At ~04:15 EST on Saturday, 12 October, Eliud Kipchoge crossed the finish line of the Ineos 1:59 challenge in Vienna, having completed a marathon (26.2mi/42.2km) in less than two hours.
He is the only human ever to have done so.
This was no regular marathon. In fact, this was Kipchoge’s second attempt at sub-2 in a contrived environment in which all technical and tactical focus was directed at his effort to accomplish something that had never been done before. There are purists who will argue that such an elaborately orchestrated effort “doesn’t count,” and it is true that it doesn’t meet the course or pacing guidelines to be an official world record; however, it’s a remarkable feat, in or out of the record books.
I used to be a runner, My brain still thinks I am one, no matter how desperately my body tries to prove it wrong. So, after watching Kipchoge make a little history, baby, I wondered how to make it pedagogically relevant. What newfangled ed-tech was analogous to the EV that was both setting the pace for his effort and projecting a laser onto the ground to show his pacers where to run? How were the pacers themselves, spelling each other off in teams to surround him in a counter-intuitive reverse-vee phalanx (sorry, Mighty Ducks), representative of scaffolding, or collaboration, or the support systems we put in place for our students? How long until his $300+ sneakers become a metaphor for private-sector elitism?
Maybe the comparison is simpler than that. Maybe Kipchoge’s success—and how we can view it through a pedagogical lens—hinges upon the alignment of system with subject.
Until recently, few people believed that a sub-2 marathon could be run. When Kipchoge, his coaches, and the greater running community began to view it as a possibility, they recognized that the likelihood of success could be increased through the implementation of a controllable—but not limiting—system. Natural ability and training made Kipchoge an ideal runner for a sub-2 attempt, but he was supported by technology grounded in years of research, trial, and error. He had more than preparation and skill behind him, he had science, which is perpetually driven to innovate and iterate through its inherent fallibility. He had attempted this feat before, and fallen just short; the team behind him learned from previous failure, adapted the system, and tried again.
As teachers, we believe our students are capable of great things. Many of us spend countless hours on our own professional learning, considering our teaching philosophies and brushing up on theories that might enhance our practice. In terms of our own learning, we live in a pedagogical milieu that is both inspiring and—at times—overwhelming. The issue, I would argue, is that a significant source of this overwhelm stems from the fact that we think and work within a system that was fundamentally designed to support obedience, inculcation, and task-orientation. While we have certainly made some headway over time in the ways that we teach and empower our students, that’s not what the system was actually created to do: in fact, an alarming number of the structural underpinnings of industrial-model conservativism have survived the last 200 years in our schools. Teachers are willing to innovate and iterate, but are—far too frequently—limited by the education system.
Students, as the subjects (and I use this term intentionally knowing it denotes control) of the education system, have little choice but to work within it. As much as we want to empower them, it is difficult to do so authentically within a framework that teaches them to play a particular game, with specific ends and outcomes in mind. Yes, this system—like Kipchoge’s—is controlled; however, unlike his, it is inherently limiting. The theory, and in many cases, the science, behind giving students freedom to harness their potential is out there, but we are so bogged down in the dregs of the industrial educational model that it is challenging, for many of us, to put this theory into practice in a meaningful way. We’ve fallen victim to a praxis gap.
How might we close this gap? How might we break the cycle of viewing numbers as outcomes and outcomes as end points, and instead see them as natural byproducts of something greater?
The formal school system, far too often, becomes a ceiling that limits students’ potential. Compare that with the support system—founded in research, trial, and error—Kipchoge had in place when he ran 42.2km faster than any other human being ever has; a system which opened, for him as its subject, the gateway to success.
How might we make school a gateway?