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The parable of the mobile phone step counter

May 17, 2016

Once upon a time there was a teacher called Dave. Dave taught English in a college a few miles from his house. When the weather was good, Dave would ride his bike to work. Cycling helped to clear his head and energise him, and there were the obvious benefits to his physical health. Two fast bike rides a day was a proper workout which toned his muscles and helped his stamina. Dave was rarely ill when he was regularly cycling, he slept much better at night and he looked better too. Occasionally Dave would run round his local park at the weekends as well, but as long as he was cycling to work he didn’t feel the need to do this; he did it more out of enjoyment.

One day, Dave got a new app for his mobile phone. It was one of those step counters that lets you know your physical activity. “This is great”, thought Dave “I’ll be able to measure the exercise I do and this will help me to maintain a good state of health.”

The next day, Dave set off to work on his bike with his new phone in his pocket. But when he got to work, he discovered that the number of steps recorded by his phone was disappointing. “Only 2500 steps for a 40-minute bike ride? I’d been hoping for more than that”, he said to himself. Still, he kept his phone in his pocket at all times and monitored his steps closely over the next few weeks. He became obsessed with measuring how many steps he used to go anywhere or do anything, and kept a mental note of which activities clocked up the most steps.

Dave soon found that he used a surprising number of steps in ways he hadn’t expected. Browsing in a shopping mall for a couple of hours could clock up as much as 4000 steps. Teaching a 3-hour lesson could easily add 1500, sometimes more. He even discovered that if he took the bus to work, walking to the bus stop at either end of the trip gave him more steps than if he cycled to work, and that if he walked round the park he would use up more steps than if he ran (smaller steps, you see). As his obsession with counting steps grew, Dave cycled to work less and less often. He enjoyed cycling, and it was definitely good for his health. But the step counter didn’t seem to agree, and he was using the step counter to measure his fitness.

After a while, Dave stopped cycling to work altogether, preferring to take the bus. He also stopped running round the park at weekends and instead he’d either go for a walk or simply wander round the shops, guaranteeing the step counter would clock up a minimum of 10000 steps every day. He missed cycling, but he slowly forgot about how much better it had made him feel, and he was able to tell himself that walking 10000 steps every day must make him feel pretty good too.

One day, Alex, Dave’s boss, called Dave into his office, a worried look on his face. “I want to talk to you about your Intermediate class”, said Alex.

“OK, well they’re doing really well,” answered Dave, “Abdi has made great progress with his writing and Renata is really gaining confidence. The whole group is developing a much better awareness of appropriate language and the contexts we’ve covered are clearly useful for helping…” Alex cut him short. “Your retention rate is only 65% for this class. That’s 15% down on last year and 18% below the national average. What do you think is causing this?”

Dave didn’t really know how to respond to this. The numbers did sound bad, but he wasn’t quite sure what they meant.

“Erm, what’s the retention rate again?” Alex looked at Dave as if he had just asked him what shoes were for.

“The retention rate is the number of students who remain on the course. So, early retention is the number of students who are still on the course after 25% of the course is complete, and late retention is the number…”

“Ah OK, I get it, so you’re telling me that too many students have dropped out of the course?”

“I’m telling you that a surprisingly high number of students have dropped out of your course”, said Dave’s boss, subtly but quite clearly placing some stress on the your.

“But they’re a good class”, Dave insisted, “they enjoy the course, and I know t’s definitely good for their English.”

“Well, the retention rates don’t seem to agree”, replied Alex, “and it’s the retention rates that we’re using to measure performance. Can you explain why the number is so low?”

“Well, we started with 20 on the register, but one never showed up so I can’t say anything about them. Sumayah left last week to have her baby – she’s due tomorrow. Dorota has gone to set up her own catering company, and Imre got a job in a bookshop. Liu’s wife has got a really good new job in a bank, so he gave up the course so he could stay home and look after their kids. Celeste had to go back to France because her Dad is very ill and her Mum can’t look after him, and I’m sorry to say that poor Magda has been diagnosed with cancer so she’s stopped her studies to focus on getting treatment.”

Alex looked slightly irritated. “Look Dave, you’re a good teacher, the students like you and everything. So I just don’t understand why the numbers should look so bad, particularly when they were so much better last year”.

“Well, like I just said…” Dave started, about to repeat all the individual reasons, but he was cut short again. “I just don’t know how we’re going to justify this in our annual course review. I mean, a drop of 15%, and we were already below the national average!” Alex looked genuinely worried. Dave frowned.

“Alex, you’re talking about these students leaving as if it was a bad thing.”

“It is a bad thing, Dave!” exclaimed Alex, “we’ve not had a retention rate as low as this since that agent brought those students over from Nepal.”

“But my students have either left because they found work, which is surely a good thing, or because of health issues or caring responsibilities, and both of those things are more or less inevitable, just part of life.”

Alex looked stonily at Dave. “What do you suggest we do to improve the retention rates for this class?” he asked.

Dave paused, then answered thoughtfully. “Well, we could recruit only young people, as they’re more likely to be in good health, and maybe exclude women so they can’t leave to have babies. People over 30 are also more likely to have responsibilities caring for either their children or their parents, so that’s another reason to exclude them. And if we teach them stuff that is less likely to help them to get a job, it would reduce the risk of them finding work. So yes, if we only recruited young men and then taught them really useless language, our retention rates would be much higher.”

Alex knew Dave was joking, but he didn’t show any anger. In fact, was that a glint in his eye?

Shortly after this conversation with Alex, Dave deleted the step counter app from his phone and stopped trying to measure how much exercise he did. He started cycling to work and running round the park again, and felt so much better for it.

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5 Comments
  1. leigh albone permalink

    a step counter wouldn’t measure anything when you are cycling just like it wont measure anything if you are on a bus or a train

    • Your legs move when you’re cycling, unlike when you are sitting on a bus or a train, so a step counter does register that movement. But the movement it registers is not proportionate to the amount of actual exercise you’re doing. Which is kind of my point.

  2. I ran a school in Japan for many years and one issue we had was retention vs. progress – it looked bad on our balance sheet when students left for a year abroad, but definitely good for their educations. Luckily we were a small institution and no one was evaluating us on numbers alone.

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