Exercise and Authenticity

Here is a version of my “learning to walk at 42” story that seems to capture an important lesson for educators.

In my therapy, there were two kinds of activities: exercises and authentic activities. Exercises were just what one expects from the name, actions the therapists directed me to perform to strengthen the neural connections between my brain and the muscles I needed to walk. I repeated them the specified number of repetitions to strengthen the connections I would use at other times, just as calisthenics strengthen the muscles that will be used at other times. Authentic activities are what I called the walking that I did in increasingly challenging settings. An example of the exercises that prepared my body for walking was standing on a pillow (on one foot and with my eyes closed), my therapist had me pay attention to the feelings in my ankles. I could feel the clumsiness of my ankles, as my muscles reacted (and over-reacted, then compensated) to my shifting weight. As I practiced the exercise, the clumsiness decreased; on my first attempt I grabbed the bar in front of me after a very few seconds. Eventually I could stand until my therapist became bored watching. When he later took me to walk on grass, he had me pay attention to my ankles again, and I recognized the same sensation as my ankles reacted to my weight shifting in response to the uneven ground.

My therapist understood walking far greater than I did. He could break the entire process into exercises that isolated the connections that required strengthening in his assessment of my progress.  He also understood the importance of giving me the opportunity to get out and walk in the places and on the surfaces that I would encounter when I left his care. He also saw the importance of talking with me and explaining and demonstrating the connections between what we were doing, how I was perceiving my growth, and telling me what to practice when he was absent. In just under two weeks of therapy the walking tasks in my ZPD had progressed to where I could function quite normally with the extra stability provided by a cane, and with two more weeks f outpatient therapy, my walking was within normal limits (but it was a few more weeks before I felt normal). The two weeks of inpatient therapy became the archetype experience for understanding ZPD and how to ensure it progresses.

My therapy was multifaceted:

  • Exercises that deconstructed the complex strengthened connections (in isolation) that are needed for the;
  • Ample opportunities to test my abilities for the complex activity that was my ultimate goal;
  • A therapist who cared about my progress and was dedicated to understanding my needs and developing a program to meet my needs (while being a very friendly and approachable person who found and shared humor);
  • A goal about which I cared.

Every classrooms is comprised of similar facets: a curriculum that is a combination of exercises and authentic activities that illustrate the relevance of the exercises, a teacher who uses relies on expertise to ensure the curriculum is appropriately implemented for the individual and who has a positive relationship with students, and a motivated student.