My daughter came home with the results from her Christmas tests yesterday and they were disappointing. Some of the low marks were for subjects that she is normally very good at, so I was a bit surprised, to say the least. My daughter started off by making excuses. The tests had been impossible, lots of her class mates had bad results too, some of the questions concerned lessons she had missed when she had been off sick. I pointed out to her that I felt she wasn’t taking any responsibility herself. Perhaps she could have spent less time on her phone and the computer and made more of an effort to study and made sure she got notes for the classes she had missed. My daughter got upset, and cried that she had made the effort but that it was all stupid and pointless. All that useless stuff that she’s not interested in and is never going to need in real life. “Why do I have to know what the value of x is, why do I have to know the names of all the Prime Ministers we’ve ever had, and learn stupid poems that I hate, what is the point? And no matter how many times I go over it, I can’t remember it!” It was as if I heard an echo of myself in the past.
It is a well-known fact that it is easier to learn something when you’re interested or when the experience is fun. If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll want to come back for more. If learning can be a positive experience, then how come the overall learning experience in school is not fun, but something that my children describe at best as “boring”?
It is true that modern technology means my children have far more distractions than I did when I was in school. But I think part of the problem is that the traditional educational system is still a form of coercion. Students have to adapt to the system, it doesn’t adapt to them. Systems work with the greatest common divider, the school curriculum has to be followed and it doesn’t look at the unique talents of individuals. Students have little choice and there is always pressure in the form of an implied threat of punishment. Coercion can invoke three responses: avoidance, rebellion and compliance. In a school system that means students playing truant, being disruptive or trying to find the least uncomfortable way to function within the system. Some self-motivated students will work hard, but most students simply put in minimal effort. I know I did. My motto was: “Do not do today what you can still put off tomorrow”. That habit of procrastination was hard to break and stayed with me a long time after I left school. I remember that the only times I was motivated to work hard was for the very few individual teachers who managed to make things interesting, like the Classics teacher who brought us Xenophon’s Art of Horsemanship to translate, or the history teacher who sent us into town on a medieval mystery trail.
Back to the horses. Horses respond to coercion exactly the same as humans do: with avoidance (flight), rebellion (fight), or compliance. Most systems of horse training are of course based on coercion, even if it isn’t recognised as such, but with legs, spurs and whips there is always an implied threat. Who hasn’t kicked on a horse at some time? I have. Natural Horsemanship and pressure and release techniques are often perceived as more horse friendly, but four phases of increasing pressure is still coercion.
In my last post I described how walking with Cassie as part of her rehabilitation programme has not been easy. When Cassie didn’t walk actively as she was supposed to, I fell into the trap of using coercion without even realising it. But Cassie did. I thought stopping at the halfway point to give her time to graze would be a reward, but of course I was totally wrong. Cassie enjoyed the grazing, but there was no connection with the exercise before it. I should have responded immediately when it was going well. As far as Cassie was concerned I wasn’t doing anything to motivate her, I used pressure and she was having none of it.
I don’t want Cassie to become a compliant horse, a horse that just puts in minimal effort and is zoned out for most of the time. I want time spent together to be fun for both of us. That means I have to plan ahead and think about what I want to do beforehand, to consider what will motivate Cassie, how I can make things interesting for her and what, apart from food, Cassie will recognise and enjoy as a reward for an exercise well done. I am considering clicker training.
I asked my daughter if any of her teachers tried to make things more interesting. She dismissed them: “As if they care…” I thought that was really sad and I didn’t know what to say to her.