Walk through most schools, and you’ll see messages like the ones above, posted in classrooms and in hallways. We often encourage kids, as they’re about to work to “try your best” or “put in max effort.” One year in my fifth-grade classroom, students adopted “try your best” as one of our class rules. Lately I’ve been wondering…. Are these messages reasonable? Are they productive? Is maximum effort really the way to maximize achievement? A recent event in the world of running has really pushed my thinking. Maybe we shouldn’t tell students to always try their best.
A Super-Human Achievement
On Sunday, September 25, 2022, something amazing happened in Berlin, Germany. Eliud Kipchoge, age 37, broke his own world record in the marathon with an astounding time of 2:01:09. His pace would have handily won just about any 5K event in the world, and he kept up the pace for 26.2 miles.
Check out the short clip below to view his finish. Notice the lightness and bounce in his steps. He doesn’t look like someone who is finishing 2 hours of insanely intense running. As he jumps into his coach’s arms, he actually looks like he could keep going for a few more miles.
If Only Students Could Put in That Kind of Effort…
Now, imagine that you want to use Eliud Kipchoge as a role model for your students. Wouldn’t it be amazing if your students could work as hard as him? Can you even picture how grueling his workout regimen must be? Can you picture him straining and struggling down the road—gasping for breath as he nearly collapses from exhaustion? After all, isn’t that what must be required to run faster than any human in the history of the marathon event?
And what would that look like in the classroom? Can you picture your students struggling and groaning under the weight of super-human exertion? Can’t you just see them collapsing at the end of the day, exhausted from giving their absolute maximum effort all day long?
What If 100% Max Effort Actually Isn’t the Key to High Achievement?
As it turns out, this isn’t the way Eliud Kipchoge trains. Now, no doubt, he runs a lot—in the neighborhood of about 130 miles a week, according to several running blogs I’ve read. But, would you be surprised to hear that most of his training (about 100 of the 130 miles) is at an incredibly easy pace? His coach recently posted a video (below) of the start of one of Eliud’s training runs—a pace the coach calls “the Kenyan shuffle.”
Clearly, there are other runs in Eliud’s week of training with greater speed and higher intensity. But isn’t it mind-blowing to consider that most of his running is done at a speed that’s relatively easy?
We tend to think of effort and achievement/success having a parallel and linear relationship. The more effort you put in, the more success you’ll have. But, what happens if you exert too much effort for too long?
Why is Max Effort Counterproductive?
As it turns out, training too hard is a common mistake of most recreational runners. In fact, you may have read in another post I wrote that when I got a bit of coaching once, I was told to rest more and slow down for most of my easy runs. (I was also told to go faster and run with more intensity during the small parts of my training when I was working on speed.)
There are actually some pretty bad things that happen when runners train too hard.
Exhaustion: There’s just so long you can do anything with great intensity. If you go too hard too long, you’ll become overtired and have to stop.
Injury: When runners train too hard for too long, they run the risk of hurting themselves. Hamstrings cramp, IT bands strain, and joints become inflamed. And these are just a few of the possibilities.
Failure: If you only think you’re being successful if you’re working out at max effort, you’re destined to fail. No one can work out at 100% (or even just really hard) for very long.
Demotivation: So, what happens if every time you go for a run, you are miserable and feel like a failure? It doesn’t take long before you get discouraged and give up.
This is what I’ve been thinking about lately—but not about running. When we tell students that they should be giving 100% (or even the more ridiculous—and mathematically impossible “110%”!), what happens? They might be momentarily motivated, but does it last? Chances are, the very ones who most need to practice the skills we’re teaching, are the ones most discouraged by our pep talk. And ones who do heed our advice can only last so long.
I’ve come to believe that we should stop telling students to try their best.
So, What Might We Encourage Instead?
In the world of running, the easy pace that Eliud Kipchoge and other experienced runners spend most of their time in is called a CP—a conversational pace. You should run slowly enough that you can have a conversation with someone without gasping for breath. Then, there are other times to run at higher intensities—practicing speed for short bursts or training at closer to “race pace” for longer periods. These periods of higher intensity are nearly always followed by a cool-down at a gentler pace.
Can we encourage this kind of effort in the classroom?
In a reading workshop, we encourage students to read “good fit” books. These are books they want to read, where they know almost all of the words, that they understand, and that they can read fluently. A “good fit” book isn’t a struggle. They can read it smoothly and with not lots of effort. Students work harder when conferring with a teacher or during a strategy group, but most of their reading feels easy and comfortable.
During math, students might be given choices of problems to solve. What if most of these problems weren’t a huge challenge—but could be solved smoothly and with minimal effort. Then, after a few minutes of comfortable problems, students could take on a tougher one—a problem that will make them sweat a bit. Then, after that one, they could return to a few gentler ones.
Or maybe, we don’t need to talk about effort at all. Instead, we might focus on engagement. “As you write today, remember the goal you’re working on as a writer. If you need a reminder, check your writing notebook. Remember to sign up for a conference if that would be helpful.”
Couldn’t we apply these same ideas to music, science, social studies, and all other content areas? Might students actually be more self-motivated if we encouraged a more realistic and productive kind of effort?
Interestingly, this idea of not promoting constant max effort is even catching hold in the business world. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explores the idea of encouraging 85% effort–trying hard, but not too hard.
Encouraging Easy Learning Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Value Achievement
It could be easy to dismiss the idea of school feeling mostly easy as being “soft” or too lax. But as I consider this idea, it’s with the opposite intention in mind. First off, if 75% of learning were at a gentle pace, that means students will have greater energy and stamina when greater effort is required. Secondly, let’s remember that a gentler pace might actually lead to more learning–and higher achievement. We certainly wouldn’t accuse Eliud Kipchoge of not caring about achievement, would we? He’s the most accomplished (and the fastest) marathon runner in history. He runs 75% of his training at an easy pace because he cares deeply about achievement.
What do you think? Is this a crazy idea, or is there some merit here? Feel free to chime in below in the comments section!