Strong Goals & Flexible Means: What Would Dick Fosbury Do?

People in my professional circles  have most likely heard me reference the book “Teaching Every Student In the Digital Age.”  The book is about the Universal Design for Learning, an educational framework that was developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology.

I might not have mentioned the book  by name in discussions about content strategy or IT, but I’ve likely referred  certainly referred to its teachings. Specifically, people have likely   heard me reference the lesson to be learned  from a long-retired  track and field star.

I don’t recommend the book to everybody. It is a good book, but I know its contents are not relevant to everybody. I also recognize that most people are up their nostrils in a backlog of unread books, so it’s unlikely that it will read.

However, I do point most people to a specific chapter in the book because I think it is relevant to just about everybody: “Using UDL To Set Clear Goals” The key take-away in the chapter: avoid merging your goals with specific methods. This point is illustrated with the example of the “Fosbury Flop.

As the chapter states, the goal is not to jump high with a specific jumping method.  The goal is to jump high. In order to achieve the goal, the jumper will chose the most-appropriate method.

Since  watching the 1972 Summer Olympics as a kid,  I have been a track and field fan.   The mere mention of “Dick Fosbury” guaranteed a heightened level of engagement from me. For those of you that are also fans of the sport, and for of you that are not, I recommend investing a couple of minutes viewing this video regarding Fosbury’s revolutionary high jump technique.

1968 was a good year for jumping. At  Olympics in Mexico City,  Bob Beamon, of the United States won the long jump with a preternatural leap of 29 ft. 2 1/2 in. (8.9 meters). In a sport where mere fractions of an inch separate the winner from the runners up, he broke the existing world record  by nearly two feet. His jump was so far beyond  what was considered attainable at the time, the jump exceeded the capacity of the electronic measuring tape.

Beamon was one of the favorites to win the event. He won it, by a lot. It is one of the most famous moments in sports, but it was moment.

US teammate, Dick Fosbury turned the high jump world upside down, by turning himself upside down.  Unlike Beamon, he  was not expected to win the event, but he did. His then-experimental technique is now the standard approach to the high jump. Fosbury started a revolution.

In the video above, Fosbury describes his focus on the goal (to jump as high as possible), and how his technique evolved to allow him to reach his maximum jumping height. His key to his success:  his goal was firm and his method was flexible (that and a  lifetime of practice).

When you start  coupling your goals with methods (software platforms…)  you are going to put artificial constraints that will make achieving your goals more difficult. Furthermore, you are going to fuel dissension among potential collaborative partners.

Your (teaching, marketing, user-adoption…) goals should be rigid, but not so much that they can’t be revised when appropriate. The means to achieve these goals should be flexible and should, as much as possible, allow for your  learners (or customers, or your corporate intranet’s users), the autonomy to choose how they achieve these goals.

I’ve written before, on extending the principles of UDL into contexts outside of the classroom. My opinion (be it ever-so humble) is that similar strategy should be incorporated into all forms of communication. A fair question to ask when developing your content strategy, is, “What would Dick Fosbury do?”


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