Jeremy Côté

End of the Treadmill

Staying there isn’t easy.

It’s not that the back of the treadmill is any different from the front. It’s the same spinning belt, going the same speed as the front. And yet, there’s something else about the back of the treadmill. The difference is psychological, because you know that you’re almost out of room. One wrong or slow step, and you will come crashing down.

Suffice to say, the end of the treadmill is not where you want to be. If you find yourself there, you’re probably in desperation mode.

Everyone should agree with this. The end of the treadmill is not where we want to be. However, we then turn a blind eye to how this same scenario plays out in other aspects of our lives. In particular, this “end of the treadmill” effect is prevalent within the education system.

It goes something like this. A student struggles to understand some concepts in their mathematics class, for example. However, they are motivated to pass the class, so they put in a lot of work to make sure they get by. At the end of the year, they pass the course with a 63 (the minimum is 60). They’re allowed to move on to the next year.

The problem at this point is that they aren’t quite comfortable with the material they learned. Sure, they passed the course, but do they understand the subject well enough to move on? Perhaps some do. But I’ve seen that many do not. They passed the course though, so they are allowed to continue.

The next year, the course only builds upon what they learned in the previous year. This might lead some to think that anything that wasn’t clear in the previous year can be revised and studied again, but often there isn’t time for that. There’s a lot of new material to cover. This means the students have to be comfortable from the get-go.

Our hypothetical student was only just comfortable enough to past last year. That means that in the next class, they are already behind, because the material from the previous year is assumed to be known. In other words, they find themselves near the end of the treadmill. As the new year progresses, the material that doesn’t make sense will tend to accumulate, since they are still not comfortable with the previous material. It’s a layering effect. By not being comfortable with last year’s material, it’s quite difficult to make sense of the new material.

The issue is that there’s almost no time to claw one’s way back from the end of the treadmill. It requires students to work on both last year’s and this year’s work, which is not something students want to do. Consequently, they try to “outlast” the clock from the back of the treadmill, hoping they can stay right on the edge until school is done.

As you can imagine, this makes for a lot of stressed out students. Furthermore, it creates students who move up through the education system without having the knowledge required to be promoted to the next level. For subjects that are dependent on previous material (such as mathematics), moving to the the next level before being ready is prolonging the eventual disaster. You can only run so long near the back of the treadmill before a wrong step sends you flying off.

In the current system, there’s no remedy. Students will keep on getting promoted to the next level, even if they aren’t quite prepared. However, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done. As an educator or someone who knows a student, check in with them to see how they are doing in school. If they are “just” passing, dig deeper to find out what’s happening. It’s always better to intervene early. It’s quite difficult to get students to revisit sixth grade mathematics when they are in the tenth grade, even if it’s something they don’t understand. The longer one waits, the worse it gets.

The goal should be to run on the treadmill in a comfortable way. Being near the end of the treadmill is a recipe for disaster, and it’s a constant stress on one’s mind. Therefore, we need to do our best to make sure students don’t end up there.