Curriculum Planning

A Support Team for Every Student

Three lessons from a marathon runner’s training that we can apply to customizing education for each student.

January 17, 2018
African American woman at whiteboard leading a meeting.
©Hero Images/500px

“This is teamwork, I get information from the scientists, information from the management, and from the coaching system. So it’s really a circle. You cannot train alone and expect to run faster. There’s a formula.” —Eliud Kipchoge, marathon runner

A team of runners, scientists, and specialists set an unimaginable goal recently—helping a runner to run 26.2 miles in under two hours. Though they did not quite meet the goal, the Nike Breaking2 got closer than anyone in history (2:00:25) and learned valuable lessons along the way. With the support of his coach, scientists, and sponsors, Eliud Kipchoge accomplished what no other human being has accomplished.

I believe that we, as educators, can learn from this amazing achievement. A takeaway lesson to be learned and embraced from the Breaking2 team is that helping students learn at impressive rates requires not only a skilled support team of educators dedicated to go the distance but also a customized learning plan for each student.

From 2014 to 2017, the Breaking2 team consistently used specific strategies in attempting to meet their goal. Borrowing their strategies for education, the formula to get impressive results from our students is that our teams must likewise align our efforts, know and address our weaknesses, and set a persistent pace.

Special Education as a Model

I believe the closest thing we currently have in education to the Breaking2 team is found with special education. We have monthly meetings with specialists that discuss students’ data—their challenges and strengths. In special education, individualized education programs (IEPs) are created, including accommodations and behavior plans. And what about the rest of our students? The concept of individualized plans created by a team of experts for students in special education has been around for a long time, but this is precisely what is necessary to successfully guide all students to run their best in the learning marathon.

What We Can Learn From Breaking2

Here are three approaches successfully used by the Breaking2 team, with descriptions of ways teacher teams can use these approaches when getting to the molecular level of learning for each student.

1. Initial testing to know physical capacity and potential and identify areas of efficiency. Time and resources must be allocated to pre- and post-test each student, or in other words discover their ability to learn. This means that the number of evaluations would increase. The evaluations would need to be aligned to standards and performance expectations so that diagnostic testing and gap analysis could be performed (e.g., what specific knowledge and skills do the students have, and what do they still need?). We then need to share this information with the students and parents through continual formative assessments (progress checks, with feedback and opportunities to improve).

2. Strategize running training, use of tools, and control of the environment. Learning would be customized for each student. Teacher teams, parents, administrators, and school specialists would deliberately work together to create learning plans that maximize learning for each student. Avoiding one-size-fits-all means doing what the Breaking2 team did in custom-fitting shoes and gear to the individual characteristics of each runner. Teachers can also increase the efficiency of learning by using a variety of learning tools (electronic, traditional, and non-traditional) depending on each student’s needs. Additionally, in order to enhance and motivate learning, teacher teams must intentionally design classrooms—the lighting and the type of furniture and how it is arranged, for example—so they are inviting places to learn.

3. Set a mile-by-mile goal for a record-breaking time. The Breaking2 team set the impressive goal to break the two-hour marathon barrier. Then they determined what pace needed to be run for each of the 26 miles. A pacing car drove in front so the runners could see on a display the target pace and their current pace. In relating this to education, the best syllabi are those that have full disclosure of what is necessary for success. They break down the total learning into months or weeks, plan for frequent checks for understanding and assessment, and provide for feedback. What else is necessary? We must create a pacing plan where we review daily the target learning goals with students and where the students are in achieving them. True formative assessment helps students adjust their pace and their performance. And when we conduct formative assessments frequently, students know exactly what they need to do to improve. Teachers must also provide plenty of opportunities for improvement. And once learning milestones are completed, students should be recognized and celebrated.

Working Together, Setting Goals

The Breaking2 team helped Kipchoge run the fastest marathon in history by asking questions at the molecular level, testing and retesting, employing all of their resources in a unified strategy, and setting a persistent pace. By applying these same approaches, teacher teams can help their students improve academically. As educators, we must embrace the idea that teaching and learning are a team effort, and that each child deserves a customized learning plan.