Five Ideas for the Future of Higher Ed from a Revolutionary Fitness Movement.

Just as there are many people for whom the gym experience never really worked out, there are an increasing number of students for whom the traditional university experience isn’t working out.  The story of PayanX, an unorthodox fitness movement in Santa Ana, California, offers a number of lessons for how we might shape a more engaging paradigm of human transformation in higher ed. 

Marc Payan, a social science researcher and founder of PayanX, was determined to reinvent himself and shift his identity from “fat dad” to “fit dad.” Gyms and other fitness programs hadn’t worked out for Marc, so in 2011 he shifted tactics and began working out in his garage and inviting friends to join him to provide some camaradarie and accountability.

By the time I began joining Marc in 2013 his tribe had outgrown the garage.  A hundred or more people were gathering three days a week at 5:15am in an alleyway behind a theater in downtown Santa Ana, California for “PayanX” – a free but intense cross-fit-like workout routine of burpees, bear crawls, rolling tires, and team challenges. 

What shocked me initially was that the crowd Marc was drawing wasn’t your typical uber-fit gym crowd.   There were couples in their sixties, overweight teenagers and college students, and a lot of folks like myself who were the kind of career and family-focused, not-so-fit folks who didn’t have a history of success in sticking with a gym membership.  

Without the excuse of the cost of a gym membership, the only thing now holding me back from becoming my best self was my ability to respond to the alarm clock at 4:45am and drag myself out of bed.  “We do hard things” – was the community motto, and Marc emphasized that if you could do hard things that you thought were impossible in the health and fitness area of life, you would be able to transfer those skills to other areas of life – including the hard things you might be facing at work or in your marriage. PayanX was not so much about “working out” as it was about “working it out.”  

Marc’s model of coaching and fitness for life transformation seems to have struck a deep cord. His crew eventually outgrew the alley, outgrew a rooftop parking lot, and has now expanded to a tribe several hundred strong working out in a community college stadium, with offshoots emerging in other US and world cities. 

PayanX took off in Santa Ana – one of the youngest and most economically challenged cities in America. His model suggests that it is possible to have models of human development and learning that are both accessible and resource lean as well as highly engaging and transformational. 

There are five key lessons from PayanX that I believe could be used to reimagine more accessible and more transformative models of higher education:

1.      Transformation happens in the contexts of shared experiences and community.  Marc likes to remind his "tribe of warriors" that “dreams are birthed in relationship with others.” PayanX is successful because it leverages the power of shared experiences.  We humans are wired for deep community.  The 2015 report “How We Gather” from Angie Thurston at Harvard (perhaps subject of a future post) explores the finding that millennials are increasingly skeptical of organizations, but long for deep community, personal transformation, and accountability.  Thurston, in fact, looks at CrossFit communities as an example of a cultural shift to deep community and an organizational structure attuned to the ethos of millennials.  

The higher ed industry is likewise encountering a generation of students who are increasingly skeptical about the value of the traditional, campus-centric university experience, but still yearning for the experience of being part of a “community of learners” – the original idea of the university as outlined in my previous post.  If we in higher ed are going to capture the hearts and imaginations of millennials (and post-millennials), we will need to return community to the center of our higher ed experience and imagine models of university education that can re-capture the kind of deep commitment and passion that is harnessed in a PayanX-like community.

2.      Our physical spaces profoundly impact our pedagogy and will serve to either limit or accelerate our models of transformation and learning.  Although Marc was at various times offered gym spaces for his workouts, in my opinion his model would never have taken off if he had been forced to accommodate to the physical limitations of a traditional gym.  The alley, the rooftop, and the parking lot of the stadium all offered a kind of dynamic, city-engaged canvas on which new models of community and transformation could be imagined.

On the university side, we will never be able to fully step into new pedagogical paradigms until we are able to break the constricting nature of the classroom and course unit model. When, as in the case of the Around-the-World Semester, our faculty are able to break free from the limitations of classroom lecture hall and campus, the door is opened up for a profound reimagining of the teaching and learning experience.  We should be developing models of higher ed that utilize the classroom in significantly different ways, or better yet, restructure the campus and classroom-centric model entirely.  Physical spaces do matter,  and I agree with Marc that “anchor spaces” help shape a community's identity – but for that very reason we need to place close attention to how (to quote Churchill), "we shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us." 

3.      Technology can be a powerful tool to support transformative, engaged learning, but cannot replace the power of in-person, human connection. Marc, as a tech-savvy sociologist, leveraged the tools of technology in some ways I found fascinating.  At nearly every workout Marc or a professional photographer was there filming the experience and interviewing participants,  then editing and posting those stories and experiences on social media. As a low-budget program, PayanX probably couldn’t have evolved into a city-wide fitness movement without the power and reach of the internet for sharing stories on a city-wide (and worldwide) scale. But at the same time, at its heart this project was about pushing back against the social disconnection of technology-obsessed 21st century life and creating a space for deep, authentic, in-person human connection. 

