By Ryan Tibbens
"I look around this room and see a lot of soggy, drowning horses..."
We all know that "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink," and we've probably all heard a teacher use this phrase on multiple occasions. I myself have repeated it -- more sincerely early in my teaching career, more ironically later. It is true, but in the context of education, good teachers and students overcome more obstacles than simply leading and drinking. And, as we shall see, there are a discouraging number of scenarios that will lead to an exhausted, resigned handler or to horses that are drowned, dehydrated, or soggy and confused.
Sit back, relax, reflect upon your school experiences, and think about education. I have a handler-horse-water/teacher-student-content analogy I like, so I'm sticking with it. Pardon me if I'm beating a dead horse. (All puns are intended.)
First, let's address the proverb: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." When education professionals use this phrase in earnest, they imply that a teacher's only job is to find and display knowledge and skills, that the student's only job is to learn what/when/where/how they're told. That might have worked in the schools our grandparents attended (probably not), but the modern world isn't so simple. More than any previous generation, our students know that a variety of "watering holes" exist and that the quality and taste of the content will vary; they know that their teachers' preferences for certain sources and types of learning are as much the result of personal bias as research-supported fact. In school divisions with less teacher autonomy, students still harbor these doubts, and they are often further alienated by teachers who are ambivalent toward the prescribed methods and topics. If the handler doesn't believe in the water, most horses are slower to drink. Plus, these horses are also inundated with the sounds and images of other water (sources), imitation water (misinformation), and soft drinks (through screens and earbuds). Modern teachers must do more than lead to water.
Next, let's examine the ideal scenario: We have an expert horse handler and a well-trained, thoroughbred horse. The handler has years of experience, the best training, and access to the best tracks, facilities, and hydration equipment. The horse loves to run and, as a result, loves to drink. The handler teaches new horses where, when, and how to receive high quality water early on, and because these horses love to run and drink, the rest of the handler's job is simply a matter of scheduling how much water to provide, when, and of what quality. This is ideal -- the best teachers have the best tools while working with the best, most self-motivated students. This far too rare.
What about the thirsty horse? When a horse already knows how to find and assess the quality of water, handlers matter less. When the horse understands water's value and how to find it, then the handler could be terrible or great; the horse will still drink. This is why so many mediocre teachers enjoy above average results in wealthy, educated communities -- students are learning independent of classroom instruction. Those of us who teach in wealthy and educated communities must continually question our results -- how much have we contributed? When the students have the means and desire, teacher effectiveness measures become murky. A thirsty horse can save a handler.
But what about the horse that won't drink? I often remind my classes that "Every student has the right to fail, but I don't recommend you exercise the right." The reality is that some horses aren't thirsty (or are thirsty but resist the handler); this is when we need skilled handlers most. If a teacher simply writes off a student because he doesn't want to learn, that teacher is failure. If your job is sales, you won't make much money if you take "no" too readily, if you don't try to change the buyer's mind. So it is in teaching -- we need to change the students' minds. We need to show, not just tell, the value of the water. Make education desirable.
What could we do? Unfortunately, these are often the most popular paths forward. We can add more and more water in hopes that the horse will eventually be forced to drink, but this is just a good way to collect soggy and drowned horses. We can switch the horse to soda and sugary drinks -- focus less on what the students are learning and just be glad that some kind of easier learning is occurring (it probably isn't). We can flavor the water -- add in a little something extra to make the content more palatable but less concentrated. We can move to 100% projects and inquiry -- try to convince reluctant horses that finding good water and drinking it are life skills (true) and that slogging through months of inquiry and deadlines is better than the current mix (unlikely). We can threaten to call parents, assign detentions, or ruin college admissions -- bullying and scaring are not functional methods nor are they employed by skilled handlers. We can trick horses by hydrating intravenously -- when students don't realize they're learning, they can't fight back; but if they don't know they're learning, then metacognition is unlikely, and the learning will be shallow and short-lived. We can develop a wide variety of novel approaches, but most of them are built upon fads or disrespect the student as someone not capable of making informed, purposeful decisions about his education.
What should we do? First, a skilled handler knows that most horses need to develop a thirst, so they work out before water or food. Make the students 'thirsty'; make learning seem both desirable and necessary. Build curiosity and context. This can be done through thoughtful lesson-framing, attention-grabbing hooks and openers, or introductory assignments that force students to consider their own thirsts before instruction begins. Run the horses before you show them water. Second, teachers need to remember that most students need to learn how to learn as much as they need to learn the content. We need to model the drinking, show the horses how to find, assess, and imbibe the water. Showing a water source is useless if the horse doesn't know how to drink.
FIND THE BEST WATER. WORK THE HORSES; MAKE THEM THIRSTY WHILE LEADING THEM. TEACH THEM HOW TO DRINK. If the horses still won't drink, then we need a veterinarian, not a handler.
because no one else should do it for you.