What Marathons and School Have in Common: repeated choices.

A few years ago I decided I should make an effort to get fit. It was September and I decided to go for a run. It was about 3km and I hadn’t run in so long that it nearly killed me.

Nine months later, this photo was taken.

That’s me at the end of 42 and a bit km. Zero to Marathon in nine months.

How it happened

After that first 3km run it was clear I had no idea what I was doing. I started googling everything I could about running. It wasn’t long until I found a book claiming that anybody could train for and complete a marathon. It was then that I made my first choice.

Choice number 1. Complete a marathon.

Of course, that’s not the only choice I had to make. I had to make a lot of choices.

• I made a choice, 5 times every week, to go for a run.
• I made a choice, to go to bed early every Friday night so I could run 2-3 hours on a Saturday.
• I made a choice, MOST meals, to eat right. (Most meals)

Over 9 months, if my maths is correct, I made approximately 864 choices in service of that first choice.

I chose to run a marathon so I had to make 864 small choices along the way to make it happen.

What does this have to do with education?

A student hasn’t been applying themselves in class. They and their parents come to the parent teacher interview. The student, in that moment makes a choice:

“I’m going to work really hard in class, do all my homework and start studying early for my exam. I’m going to be a model student”.

The student feels good, they have a plan. The parents are appeased, the student has chosen to turn it around. The teacher rolls their eyes. You’ve heard this before.

One Choice isn’t Enough

This student isn’t lying to you. In that moment this student really wants to turn it around. But what they don’t realise is that turning it around doesn’t take one choice. It takes many choices. Made over a long period of time.

For this student to truly turn it around this term they need to…

• Make the choice, every day, to work hard in class. (5 classes a week x 10 weeks = 200 choices in a term)
• Make the choice, every night, to do the homework required. (200 more choices)
• Make the choice, every time they get stuck, to ask for help. (100 more choices)

There’s 500 choices in service of that one choice made impulsively at parent teacher night.

How You Can Help

• Record their “big choice”, write it down somewhere. Even better, film them telling you about their big choice.
• Discuss how many “little choices” they are going to have to make in service of their big choice.
• Remind them of their little choices when they come into class each day. Or when they forget their homework that night. (I use a Microsoft form in my OneNote that students fill in each day with their intentions for the lesson)
• Keep a running tally of the choices they make. You could do it for them or they could do it themselves. Seeing these choices build up over the term makes it easier to see the end goal.

Always talk about these things as CHOICES. They are choices within a student’s power. They alone can choose what happens each and every day. In so doing, they are making a much larger choice.

I used to look at my finish line picture and hate runner number 6314. He’s casually strolling across the finish line like it’s no big deal while I’m celebrating my triumphant marathon finish. But now I see a man who has just made so many good choices that success was a foregone conclusion.