On January 1st 2017 around 2:45 in the morning I began to establish a series of New Year’s Resolutions knowing that I would achieve very few of them. Of course, most of them were incredibly generic: be more positive, be better with money (both of which I have already failed). I then chose the golden resolution; the half-hearted statement to embellish a list of genuine resolutions: get fit.
Believe it or not, I’ve managed to keep up the latter. I stopped convincing myself two weeks into 2017 that owning a pair of running shoes and having a gym membership didn’t count as ‘being more active’ so I got up and did something. It wasn’t before long I convinced myself that I could to a 10K run, and proceeded to sign myself up. How wrong I was.
Now I’m not saying I’m incredibly unfit, but surely, the fact that I’ve been in my local takeaway so many times they now know my name doesn’t sound like athleticism to me…
As the date of the 10K run draws closer and I was out of breath after walking up two flights of stairs, I realised something drastic had to happen. That was when I downloaded the ‘10K Runner’ App. It told me that I only had to run three times a week for 30 minutes max – that’s the kind of minimal effort that I liked the sound of. Of course, it wasn’t minimal effort: it was gruelling.
A few weeks in and I’m doing alright! The secret is supported interval training; a little bit of running met by a little bit of walking, and a chirpy American woman who hurls motivation at me whilst I indulge in my awful music taste. But it works! I’ve been seeing my distance creep up and up and I’ve made all-round improvements.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because this whole process perfectly personifies teaching, and how we should expect teaching to be in 2026. The ‘10K Runner’ App has taught me 5 things about Higher Education:
- Further to Higher Education is hard:
Colleges and sixth forms are nothing like university. We already know this. However, we assume knowledge far too often of students entering university. Currently, the way we treat first years in their first week of university is like asking someone to run 10K with no training. Coming to university is hard, and we should nurture our students step by step, rather than assuming they know everything (they wouldn’t need to be here in the first place if they knew that).
- Higher Education on its own is hard:
You thought getting to university was hard? Wait until you go through it. Running for the first time is hard, and so is learning. That doesn’t make it intrinsically bad. Yet we should celebrate this struggle, rather than stigmatise it. I also appreciate this is hard for academics. As Stephen Brookfield puts it, academics are ‘perceptually challenged. They cannot imagine what it must be like to struggle to learn something that comes so naturally to them.’ This leads to my third point…
- Consistent Support and Feedback is imperative:
I’ve quickly learnt that running is a lonely sport; you seldom get motivation chants. However, there is nothing I appreciate more than the pre-recorded ‘you can do it’ and ‘keep going’ from the chirpy American woman. For every run I complete, I get a full report of how far I’ve ran, how many calories I’ve burnt (which usually isn’t enough) and how to improve next time, with the largest emphasis on the latter. This is how we should model our feedback – persistent, forward thinking and encouraging. And bearing in mind I’m given loads of opportunities to give feedback on the app, maybe our students should have that opportunity too.
- Give students the opportunity to try new things:
The best thing about interval training is that I’m not thundering down the same street doing the same thing every time. I’m pushing myself; I’m trying different timings and different routes. I get to experiment and research what is the best. Of course, I say research purposefully here. Students should have the opportunity to try new things, in an environment where their curiosity is met with enthusiasm and excitement. Only then will our students flourish. But perhaps the most important lesson is…
- Give people time:
Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is a 10K runner (as I am unfortunately discovering). People need time to fully develop their potential. Students need time to practice and research and discover new things. They also need time to settle in; they’re not going to get it right first time! Likewise, teachers need to be giving time to nurture their understanding of pedagogy. We ask academics to think innovatively, but can often fail to see the burden of work before them. Academics are learners just like students, and we should priorities their development and teaching in the same way.
So there we go; five things the 10K Runner App has taught me about Higher Education and effective teaching. By 2026, I am sure these lessons will have been learned and our teaching will be reward experimentation, nurture those that struggle, and provide the opportunity for continuous feedback between staff and students. Whether I will be able to run 10K by 2026, however, remains to be seen!