Caught in some eternal flexed-arm hang

Next to your comrades in the national fitness program
Caught in some eternal flexed-arm hang
Droppin’ to the mat in a fit of laughter
Showed no patience, tolerance or restraint

The Tragically Hip, “Fireworks”

My memory is (not) muddy

If, like me, you were a kid in Canada in the ’70s or ’80s, you remember the “national fitness program.” To The Hip’s fanbase, this is not some obscure cultural reference. Millions participated. Operated by the Government of Canada, the Canada Fitness Award Program consisted of six events: flexed-arm hang, shuttle run, partial curl-ups, standing long jump, 50 m run, and endurance run. These events were proxies for strength, power, speed, agility, and cardiovascular/aerobic endurance — not to mention “patience, tolerance, or restraint.” The flexed-arm hang test timed how long you could hang still from a pull-up bar with your chin at or above the bar. Some lasted seconds, some over a minute. I excelled in this event despite never being mistaken for having “arm and shoulder girdle strength.” Did this test favour the scrawny?

That’s not 130°.

I remember these signs. Even today, I could draw you a map of my elementary school gym, placing each event in the right spot.

This was a national fitness test. Results were mailed to the government who, in turn, sent awards to schools. Badges — bronze, silver, gold, and excellence — or <shudders> plastic participation pins were distributed to my “comrades” and me.

Fifty-mission caps

I remember getting silver. No muddiness in that memory. I remember being disappointed with bronze. I remember gold, too. But that might have been my brother.

I always suspected that this program was a response to the Summit Series — a close-call that threatened our national identity. It is, after all, the backdrop to “Fireworks”: “If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol’ 72.”

Crisis of faith and crisis is the Kremlin

I completely forgot about Canada’s Sputnik: The 60-year-old Swede.

Anyway Susan

But this is a math ed blog, not a personal journal. What does the Canada Fitness Award Program have to do with teaching and learning? There are some takeaways with respect to my district’s “priority practices”: curriculum design, quality assessment, instructional strategies, and social and emotional learning.

Hung with pictures of our parents’ prime ministers

Today I learned the flexed-arm hang was discontinued and replaced by push-ups. “The revised program was distributed to all schools in March 1980.” Not all, not all, not all! Not my school. When I do the math, the flexed-arm hang should never have been part of my fitness evaluation. Seven-year-old me should have just missed it. But I didn’t. Year after year, I took this test. So why did it persist? The easy answer is that my teacher missed the memo.

It’s not that easy.

Curriculum is weird in that it can mean standards, resources, or “the lived daily experience of young people in classrooms.” Here, I’m going to interpret curriculum as learning resources (aligned with learning standards and impacting students’ learning experiences). Take a moment to look at the textbook below. In what year was it published?

They don’t know how old I am. They found armour in my belly.


The photo on the cover threw me. I estimated earlier — “You could say I became chronologically ‘Fucked-Up’.” I’m confident that someone somewhere in BC is using Journeys today. Right now. Not in a you-can-find-good-problems-in-every-textbook kind of way but as the core math resource in their classroom. Ten years ago, stories of teachers hiding them over the summer break so that their administrators wouldn’t take and replace them with Math Makes Sense or Math Focus were common. Some student, somewhere in BC, has been assigned a (long out of print) textbook that could have been assigned to their parents.

Fake. But it’s possible.

This speaks to the difficultly in implementing change in education (and is not intended to pile on an individual teacher’s choice of instructional materials). It’s never just about new learning standards or resources. Swapping out a laminated flexed-arm hang poster for a push-up one is one thing. Changing PE practices is quite another. (Knowing that adding and subtracting fractions has moved from Math 7 to Math 8 while multiplying and dividing integers has moved from Math 8 to Math 7 is today’s equivalent to swapping station signs. This knowledge is one click away.)

