While not being a fan of playing team sports like football, I’ve always enjoyed running: the chill of the morning air against the skin, the rhythm of trainer-clad feet hitting the pavement, the smell of autumnal, fresh air and the chance to be alone with my thoughts, peacefully for a few kilometres. These days, I don’t run with music and I don’t track my steps or distance.
When I started doing longer distances – I’ve run a few 10Ks – the advice I got from more experienced runners was all to do with pace. Not running too fast at the outset, maintaining a steady pace and rhythm throughout. Having run 9.5km of the Cardiff 10K at a steady, respectable pace, I was twice able to speed up to a decent pace for the last five hundred metres. Unlike the hare, I didn’t win the race and I wasn’t trying too.
The meaning of the word ‘pace’ can be traced back through French to Latin and brings us the meanings of ‘a step’ and ‘the rate of motion’ with the sense of the space travelled by a foot (etymonline). When we pace a room, we do so ‘at a steady rate’ (etymonline). We often use the verb to refer to an action you perform while thinking deeply or perhaps with some sort of anguish: ‘A whole hour passed while he was pacing up and down, waiting for the decision about his future’. Pace, then, is about a steady movement though time.
Clocks all tick at the same rate (the differences observed according to Einsteinian relativity being too insignificant here!), but how we perceive that rate is a personal experience. We’ve all experienced the sensation of time passing differently according to our perception. A recent episode of the Netflix Original Explained explores the phenomenon. One of the experts interviewed talked about her research into how time passed differently for people during the UK covid lockdown: 80% of her respondents said that they had perceived time passing differently, with some saying it passed more quickly and others reported that they perceived time passing more slowly.
Pace is important when we teach: too slow, the lesson might perceived as boring; too fast, students might become lost or confused, and not have time to complete the activities and tasks we set. Getting pace right can be an energising factor for a lesson, getting it wrong can lead to wandering attention. The art of the practitioner is picking up on the signals, reading the room, and adapting the lesson plan accordingly. This gets easier with experience over time, but also while gaining experience with specific groups of students as we become familiar with them in particular.
Pace can be too fast, too slow or about right. But another aspect of pace is one that the pandemic has exacerbated or highlighted: erratic changes of pace. One moment teaching normally, the next moment teaching online. Technical issues certainly brought about unexpected problems with pace as students toggled microphones on-and-off, quick fire questioning was no longer always so quick. Breakout rooms have been fantastic for facilitating small group work online, but sending students off and bringing them back entails a pause that does not exist in the physical classroom.
When I run I don’t always set my pace well and sometimes, like on this evening’s run, I can get to the final hill and just not have the energy left. Likewise, we don’t always get the pace right in lessons and we have to make adjustments as we go, giving more time for something or trimming excess from a lesson if we judge that that’s the right thing to do. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over my decade in the classroom: the importance of being prepared to be flexible and not feeling like it’s essential to follow a plan exactly.