People in Blogland generally know me as a multi-childrened mother and senior administrator of some kind of international organization. I have been quite vague about where I work because of the connection with the US government and security issues. I will continue to be vague about that out of necessity. However, there was a time a while back when I spent ten years in international educational consulting, traveling from country to country, helping minister of education after minister of education to improve child and adult experiences and learning success in that country's classrooms. In ten years, I worked in 24 countries, where I learned much about learning but not as much as I learned in raising seven exceptional children. (I kept waiting for the typical, average child to appear in my life, imagining how "easy" and "fun" that would be -- although at some level I knew that no child, no matter how "typical" and "average" is truly easy and at the same time, regardless of health, talent, or lack thereof, they are all fun, well, most of the time.) So, I may have learned as much about learning from my seven children as I did from the seventy times seven children in seven times three plus three countries.
At one point, in the mid-1990s, I wrote a book about teaching and learning any subject at any level in any location by any kind of learner that has now been translated into a few different languages and is in use in many of the countries where I consulted and in others where I did not. That book ended in an epilogue, couched in the form of a folktale, that put everything I had learned into one short story. I am departing from my usual type of post to bring this to you a decade later because I think (hope) that you will find it not only interesting but perhaps helpful with your own children.
A Tale of Two Lords
In a far-away land in a far-away time there lived two lords, each with his own fiefdom, His Excellency Dejan and His Excellency Mejan. Now Dejan and Mejan each hoped to wed the king's daughter and ensure security and riches for his own fiefdom. The price of the bride was to make a present to the king of the best honor guard in the whole kingdom, as determined by the most successful completion of an unknown task to be assigned to all contending honor guards.
In preparation, Lord Dejan and Lord Mejan each gathered together ninety-nine of the best soldiers in their fiefdom for training as an honor guard. They determined that members of the honor guard needed three skills: marching, firing, and collecting intelligence. So, each selected thirty-three soldiers with strong legs, thirty-three with strong eyes, and thirty-three with strong ears.
Lord Dejan put his chief administrator in charge of the training for the soldiers in his fiefdom. The chief administrator agreed immediately; he had a number of ability and achievement tests that his staff had been developing that he would be able to use in the service of his lordship.
The chief administrator first tested all the men nominated for the honor guard on ability and found two-thirds of them lacking in marching skills, two-thirds lacking in firing skills, and two-thirds lacking in listening skills. He immediately found three remedial instructors, one for each subject area. Soldiers with strong legs spent most of the next six months in remedial firing and remedial listening classes. They sat for most of the day, and their legs grew weak. Soldiers with strong eyes spent all day in remedial marching and listening classes. They marched to the point of fatigue, and their eyes clouded over. Soldiers with strong ears were sent to remedial marching and remedial firing classes. The noise of the weapons dulled their hearing. After six months great progress had been made. All of the soldiers tested "average" in all skill areas on achievement tests.
The chief administrator knew that "average" would not be good enough for Lord Dejan, so he implemented a motivation program, associated with periodic progress testing. For testing, he used multiple choice test items, based on a componential analysis of each of the three skills, as well as hypothetical tasks. When soldiers assigned to a particular instructor exceeded their previous percentile scores by more than 10%, the instructor received a bonus. Soon, the instructors were familiar enough with the test items that they could begin direct instruction of the soldiers in the specifics of those items and how best to handle the test questions. The instructors initiated an incentive program for the soldiers: the higher the test score, the more privileges a soldier would receive. The scores of the soldiers began to rise dramatically, and the chief administrator was immensely pleased. When the scores reached nearly 100% for all soldiers, the instructors received a big bonus, and they were immensely pleased. The instructors handsomely rewarded the soldiers with lavish benefits for their high scores, and the soldiers were immensely pleased.
Nearly a year had passed, and the time for the competition for the king's daughter neared. Lord Dejan, assured by his chief administrator that objective test results proved that these were the very best soldiers in the entire kingdom, proudly presented his honor guard to the king for the competition. As the king prepared to reveal the unknown task to the honor guard, the soldiers looked at each other nervously, wondering if the task would match any that had been on their tests and what would happen if they failed to be the best honor guard in all the kingdom.
Now, during this same time, Lord Mejan also established a training program for his soldiers. First, he approached a retired, old general, who had been known for his exemplary service and multiple soldiering skills, tested and honed in some very fine battles. He asked this old general to oversee the training program for the new soldiers. The general, at first, declined, "Sire, I am too old. I no longer walk well, let alone march. I no longer see well. I no longer hear well. How can I train your soldiers to be good marchers, good marksmen, and good intelligence collectors?"
