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To Improve Learning, Integrate Body and Mind

When I was a platoon commander in the Marine Corps, I conducted an initial counseling session with every new Marine who joined my platoon. I learned about their backgrounds and told them about mine, briefed them on my expectations, and sought to understand their characters, motives and concerns. I was assuming responsibility for these young men, and we needed to know one another and trust one another.

Hoping to gain some insight, I would always ask who their favorite teacher was in high school. Almost without exception my Marines would think for a minute before responding that they didn’t really have a favorite teacher, but that their football or wrestling coach was their biggest positive influence.

Of course, these were exceptionally fit young men, so their preference for athletics and physical education made good sense. On the other hand, they came from a wide variety of backgrounds and had varied personal interests. What they had in common was a feeling that they had been abandoned by the educational systems that were supposed to teach them — and many had the grades to prove it. But in my experience, teaching, training and working alongside them, these Marines demonstrated that they could master intensely difficult concepts, procedures and equipment in no time, and that they were as imaginative and inquisitive as they were generous and loyal. So why had school been such a miss?

The fact is that most schools, public and private, teach as if students were simply intellects — disembodied brains ready to be filled with information. Rhetoric about forming character usually boils down to enforcing classroom rules or talking about things like virtue. This is great, but is it truly formative for most students? Gestures toward practical learning consist of moving from an indoor classroom to an indoor lab, both of which are hopelessly abstracted from the students’ experience of the real world.

In athletics and physical education, coaches teach beneficial character traits like perseverance and patience in addition to the skills of the sport. Also, the environment requires students to think and move, essentially rehearsing their coach’s lesson, with an immediate feedback loop on their learning provided by the game or competition. But almost always, athletics and PE operate in complete curricular isolation from the academic disciplines. The benefits provided by concept rehearsal and quick feedback loops stay on the field and out of the classroom.

This is a huge missed opportunity for educators because it removes highly effective learning tools from the classroom and marginalizes those students who could do better in a holistic environment that integrated their thinking with their being — their brains with their bodies. Even for those who excel in the highly abstract learning environments prevalent today, their learning is less memorable and profound than it could be if it connected with them on multiple levels, including the physical and emotional so present in athletics and PE.

The solution? Allow athletics and PE to enhance academic learning and vice versa. Many schools pay lip service to this model, but simply having an athletics program is not the same as truly integrating physicality and academics.

While there are practices schools can employ to rework their curriculum along these lines, sometimes it’s best to start small. Here are a few principles to guide educators and parents on the first steps toward this kind of a program. 1) Integrate physical education with the rest of the curriculum. 2) Employ functional fitness methods and practical skills to root learning in physical reality, thereby making it useful and approachable by all. 3) Allow games and competition to provide incentives and feedback for learning. 4) Employ these principles with charismatic disciplinary approaches that enhance student/teacher friendships through leadership by example.

Of course, these principles take more space than we have here to unpack, and perhaps they even sound impossible to enact, but here are examples of them in action at a school I co-founded with these principles in mind.

As headmaster at St. Martin’s Academy, I also taught literature to a class of sophomore boys. We were reading Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem originally written in Greek thousands of years ago. My challenge was to present adequately to the boys the sorrow, exhilaration, agony, and even beauty of human beings in war. Homer writes of the “joy of battle” throughout the poem — exactly the kind of phrase that a sleepy teenage boy will miss entirely, and with it miss an incredible nuance in the terror of war in the poem. The only thing worse than them missing that phrase would be for me to try and explain it to them as a concept.

Instead, we went outside. I split the boys into two teams, Greeks and Trojans, and, as in the poem, the body of a fallen comrade lay on the ground between their two camps. Their mission was to retrieve the body; they had to wrestle their opponents for its possession (though no blows were allowed); and boys who tapped-out were casualties. As the dust settled and a scuffed up but exhilarated class made its way back inside one student quipped, “I think I know what Homer means by the joy of battle!” Exactly.

The same principles can work in a science curriculum. In a biology course, our students were learning about avian ecology. The science teacher tasked the students with studying the life-requirements of egg-laying hens. They were given teammates, a deadline, and a small budget to design and build a mobile chicken coop. Grading criteria for the project included: 1) Suitability to the ecological requirements of the hens partially measured by egg production and survival; 2) build quality and aesthetics of the coop; 3) leadership and team coherence. Needless to say, they couldn’t wait to get started and the project dominated their conversation for weeks. The coops the boys built housed very happy hens, validating what the boys had learned of avian ecology, craftsmanship, and leadership, and stood as a physical memory aid to the facts learned in that class. This is a kind of learning where there is almost no chance of forgetting once the final exam is taken.

This approach can work in almost any learning environment and is an enormous gift to the students. It’s not so bad for the teachers either, who will see students coming alive and mastering material they previously hated. Human beings are integrated minds and bodies — our education should be too.


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