Good Teaching Principles are Practiced Everywhere
What a spin class instructor can teach educators about teaching
Anyone who is familiar with my work knows how passionately I believe in the impact of good teaching on student’s experiences in the classroom. Although learning can certainly happen in the absence of experienced others (as many Very Smart People like to relentlessly note), a good teacher can inspire us and forage new connections among our synapses.
I spend a lot of time reading about teaching and learning principles and incorporate varied approaches into my course designs from excellent books such as, The Missing Course, How We Learn, and Why They Can’t Write. Although I use my teaching skills that I’ve cultivated over the years primarily in the college classroom, I had an eye-opening experience recently about how good teaching principles can be practiced everywhere – even in fitness classes. I’m an active person and really enjoy endurance sports such as distance running, hiking, and swimming. But I find it difficult to push myself in the same way with biking despite finding it enjoyable when I do.
Enter: Spin classes.
Notorious for their cult-like following (specifically, SoulCycle), spin classes can be highly rewarding but equally intimidating.
I recently started attending some 30-minute HIIT (high intensity interval training) spin classes at my gym to incorporate some more rigorous cardio into my routine and every so often get me out of bed at 5:30 am. Whereas the classes have been serving their purpose of getting me a good workout, I wasn’t sure if I the levels of resistance I was using were actually “hard” or “moderate” as the instructor yelped over the microphone, whether I was pushing myself the “right” amount, or why I couldn’t get my spin bike to light up with all the colorful options my neighbors bikes had (absolutely I want fun light colors, please!). I also wasn’t highly engaged with the class despite the high-energy of the instructor and the much too loud music assaulting my ear drums.
This all changed, though, with one great instructor that was subbing in for the regular Tuesday evening slot, “Karl with a K”. Thirty minutes in his class taught me how the bike worked, gave me clear reference points to understand my effort and output on the bike, and kicked my ass harder than any other class I’ve taken. Equally important, I had more fun in that class than any other.
Why so? Because Karl was an excellent teacher. Throughout the class I was mentally noting all the different principles he exercised in his instruction and contrasting his methods with those of other instructors I’d taken classes with. And I realized that while students get something out of even the most mediocre teacher, a great teacher will get more from them and, importantly, make learning a fun and positive experience.
Here are four things that classroom educators can note from Karl’s class.
1. Cultivate A Friendly Environment
I arrived in the spin classroom about one minute before the start to lots of friendly conversation between the instructor and attendees – far more conversation than I was used to. And it became readily clear that many of the attendees were regulars of his class. Clear signals that he ran a class people genuinely enjoyed.
But what made the environment friendly was that as soon as I arrived at my chosen bike, Karl came right up to me and asked for my name – something no other instructor has done – and introduced himself as “Karl with a K”. It’s amazing the impact that humanizing your students has on their experience.
This is a practice I have implemented explicitly in my classroom for years by having students make name-tags on day one of class so that myself and other students can learn each other’s name and refer to each other by name throughout discussions. Karl even remembered each riders name and specifically called out each of us for hitting the level goals ensuring that every rider was included at some point. By taking the first moments to form a personal connection, I was more invested in the class.
2. Explain Your Methods
Gym equipment isn’t always self-explanatory and figuring it out with an audience watching isn’t always a recipe for success. Spin bikes in particular have a lot of settings and several parts to adjust to ensure the right fit of the bike to your body. When adjusting my bike during the first spin class I took, the instructor looked at me and said over the microphone “You look like you need some help setting up”. While well-intentioned I’m sure, I felt like I had a spotlight on my incompetence rather than the confidence to learn how to use it properly.
At the beginning of his class, Karl instead decided to use the first few minutes of warm up to explain to everyone how the bike should be set up to get the most out of his class. He walked the class though the training mode settings on the bike, what they meant, and how they would be used in his class to help us push ourselves at different levels. What a game changer! I learned how the bike worked and why certain settings were used.
In my courses I spend ample time explaining my methods. No adult wants to do something “because you said so” (and it’s a poor strategy with children, too). The entire first day of my courses is an ‘introduction to the course day’ where I explain each assignment, its purpose, and how everything connects to the broader goals I want students to come away with. Students want to know what they are doing and why. It’s proved remarkably successful as an instructor and, as I’ve now experienced, as a student.
3. Use Our Psychology to Improve Outcomes
Humans are competitive by nature; but we are also highly cooperative. These innate tendencies can be easily leveraged to help us perform better. Because the spin bikes are tech-based and connected to the instructor’s control dash, each bike’s performance can be shown on the projector screen in the front of the room. Karl used this technology to split us into teams to cooperate with each other to outperform the other team – fun!
Importantly, the competition was friendly, not zero-sum. Each individual knew only their own bike number, so they knew where they were in relation to everyone else and what team they were on, but their individual performance was ultimately their own to know. The competitions were also only used a few times per class to increase engagement in a low-stakes manner, while using our own psychological tendencies to help us boost our performance.
Competition isn’t the enemy of inclusivity and learning; it just needs to be used in the right ways to boost performance. In courses, too, group activities, low-stakes competition, and other gamified learning can be great ways to boost both engagement and performance. A favorite game of mine to play is when I teach about personality disorders. I print out cards, half with the name of a disorder, half with the clinical description. Students have to get up and work together to find their match. But everyone wants to finish first, too! It’s a fun way to get students to learn the content.
4. Flexible Structure
Finally, the class included a flexible structure that was outlined at the beginning of the class (see point 2) so that students knew what to expect and could adapt the training to their fitness level. Having a general structure that allows learners to anticipate an expected cadence affording more time focused on the task rather than trying to figure out what it is that they’re supposed to be doing.
It also allows learners of different abilities to all participate together and all improve. By using the training mode on the bike, each student could indicate their fitness level and work through the five intensity zones in a way that was aligned with their abilities. Aiming to hit the “blue zone” may mean something different to each rider, yet we all were operating under the same structure to help us push our limits.
In my own courses, I find that a regular cadence of class discussions can really hit the mark here. All students participate and are engaged in the conversation, while the structure affords students opportunities for them to both learn and push their own intellectual limits through idea generation. Identifying a course design that allows improvement of students of all abilities is certainly a challenge, but one that can be experimented with and iterated upon through creative pedagogy.
Good teaching can be found everywhere. What experiences have inspired you lately?
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