Sir Ken Robinson posed this question at the TED conference back in 2006, and it’s been bothering me ever since. As a teacher, I have a natural inclination to be defensive when people attack the education system. Of course, Robinson makes his living criticising education systems, and people always seem to be receptive to criticisms of institutions. There is always a need for healthy reflection of any institutional practices, including education. But something struck me just the other day that provided the occasion for this post. In his talk, Robinson tells the story of a very successful dancer who, when she was in the school system, could not seem to focus and was thought to have had a learning disability. The parents were given the advice to put her in a school of dance, and there, miracle of miracles, she thrived and went on to an illustrious career in ballet. But here’s the thing: my five year-old daughter didn’t want to go to her dance class the other night, and I said, “but you love to dance!” she replied, “but daddy, they make me do their steps.” I immediately remembered Robinson’s talk, and thought, “A-Ha! so, dance schools aren’t that different!” Hence the occasion for this post. Do schools kill creativity? Yes. There are rules to learn and direct instruction even in the performing arts, never mind in the hard sciences.
There should always be room for healthy skepticism, exploration and discovery even in the hard sciences. And we try to allow for that skepticism and questioning, of course, but with four classes of 30 students, getting across the ‘knowledge’ part of the discipline is hard enough, and sometimes allowing for skepticism and questioning gets pushed aside for the sake of efficiency. Parents want to know how their child is doing, principals demand that teachers have frequent assessments, ergo assessments are necessary. The easiest thing to assess is a student’s grasp of the ‘knowledge’ of the discipline. Over time, the system has allowed for a bit more creativity, exploration, and discovery learning. It remains, however, that even in ballet, students need to learn the rules first.
So, being a high school teacher, I couldn’t help but notice that there has been an enormous push in the past few years in the direction of using more digital technologies in the classroom. The occasion for this particular post has to do with YouTube – there are two conflicting hypotheses about the significance of digital technologies in education from two people that I follow for their fantastic educational YouTube channels: CGP GREY and Veritasium. Both of these educators realize the power of educational video (at least, I’d like to assume that their not just in it for the money). While CGP GREY thinks that it will revolutionize education, however, Veritasium thinks that it’s just another step in the evolution of education. Only time will tell who is right. I tend to side with Veritasium on this one, if only out of nostalgia… and possibly self-preservation (as of the writing of this post, I have about 20 years left until I can think about retiring).
Anyone who says that technology isn’t useful in education need only look as far as the printing press to realize his error. Time will tell if the digital revolution will have as profound an impact; so far, the real-world revolutions have been pretty profound. Instantaneous communications technologies have already both brought down governments and allowed for the surveillance of law-abiding citizens. We’ll see what happens to classroom education.
People (and I include students in this category) sometimes ask me why I don’t write; it seems to them that I love reading and talking about literature so much that I must also want to write, or that I would probably be good at it. I just read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and I am reminded why I don’t – it’s the intimidation of all of the great writers I’ve read over the years. Some will say that this is not a good reason not to do something. If anything, those great writers should be an inspiration. Well, perhaps. But to me, right now, I just can’t bring myself even to try to come up with something of my own. The Book Thief takes the cake for me right now in a way that Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace did about 5 years ago. There’s a lot of good writing out there, but not a lot of great writing. John Green’s The Fault in our Stars is good, and it moved me to tears, but it’s not great writing. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five? Great. One of the best books I’ve ever read about great writing is How Fiction Works, by James Wood. It’s a fantastic explanation of one of the most subtle techniques of fiction writers, and he names the best of the best. It’s probably the most intimidating book I know of both because of the aforementioned naming of the best of the best, and because it’s the best book of criticism I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading (he uses exclamation marks, and it’s not only okay but it works and I like it!) and therefore makes me not want to even attempt criticism of my own.
Okay, so maybe some day. It’s just that every so often these great books keep popping up…
And so it goes.
Why a post about horses on my English teaching blog? Well, I guess because that’s how I started teaching. It’s a long story, and I’m going to spoil the ending right now by telling you that I wasn’t very successful at it, but I learned more about teaching in those 8 years than any professional development that I’ve ever had. In many areas of my life, I often wish I had it to do over again so that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes, but not with my horses. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t want it go any differently than it did. I made more mistakes than I care to admit, but the lessons I learned were powerful.
Some of the things I learned about training horses:
– Work in a round pen. You don’t want to get a horse in a corner.
– Trying for too much because you’ve had some success just gets you bucked off.
– You need to have a picture in your mind of what you want to do.
– If you want the horse to trust you, you have to earn it.
– Put the relationship with your horse first.
– Ultimately, you’re not working on the horse, you’re working on yourself.
These lessons were all learned the hard way, so they stuck. I had some success with training horses, but I was a much slower learner than any of the horses I tried to train. The failures were humbling. Teaching people is much, much easier.