With new curriculum comes new instructional strategies for teachers to learn. These new strategies may butt up against entrenched models of teaching (e.g., flipping the “I Do, We Do, You Do” script). Teaching is a cultural activity. New curriculum may usher in new values and beliefs. Pushback is predictable. A teacher who see mathematics as answer-getting will resist resources aimed at mathematics as sense-making. Lasting change often takes a teacher reframing their own relationship with and understanding of mathematics. Teachers need patience, time, and support to think about new ideas and put them into practice.

This is all nothing but cold calculation

By 1992, the Canada Fitness Award Program was discontinued in part because its focus on performance and awards discouraged those it most intended to motivate (i.e., those lacking physical fitness or those deemed to be overweight). Such a program wouldn’t fly today. Now that we know better, we do better, right?

You can probably guess where I’m going with this…

BC’s Ministry of Education lays out four levels of proficiency in terms of evaluating students’ learning: Emerging, Developing, Proficient, and Extending. Initial, partial, complete, and sophisticated are supposed to be helpful descriptors.

Most teachers comment that this is far too vague. Many of those teachers are creating descriptions of these proficiency levels for both curricular competencies (or their headings) and content. Consider the following example from my colleague, Marc Garneau. For “use strategies to solve problems,” he takes into account differences in the two parts of this standard: use of strategies and types of problems.

These efforts are designed to focus on learning. These teachers want to communicate learning to students and their families in meaningful ways. But they are also tasked with reporting letter grades (or percentages). So they hold their noses and find imperfect work-arounds. Still, it can be a real challenge to convince students that Emerging, Developing, Proficient, and Extending are anything but badges.

For the purpose of illustration only. Not intended as a recommendation.

Note: This topic deserves a deeper dive. See our Numeracy Support During COVID-19 site for a start.

Another (smaller) assessment takeaway…

I remember the Canada Fitness Award Program norms being almost arbitrary. I couldn’t find any flexed-arm hang details but the Royal Canadian Air Cadets adopted the (revised) program. Check out the graphs below for partial curl-ups. What do you notice? What do you wonder?

I notice a lot of ups and downs. At 13, the total number partial curl-ups required for boys to achieve Gold or Excellence is at a minimum; at 15, a maximum. The opposite is true for girls. Probably puberty except these differences don’t always appear at the same ages — or at all — when looking across events. Thirty-seven partial curl-ups would have placed a 12- and 15-year-old girl one shy of the 38 cut-off for silver and excellence, respectively. This difference feels as arbitrary as the difference between 86 (A) and 85 (B).

Play with the graph here. I’m curious what students might notice and wonder. The FitnessGram PACER Test (or “Beep Test”) will be more relevant in their real worlds. How does it compare? (Confession: all this time I thought it was the “Fitness Graham Pacer Test.”)

We get to feel small. But not out of place at all.

My sense is that PE classes have changed a lot since the days of flexed-arm hangs. There seems to be a greater emphasis on personal health and fitness — noble goals of the Canada Fitness Award Program — and less of the sportsball rotation of volleyball, basketball, badminton, rugby, repeat. No more pedagogy of winning-team-stays-on (and losing-team-takes-a-seat). There seems to be more personalized ways to achieve success.

Again, what does this mean for the teaching and learning of mathematics? In terms of a long-held practice with a lasting legacy, the “Mad Minute” is the closest match from math class. Its focus on speed discourages those it most intends to motivate (i.e., those without quick recall of the basic facts). We know that timed tests cause math anxiety. We know that there are more effective — and less destructive! — ways to develop fact fluency. See here, here, here, here, or here.

Each year, I’m invited to present a workshop to a teacher candidate cohort at a local university. And each year, they share their figurative vaccination scars left by math class. For every PE teacher who was awarded a red and black badge, there’s a math teacher who was an “Around the World” champ. “But some kids like it” misses the point and one more “I turned out okay” isn’t going to change my mind. I’ve been down this road before; it’s my eternal flexed-arm hang.

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