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Lessons from the Decathlon

I look forward to the Olympics every four years. As a runner and skier, both the Summer and Winter Olympics are important to me. You can imagine how I, like millions of others, are saddened by their postponement due to the coronavirus.

Like many people, I watched a good deal of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. As a former competitive athlete in track and field, I always pay special attention to those events, especially the ones I competed in: the 400 and 800 meter runs, 4 x 400 relay, intermediate hurdles and the high jump.While I did well enough in the others, placing often in the top three or four, I excelled at the 800. Actually, back then it was the 880 yard run, or half mile, which is a little longer than today's 800 meters. My best time was 2:01, a fast time for even today's top runners.

But the thing I liked best was that I was competitive in all of my events, even if I only regularly won in one of them. I was proud of the fact that I was recognized as a formidable competitor in five events.

To be competitive in ten events? Unimaginable.

How about the Olympic athletes in the event that shows who is the best athlete in the world: the Decathlon? To be the best overall in ten grueling events - now that is a huge accomplishment a modest performer like me can only admire. To be highly competitive in ten events requires not just immense talent, it requires dedication, intelligence and preparation. It requires that the decathlete (that's what they're called) have an unshakeable belief that he can be competitive in all events. That hard work and the opportunity to be coached by talented coaches in each event, he can attain a credible level of notoriety. I was in absolute awe of decathletes; to me, they were demigods!

The decathlete doesn't have one coach; he has TEN coaches. Each coach understands that there are nine other coaches who want the best out of their decathlete. All ten coaches know they must share the decathlete and be mindful of the possibility of injury from too much pressure. All ten coaches must know enough about the other nine sports to know where their respective training intersects with the others so they can collaborate with effective cross-training. Remember, he is one decathlete, not ten athletes.

In a very real way, don't we want to train our students in our schools like coaches train the high-performing decathlete? Think about it: students all have talents, but may not be talented in a lot of disciplines. Shouldn't we identify our students' weaknesses and seek to develop them into strengths, so they can at least be competitive? To accomplish this, the coaches - of course I mean teachers - must collaborate and personalize their approach to teaching/training their students.

We educators delight in having the students who seem to be able to handle all of our subject areas with ease. We know who these students are early on in the school year: these kids have great attitudes, handle challenge - and failure - well and remain balanced. Some of this balance in effort and performance is often in part due to the level of parental support they have, but is more often due to their innate capacity to handle a challenge. They don't retreat at the first sign of difficulty, they re-double their effort to overcome their perceived deficiencies. These "decathlete students" thrive on learning, on finding they can be better than they were the day before.

All students have - or had - an inner decathlete. When we are little, we try limits and delight in learning. Yet, due to poor "coaching" (this includes in large measure poor parenting), we learn to pull back and not venture into the unknown. Our original inner drive to learn-it-all shrinks back to what is safe and known. Yet we wait for the right coaches to come along and reawaken our inner decathlete.

Are we providing a Decathlete Education to our students? Do we have coaches - educators - who work together collaboratively to produce a world-class student? Do we even know enough about our students to know which educational approach - which "training" - works best and is balanced with the other training/education they receive from us?

When I was the principal of an International Baccalaureate high school, one of my biggest challenges was to get the IB teachers to communicate with one another about their shared students. If I did not force that communication, the IB teachers quickly expected these Decathlete Students to see their subject as the most important. The IB teachers would forget that these students had five more IB subjects to master, each of them very challenging in their own right. Can you imagine a decathlete's coaches doing this? Of course not.

And what about a balance of disciplines in our K-12 schools?

We have many K-12 school experiences which, unlike the Decathlon, force students to specialize at too early. We adults offer choice programs like "Sports Management" and "Pre-Med" to middle schoolers. I submit that, if any 11 year old child really believes that he/she needs to go into the field of Sports Management, or Medicine, that child is one in a million or, more likely, needs a parent who knows better to intervene. There is no evidence to indicate that these students actually enter careers in Sports Management or Medicine. Who are we really serving by offering this narrower education?

The problem with shoehorning a child into such an education is that we necessarily limit the other courses available to that child. We cut the arts or world languages. We narrow our horizontal curriculum to accommodate the greater focus on these specialized courses. Instead of the elective in, say, band, the student is required to take a specialized course in a future career they will in all likelihood never pursue.

As a result, we sometimes create an education which deprives students - perhaps forever - from experiences and exposure they may never see again. In short, rather than providing a Decathlete Education, we offer a narrow view of what they could become.

This narrowing of opportunity is widespread. How many principals have cut a chorus teacher to hire another reading teacher? Did the principal even know that reading music has a high causal relationship to reading skills improvement? Evidence is clear: in the School District of Palm Beach County, the highest performing middle school is Bak Middle School of the Arts. Admission comes after an audition in a variety of fine arts (e.g., chorus, band, visual, theater) and then a lottery. None of these high performing students are selected on the basis of high-stakes test scores or GPA! Yet we cut the arts offerings to make way for more of the same, believing, wrongly, that narrower is better.

Let's demand that we prepare our children for a world of jobs yet to be created, where they will need to be prepared to perform in a wide variety of "events." Let's give them a Decathlete Education where our intra-teacher communication leads to collaboration which in turn leads to the development of stellar, balanced students! ©Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore

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