. He is automatically given remedial review information and then retested until he answers a certain number of questions right, and then moves on. At any time, he can ask a teacher for help if he needs it. Once he finished Math 1.1, he moves on to Math 1.2 which teaches subtraction. The process repeats through the levels.

In non-STEM subjects I propose a project based learning curriculum where students are exposed to limited sets of ideas and information at a time, given a project to master those ideas, and then moved to the next level of information only when they show a certain level of achievement. Projects can be themed so that students at different stages of learning still have a common set of activities they’re working on.

As kids advance in both case, they are moved into discussion and critical thinking groups where they complete more difficult projects that require them to use information from multiple subjects to solve real world problems.

Homework

Hours of homework every day is not effective for learning or reinforcement. Students should use homework as a way to review for their classroom learning, work on projects that require time outside the school, an interact with other kids in their age group.

Academic (i.e. subject matter review) work should take less than 45 minutes per day. I recommend 2-3 ten or fifteen minute sprint reviews similar to the STEM review problem process discussed above. This will inform the next day of learning as well as reinforce the current day. This could optionally be done at the end of the school day as an additional class period.

Project work outside the school should require interaction with non-school material. Examples could be attending concerts for music classes, going on mock (or real) job interviews, or even interviewing local experts in the community. Volunteer work should be included here at least once per month. This should account for about one hour of time 3-4 days per week.

Socialization should occur daily for all students and can be school provided or found outside the academic structure. Schools should provide the organization for multiple school clubs, sports, and interests that cater to a wide audience. While I hesitate to make these required, students should be shown the real benefit of joining these “mini tribes” of like-minded students.

Physical Activity & Health Education

Physical activity should be a daily part of school life. Only extreme circumstances should allow any student to skip participation. Every study that has ever been done on student achievement as it relates to regular exercise has shown that learning improves when kids are more active. It has the added benefit of reducing instances of tardiness, disruption, and drop outs. Exercising is good; no question about it.

PhysEd should be the first class a student takes in their day. It wakes them up, gets their minds active from endorphin activity, improves their resting metabolism, and reduces fatigue throughout the day. That’s right: exercising earlier gives you more energy during the day. This first class will last 45 minutes, with 10 minutes before/after to dress/undress. About 15 minutes will be spent on general conditioning, and another 30 minutes on general physical skill development.

Every student will participate to their fullest ability, and a ranking system will be used to denote the relative physical aptitude of every student (5 total levels denoted by shorts color). Kids can test for a new level once per month, and must retest for their level if they miss more than 3 weeks of PhysEd classes. Far from creating an unhealthy environment, this type of system was instituted in over 4,000 schools in the 1960’s and saw tremendous success. Encouraging kids to excel is very different from shaming them, and this system is one of encouragement.

In addition to their physical education, students will also receive 4 years of health education that meets at least twice per week. Topics to cover will include nutrition, food preparation (oven, stove, microwave, etc), food safety, calories/macronutrients, metabolic science, and self-diagnosing the need to make dietary changes as they grow older. These classes will be mandatory.

Life Education

There is no excuse for a young adult not to be able to care for themselves in their daily lives. The life skills curriculum will provide the basics of:

  • Nutrition & Cooking (see above)
  • Personal Hygiene
  • Care & Repair of Clothing
  • Sexual Education (science-based & secular)
  • Simple Automotive Care (oil change, etc.)
  • Budgeting & Personal Finance (including simple tax prep)

Like all other subjects, these will be taught, tested, and evaluated by subject matter experts in each field. Most will have limited run curricula that last one-half to a full year, as the subjects are limited in scope. Students should have the option for more advanced classes if they show interest.

College Prep

For students that intend to attend a 2- or 4-year school after graduation, college prep courses will be made available. Subjects include SAT Prep, entrance essay construction, interview techniques/practice, and assistance choosing a major. Many tests exist to help fit fields of study to past achievement, current interests, personality, and career goals. Students will be taken through the available methods to help them make informed decisions. When paired with the Workforce Prep internships (see below), this will help the kids make the best decision they can when applying to schools.

Workforce Prep

For any student, choosing a life path at the age of 17-18 is a difficult prospect. The college prep course load will help steer them in the right direction for continued studies but can only do so much to help steer their intended careers. The Workforce Prep education will allow students to intern on a limited basis with local community businesses in various subjects/fields. This will give them a real world look at various careers and job roles at various levels from entry to executive. There is very little substitution for real-world experience when determining one’s future, so schools should do everything they can to foster this ability.

Standardized Testing

All students will be expected to complete standardized testing on a regular basis to measure achievement in this experimental system with achievement in the current educational system. The exception will be as follows: students will be taught with the goal of meeting or exceeding the top 20% of nationwide average scores. This system does not teach with the intent of producing the average student; it’s goal is to raise the average to entirely higher levels and produce adult thinkers that rival the top countries in the world.


I’m going to leave this topic for now because I’m sure I’ve already exhausted the attention span of many readers. Thank you for stopping in and reading today. If this topic interests you, I’m always happy to talk about it in person or online as well. I’ll be releasing a daily schedule proposal and some other supplemental information over the next week or two for those who want to follow along in this project.

And for those of you wondering why a gym-rat like me is so interested in this topic, I’ll let you in on a secret:

I’ve wanted to open my own high school for a while now. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

No one ever accused me of aiming low. Let me know if you want to be involved; I fully intend to change the world.