Lord Mejan would not listen to the general's demurring. He replied, "You do not have to march or to walk or to see or to hear. I have thirty-three soldiers with the strongest legs in the kingdom; they will carry you. I have thirty-three soldiers with the best eyes in the kingdom; they will see for you. And I have thirty-three soldiers with the best ears in the kingdom; they will listen for you. You have been the best of all my soldiers. You have accomplished remarkable feats. You can share your ways of soldiering with these new soldiers. They, not you, must now do the marching, the firing, and the intelligence collection; they need you to support them in doing this the best way that they can.
And so, the old general agreed to teach the new soldiers. He knew that they would all need to be able to do all three skills well, so he organized them into groups of three. In each group there was a soldier with strong legs, a soldier with strong eyes, and a soldier with strong ears. When the soldier with strong eyes could not march well, the soldier with strong legs guided him into a marching rhythm. When the soldier with strong ears could not fire well, the soldier with strong eyes helped him aim his weapon for better marksmanship. When the soldier with strong legs could not collect data well, the soldier with strong ears showed him how to use his legs to get just close enough and positioned well to hear better.
To help the new soldiers, the old general selected the best marcher, the best marksman, and the best intelligence collector in the fiefdom and gave them roles as counselors. When individual soldiers determined that they needed extra help or simply wanted assistance, they could come to these counselors to practice under their mentorship, to receive individualized instruction, or to have questions answered. The counselors' roles were to serve as mentors and role models, as well as to be foster the growth of skills and confidence in each soldier by observing how each soldier went about soldiering, making him aware of what he still needed to know (and why he needed to know it), showing him the best strategies for improving his soldiering skills, and encouraging him to take risks and to experiment with his own training program.
When all the soldiers had improved their weaker skills, the general tasked them to complete meaningful missions. Often, these missions involved going to far parts of the fiefdom where information on subjects' living conditions could be brought back to Lord Mejan. The soldiers had to march there, use marksmanship skills to forage for food, and listen well to bring back accurate intelligence to his lordship. Sometimes, when they had done this, Lord Mejan would send a detail of soldiers back to those same subjects to bring to them the supplies and assistance they needed. The soldiers felt good about this—they were helping their countrymen, and their countrymen loved them. Their confidence grew, and they became better marchers, marksmen, and intelligence collectors.
The old general sometimes went with them, and they did carry him. Sometimes he stayed behind and allowed them to fend for themselves, debriefing them and making suggestions when they reported back to him. Sometimes he gave them detailed instructions in advance. Other times he simply provided general information and let them determine what they needed to do. What he gave them and asked of them depended upon what he knew they could do and where they still needed support. With time, he removed more and more of the support. With time, they stopped relying upon him and began relying upon themselves and their developing skills.
The old general did not check the soldiers' knowledge through standardized exams; instead, his observations served as informal "tests." He would have examined the soldiers objectively, had Lord Mejan required it, but then he would have used the test results only to supplement his observations. He watched the soldiers complete their missions. He listened to their descriptions. He evaluated their successes. He analyzed their failures. Where he found the soldiers lacking, he provided individual or group instruction or practice, as need dictated.
In a year, when the time for the competitions for the king's daughter neared, he approached Lord Mejan. "Are my soldiers the best in the kingdom?" asked Lord Mejan.
The old general answered his lordship, "Sire, "best" is a relative word. Those with strong legs are still the better marchers, those with strong eyes the better marksmen, and those with strong ears the better intelligence collectors, but all the soldiers possess strategies for accomplishing all these tasks both independently and as one unit. Sire, these soldiers are capable today, and they will not disappoint you. But more important, they have the knowledge and skills to become better tomorrow and even better the day after that. Your soldiers have competed not against peers but against their own potential. They have cooperated in helping each other become better. They have the thinking skills to handle both the known and the unknown and enough self-confidence to take any risk. They are ready for this competition."
Lord Mejan marched with his soldiers to the castle and presented his honor guard to the king. Standing at their head, carried there by the soldiers with the strong legs, was the old general. As the king prepared to reveal the unknown task to the honor guard, the soldiers looked at each other in anticipation, wondering what exciting challenge might lie in store for them today.
Now, which honor guard do you think won the competition?
Note: Also posted on Mahlou Musings. Excerpted from book on teaching, copyright 1997.