This 2013 column addresses the inevitable paradoxes that arise as students advance.
From The Riding Instructor:
As a teacher of both riding and writing, I have often been struck by the similarity of one particular moment in the teaching of both: the one where we tell our students to forget how we’ve been telling them to do things for the last one to eight years and to now do things totally differently.
I was struck by this the other day. We teach the beginners to keep the horse on the rail by using the outside rein, right? Now I (and I’m sure many others) do introduce the concept of using the inside leg to help keep the horse on the rail from the beginning, but it is the exceptional student who has the strength and co-ordination to do this from the word go. So we spend months or years pushing the direct use of the outside rein…and then the kids get better. And then we want the outside rein to be steady and supportive, we introduce the idea of bend…and all of the sudden, that basic principle of isolated outside rein to the rail goes right out the window. It’s the same with the use of the leg. Our wonderful, safe, experienced school horses do not jump forward right off the leg; there is (bless them) a certain amount of kicking required from the novices to convince Old Lightning to move into a trot. But at a certain point, we have to change over to the steady, supportive leg and the squeeze…and there goes kicking, another victim of defenestration.
Writing has much the same problem. Many of our students are taught the five paragraph, intro/thesis, three body paragraphs, conclusion essay form. And it’s a good structure, one that promotes organized thinking. But by the time they are sophomores and juniors, it’s time to walk away from that structure and move on to something more sophisticated.
This moment often leaves the kids with their heads spinning, both as riders and writers. Just this weekend, I was trying to get a student to make this shift. The pony she was riding makes the necessity of changing things up very clear: if you pull on the outside rein with her, she just turns her head and throws her shoulders to the inside and blithely continues to cut the corners. And, while the rider understood the concept of pushing, rather than pulling her over, years of muscle memory was making actually doing it a challenge. It took me getting on and showing the difference for her to make the change.
So here’s what I’ve learned about helping students to understand the transition:
- Explain the connection between what they’ve already learned and the new concept you are trying to teach. Without this clarity, many students’ interpretation is that what they’ve been taught already was wrong. Help them to see that “the old way” was a scaffold to help them get where they are today.
- Use metaphor or comparison to shift their mindset. My very favorite one for teaching writing is comparing the five paragraph essay to scales in music. Like scales, its purpose is to teach the moves to use; but, also like scales, the five paragraph essay isn’t “music”, the creative arrangement of those moves.
- Demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate. Show them models of what you want them to do. Especially if they are once-a-week riders, they don’t always have a vision in their head of the goal, just as writing students who don’t read a lot outside school may not always recognize good writing.
A little bit of planning for this moment can help to reduce a lot of frustration and ensure that students’ forward progress is smooth sailing!