The Round Pen

Yesterday morning I exchanged replies with a parent who was concerned that my assignment translated into a form of punishment.  The assignment required the students to correct a wrong answer by rewriting it 10 times.  In the next week or so I will ask the questions again to repeat the assessment.  Is this appropriate, and is it classical – which is really the same question?

Some may ask,

  1. did the students fully understand what they were asked to do on the original assessment?
  2. why use repetition, and why 10 times?

How many times will a good writer review and edit a document before submission?  How many times will a good speaker work over and re-read a speech before delivering it?  How many times will a musician play a song before a performance?  How many times will a ball player work through batting practice?

An intimate knowledge of something and a mastered skill never come in single servings.  Repetition labors towards the potential moments of discovery.  It draws the eyes and ears to detail, and allows the mind to rest upon the securities of form, constancy, and being.  Repetition does not constrict the possible; it forms the ground out of which the possible may break.  Chesterton referred once to God saying to the sun, “Do it again!” at the dawn of each new day.

The danger in any classroom and with any subject amounts to “priming the pump.”  Dumping the information in that you expect the students to pour back out.

I try to teach and work from the round pen.  The round pen is the initial and primary training ground for every fundamental skill a horse will ever use.  If the horse demonstrates he is not yet ready, it is back to the round pen.

In a similar way, if students demonstrate they are not yet ready to exercise fundamental concepts we have previously worked on, then we stop and go back to the round pen, and review.  It is senseless to attempt moving forward.

I am increasingly dissatisfied with the common, practically routine classroom practice of delivering a lesson, test, score, and move on regardless of how well the student grasped the material.  I think the main reason for this type of teaching boils down to time and number.  What can a teacher do with this many students in this amount of time?  Breaking this debilitating cycle will cause frustration for the students and work for the teacher.

For the teacher, it will simply require more work because not every student will move at the same pace.  For students, it will force them to paddle upstream.  It will demand them to slow down, to focus on one thing long enough to discover its beauty and not dispense of it because it does not immediately gratify the senses.  This will be difficult in a culture dictated by sound bites.

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Marking Readiness

In her newest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch outlines the primary causes behind today’s deterioration of our schools, and prescribes four vital courses to generate education reform.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), according to Ravitch, largely contributed to the problems plaguing today’s schools.  The vine that sprouted from this federally mandated reform was accountability.  Students must acquire a certain level of knowledge, and teachers must be held responsible for getting their students to that place.  The rat race had begun.

The fruit from this vine spoiled on at least three accounts.  When the primary objective is to produce immediate results, what more efficient model exists in our culture than the modern management networks applied in the business world?  Ravitch notes that business model management may work well in the corporate world, but education is not a business.

As school districts from NYC to San Diego adopted business models of management, teachers and principles went into survival mode in order to secure their jobs.  The single mark of concern rested with student test scores.  NCLB instituted the use of standardized testing in order to measure student progress.  The quickest and surest way for educators to succeed was to teach toward the test.  The test became king and determined the educational success or failure of our schools.

The problem with testing is that it has chipped away at the heart of education and produced illusory knowledge.  However, Ravitch does not entirely oppose the use of testing.  She devotes a small amount of time briefly tracing the short history of testing (roughly a hundred years) and the benefits it can yield when appropriately administered and evaluated.

Yet, the form into which testing has evolved seeks to measure knowledge according to prescribed standards.  Were these prescribed standards those carved by nature they would be appropriate for the human child and unalterable.  But they are not.  They are standards that continually flex to the ungrounded values espoused by temporal notions of progress.

For what end do we covet such notions of knowledge?  Readiness?  Readiness for what?  Is it possibly for a pre-scripted part that contributes not to what it is to be a Man or a Woman, but to the progress of an economic ideal upheld and valued in our current culture?

The purpose for testing in today’s educational institutions boils down to producing a readiness for either adulthood or employment.  The two are not the same, nor do they go together.  The one attends to the meaning of our humanity, the other to the product of our labor.

Before I became an educator I used to start colts for a world champion reigning cowhorse trainer.  My job was to take an unbroken colt (2 year old) and get him ready for the next phase of his training.  Sometimes that could take six months, three months, or sometimes one month.  It all depended on the horse.

At some point during a colt’s training (education) my boss would ask me, “Is the filly ready?”  He never asked me if she passed the test.  There was no test. Yet there were various indicators that marked her readiness.

Before she could work on a real cow she had to be able to turn, stop, backup, know her leads and how to change leads, relax her neck, lower her head, position her shoulders, ribs, and hips, pivot on her inside rear foot, tuck, spin, and leap – among other things.

Some horses were always better than others with these things, but none of these things were exercises foreign to the nature of a horse.  Any horse could learn to do these things because they were things that a horse does naturally.

As a trainer I was teaching the horse when to do them and how to perfect them, or rather to execute them with greater precision and finesse.

As the trainer I was the only one who knew where the horse was in his training and what he needed to learn.  When I was asked if a horse was ready, I was asked with a very clear and defined image of what a “finished” horse looked like.  That was the goal I worked towards in every horse I trained (hundreds of them in my career).

The question of readiness was not the same as that of passing a test.  In fact, there were days when a horse would perform well and then the next day act as if he had never learned a thing.  Others could go through all the exercises physically, but were still not ready mentally.

We always trained a horse with a view to developing him both mentally and physically, and only the one working with the horse every day knew “where” he was in his training.

A horse’s readiness was not the measurable result of a day’s set of tested exercises.  Their readiness was a state of presence that emerged from days, months, and years of training.  The mark of readiness was set upon the backdrop of a horse’s entire training and not upon the result of a single test.

Do we misread our students by looking to their test scores rather than to their education as the mark of their readiness?  Perhaps what we should be doing is asking a student’s teacher, “Are they ready?”

Hamlet:             the readiness is all.