Like Eating Vegetables? I Don’t Think So!

Two things I definitely am: a sports fanatic and a lifelong learner. Because of those two things, I have followed John Urschel’s story over the past few years. He is currently a doctoral candidate in applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and formerly was an offensive lineman, first at Penn State, then in the NFL for the Baltimore Ravens. I follow his story out of intrigue because I think there is a big connection between mental and physical athleticism, and the behaviors that go along with excelling at both. Urschel says that physical and mental exercises are not drudgeries, but expressions of his passion.

Teachers remind and nudge students daily, like coaches on an athletic paying field. If we taught and coached with similar passion to that used to motivate athletes, “doing” math or science might be better embraced by students. John’s take on students “doing” math and science is to motivate them, put them in the real world to make learning fun and interesting. He says changing the students’ attitudes about their math and science is the key.

John Urschel knows the athletic and mental behavior that he has always displayed has been nothing but formidable. He has enjoyed and excelled in both. Similarly, changing teacher behavior is key. Revisiting John’s story aligns with what I have learned about adult learning and more specifically teacher behavior. According to Thomas Guskey, a professor of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky, teachers must change their “teaching behaviors” in order to see a change in student outcomes. Like athletic coaches showing passionate behavior to motivate athletes, teachers can use motivating behaviors with students in the classroom.

We will only be successful changing student attitudes if teachers make behavioral changes in their teaching practices. Remember math and science are not all about answers and tests—any more than history is about learning dates or English is about knowing grammar. Math and science don’t have to be an exercise in drudgery, a list of questions that demand using formulas. It’s not about being able to match the answers in the backs of the books. Math and science are fundamentally problem-solving. That may lead to doing puzzles or playing games or finding ways to connect math and science to problems that kids face in everyday life.

In the words of John Urschel, “It’s important for teachers to express their own love of these subjects, not just accept that math and science are like eating vegetables.” In other words, not just something we have to do to be healthy. I hope your professional learning plans include ways to help change teaching behaviors. Doing that will change student outcomes and attitudes. Be athletic and exercise.

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