If we are going to imagine a sustainable 21st century-relevant model of higher education we will need to get past the tendency to either a) view technology-centric learning models (e.g. online learning) as the silver bullet solution, or b) view technology as irrelevant to or the enemy of transformational learning, but rather c) chart a way forward that leverages technology in ways that both reduce costs and simultaneously support the transformational potential of high-touch learning communities. 

4.      Students want to be challenged – and transformation happens when they do hard things. Part of what makes PayanX work is that there are no “beginner” versions or “easy” groups – each person is pushed to step into some pain and do something personally hard and challenging, with the support of their team.  There are no spectators, and there is no room for passivity, but this challenge is a big part of what makes PayanX attractive and leads to long term commitment.  

I believe that college students (at least those who are serious about learning) also desire to be challenged [listen to how Edgar talks about his PayanX experience].  And yet – what our campus and classroom-centric models do is we take students that at this period in life when their hormones and physical and mental energy are at their prime, and we force them to passively sit for four years in sterile lecture halls.  Granted, the intellectual challenge we provide along a very narrow scope may be enough to keep some students engaged.  But it should come as no surprise that most students would look to other outlets for excitement outside of the learning experience – including the rush of sports, video games, Greek life, and alcohol-fueled parties.  

But what would it look like if we could transfer that same energy and excitement found outside of the classroom into the learning experience?  What we should be doing as we reimagine higher ed is to develop more experiential and project-based learning models that challenge students - maybe even to the point where they fail or feel some pain! I believe in the power of project or theme-based learning models where students work in teams to solve tough problems.  And I love it when a field-based program like the Around-the-World Semster or an urban spring break forces students to cross challenging cultural barriers or overcome a fear of a new experience.  But until those kind of experiences become the norm and not the exception, we’ll continue to drive our students to look for challenges and excitement outside of the learning experience, and we will lose the opportunity to deeply engage students in a deep process of transformative learning.

5.     If we want to shape more transformative models of higher education, we will need to focus more of our time and resources on training the trainers (our faculty).  Most of Marc’s energy (and personal finances) have gone into training a tribe of leaders, rather than purchasing extensive gym equipment or advertising. His XLeadership Academy took cohorts of leaders through a 90-day experience where as a community they wrestled with the principles behind Marc’s whole person model of human transformation.  Marc describes this as “a wholistic way of living life that includes fitness.”  While he developed theories and  created a curriculum (the X Quad Core), much of this leadership development process was community-based and experiential.  At one point I joined Marc's leaders for an all-night “We Do Hard Things Challenge” on the beach. Marc emphasized that he wasn’t sure what would flow out of this experience, but that he believed something valuable would be birthed out of our commitment and vulnerability as a community of leaders.  

I know from our conversations that it was very tempting at times for Marc to give in to outside pressure to invest in fancy cross-fit toys or even purchase a gym space.  However, I think that Marc's decision to focus his investment on his leadership team was key to the success of PayanX.  There is a big lesson in this for higher ed at a time when we are de-investing in faculty, but increasing our spending on new buildings and other trappings of the prestige game. 

If we are going to push our students into more transformative models of learning, we will need faculty who themselves have experienced and embraced new paradigms of teaching and learning.  Rather than focusing our investments in buildings, we will need to shift to a financial structure where we have less investment in the physical infrastructure, but more investment in re-training our faculty as coaches, curators, and facilitators of transformative engaged learning. 

Final thoughts: My own institution is increasingly drawing students from communities like Santa Ana - students who are often from immigrant families, from challenging economic backgrounds, and who will struggle to succeed in our traditional "hollywood version" of the university in the suburbs with its $45,000 per year tuition and fees.  Many of those students will leave without finishing a degree, but now owning a sizeable debt and wrestling with a sense of failure.  

For those students, offering a somewhat cheaper online degree is no better a solution than if Marc had decided to go with a model of making fitness more accessible by posting his personal workouts online.  Online exercise videos might have worked for a few self-motivated individuals, and Marc might have even found a way to turn that into a sustainable business model, but it would never had the transformational impact that PayanX has had on the people and city of Santa Ana.  

The PayanX model offers me hope that there are ways to engage students in formal learning programs that are both financially accessible and offer deep tranformative learning.  We shouldn't have to force our young people to choose between affordability and highly-engaging, life-transformative learning. 


Paul WaiteComment