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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Doing the Right Things

A teacher's job is not to monitor students, but to engage them.

August 22, 2014

The Dubuque Community School District in Iowa is going to start collecting a new chunk of data, their students’ heart rates during gym class. Students will wear monitors around their chests, and their heart rates will be, “projected onto a screen or wall in class while they're exercising.”

As reported by the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Health and Wellness teacher, Jackie Hart Weeber of Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School, is excited, "I no longer have to grade students just by looking at them. Now I know if they are really working."

I no longer have to grade students just by looking at them.


There is nothing less newsworthy than a press availability with a college football coach.

When I hear these extended interviews with University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier and Clemson coach, Dabo Swinney, it is a near certainty that when they’re asked how things are looking, they will respond something like, Well, we’re doing the right things in practice, and you just hope that translates to the game.

Professional hockey also makes a practice of “doing the right things” almost to the point of it being an institutional mantra.

A Google search of NHL + “doing the right  things” returns over four million hits.

Montreal Canadian Max Pacioretty: "When I worry about doing the right things each shift, that's when I have success.”

Former Pittsburgh Penguin (now Nashville Predator) James Neal: “We did the right things leading up to this game to get this win. We've got to keep going, keep doing the right things and stay on the right track."

Chicago Blackhawks captain, Jonathan Toews: “I think all our hard work is paying off. We're finding ways, we're doing the right things to score goals, and we're confident when we get those chances that they're going to go in somehow."


The rise of “data science” seems to be pushing us toward privileging product, the things that can be measured. If we can’t devise a metric, it must not be worth considering.

Except in sports, “doing the right things” is not measurable. There is no “right things” metric. When coaches or players talk about doing the right things, they’re speaking of hustle, teamwork, crispness.

In baseball, it’s running out your weak grounder to second on the off chance the ball is bobbled. In football, it’s a receiver finishing a route, even when he’s not the number one option on the play. In hockey it often refers to something called "puck support" where players work to put themselves in position for what's going to happen next, based on their teammate's action.

In some cases, it might not even be clear what the “right things” are, except that a coach will know them when he or she seems them. Teams and players pass the eye test.

The privileging of doing the right things is a recognition that when it comes to achieving  genuine, lasting success, process matters more than product. Doing the right things is a collaborative process, a combination of self-accountability and coaching. Athletes must value the potential success that doing the right things may bring, and coaches must help those athletes develop these attitudes.

I do not teach physical education, but I’d think that there’s lots of things that matter more than a student’s heart rate, for example, exercise form. And isn’t part of any physical education teacher’s job to inspire students to embrace exercise and healthy behaviors in ways that fit with the students own interests and abilities? Why is fitness being reduced to how much they're "working?" What happens to students when we get rid of that heart rate scoreboard, which seems to be at least partially, if not primarily, a shame-based motivation system? I imagine some, maybe many of them will feel relief that they no longer have to exercise because they aren't being monitored and judged.

Motivation is for sure one of my roles in teaching writing, to help my students see value in the work, so that when I am not there to offer judgment, they are capable of doing good work on their own. This requires as much close contact as possible, in my case, the assigning of and responding to multiple drafts of each assignment. In this way, I can see why the ultimate outcome may be unsatisfactory. I can show students where they aren’t doing the right things. I can also see where right things are being done that aren't yet showing up in the end product, and encourage students to stick with what they're doing.

I am stuck on this quote: I no longer have to grade students just by looking at them.

Why are we introducing technology that incentivizes a separation between teacher and student[1]?

Why are we settling for monitoring when we should be engaging?


No doubt, someone is monitoring everything on Twitter.


[1] Taken to the next iteration, the software must be capable of capturing this data for later perusal, so not only does the teacher not have to look at the students while they are exercising, they need not be present at all, and can instead examine the data after the fact, perhaps sending spreadsheets home to parents. Spreadsheets with charts.



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