Our feet are built to be durable. Bones arranged to bear weight1, thick pads of skin, and fine motor control of each individual toe2 allow us to walk upright without a tail. As adults, we rarely think about how much we rely on our feet – at least not nearly as much (relatively) as our hands or eyes. When do you notice your feet? Probably when they begin to ache – after using them for hours at a time.
Our bodies are built so efficiently, we don’t notice important functions until they cause a problem.
I’ve written about cognitive load before, so I won’t go into detail here, but as we get better at certain skills, the less we have to devote cognitive resources to complete a task. Walking, for children, takes their full attention, to the point where if they look away from their target, they’ll lose their balance. The same is true in learning – as we learn new skills, we have to devote significant cognitive resources to the task. As we improve, our mind can allocate resources to concurrent activities. Students are able to look beyond the facts and move into the area of abstraction and exploration. As with learning to walk, we can begin to explore our surroundings without losing our foundation.
We’ve steadily grown detached from our bodies. Modern living (in America) rarely requires us to be aware of what our bodies are capable of in order to survive. According to Bassett, Wyatt, Thompson, Peters, and Hill (2010), Americans walk fewer than 5,000 steps per day – we’re not used to using our feet.
At the same time, we’ve steadily conditioned students to thinking one-dimensionally. Memorizing enough facts to pass a test has been the standard. When we ask students to stretch their thinking, we run into issues because their brains haven’t been stretched and exercised properly. Just like our feet feeling worn out (arguably) sooner than they should, our student’s minds fatigue quickly.
As educators, part of our role is to simultaneously stretch and support our students. The challenge is that students’ perceptions of those two goals is different than our own. We need to recognize the physical challenge (remember, the brain is a physical thing – it grows) as well as the emotional challenge at hand. Muscles are strengthened and toned when we destroy the fibers and allow them to repair. The way we think also goes through periods of destruction and reorganization as a part of learning.
Taking small, successive steps in learning is a way to help students overcome mental fatigue.
This is an enigmatic idea; practicing rudimentary skills is often used as an excuse to drill and kill material. It falls under the realm of “test preparation,” a get-out-of-jail-free card for teachers and systems to avoid changing the status quo. We need to recognize that base information and procedure is important, but it cannot be the focus of all instruction. As with walking, we have to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, but I’d like to be able to look around once in a while.
Bassett Jr, D. R., Wyatt, H. R., Thompson, H., Peters, J. C., & Hill, J. O. (2010). Pedometer-measured physical activity and health behaviors in United States adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 42(10), 1819.
Vanderbilt, T. (2012). The crisis in American walking: How we got off the pedestrian path [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/walking/2012/04/why_don_t_americans_walk_more_the_crisis_of_pedestrianism_.html
2. Even losing your smallest toe for health reasons or because of an accident results (often) in having to re-learn how to walk. To experience the amount of work your toes do, stand on one foot with your arms out and eyes closed and keep your balance. You’ll make dozens of small adjustments with your toes to stay upright.