Recognizing the "Try" - Learning's Fragile Flame

Learning is a journey into new places and this may involve steep paths, forked roads and dark hallways.  During this process, recognizing when someone is trying is pivotal to building an engaging relationship. The teaching process provides us with a torch, one that guides us through the dark unawareness. Discovery is enlightenment, but we must be sure the teaching process does not blow out the candle along the way.

Training horses has given me a fantastic insight into my teaching methods. As a teacher or trainer, you could really boil all training and relationship-building down to one concept: Rewarding the right behavior and offering guidance for all other behaviors. Some have called this timing, but it extends to more than that. It is observing when the individual is actually trying to figure out what you are asking. It is knowing when they are interested in you and when they bored and have shut down. 

Timing is a part of this, but you must also have the recognition and emotional awareness that someone is trying for you; this builds the relationship. In learning, the right answer usually does not present itself immediately and we often have to figure things out. This is a vulnerable and fragile moment in the relationship between teacher and student, one in which giving-up, ignoring, or getting out of the situation can be an outcome for the student. 

Vertigo is my 7-year-old Holsteiner and I can safely say we certainly get into our share of moments. He is a playful, fun-loving horse who invents games at every given moment. In the pasture, he will check out every horse, asking for a playmate. Some horses will not be into his games, and with a flick of the tail and flash of the teeth, they will swiftly and firmly let him know. Mares often tell him to get lost. But then, he will find his buddy - a like-minded gelding who is either young or young-at-heart. They will proceed with a mouth-game, a sort of "thumb-war," gently biting each other's lips, whiskers, or cheeks. Once, I saw Vertigo's pal gently biting an entire hunk of his cheek and holding it for several seconds, as if to say, "Ha! I win." 

When I ride Vertigo, sometimes I forget that "all-work" leads to a dull outcome. Vertigo will quickly remind me when he is not having fun because he will simply resist what I am trying to accomplish. He won't turn the direction I am asking, he will pull against me, he won't trot or walk when I ask, he starts to look and react to other things (birds, leaves, trees, tractors) outside of the arena. 

I used to get very angry and I would start to label Vertigo: Attention-deficit, unobservant, poor concentration, unmotivated, bad problem-solver. Some of these observations were true, he did not give me his attention or concentration, he was not motivated to participate in my exercise, he stopped trying to figure out what I was asking. These were not due to any fault within Vertigo, they were a reflection of the relationship we had. I was missing my chance at captivating his attention. He was not unobservant; I was. 

You see, he was trying, he was paying attention, he was interested in my exercise, and he was trying to figure out what I was asking; I just missed recognizing this. I was blind to all the moments in which he did try, I failed to recognize this within him and since I did not see it; his response became, "Forget you! I am going to invent something else that is way more fun." This new game was called "Ignore the Rider." 

I can relate to Vertigo, I think most of us can. At some point in our education, I think we can find a time when we really tried and did not get that recognition, but instead got a discouraging consequence. I remember when I was in grade-school and our teacher wanted everyone in the class to improve their hand-writing. She gave us a week and stated that she would like to see marked improvement in our hand-written assignments. At the end of the week, she would announce the names of the students who had made those improvements. 

Now, this teacher had known favorites in the class, and I was not one of them. As a student, it always took me awhile to understand concepts especially in math, science, and social studies. I did not instantly "get" things, and it took me a while to figure things out. Looking back, I can see how students who were good at memorization were rewarded with good grades. I was actually trying to understand things and it did not occur to me to just to memorize facts. My learning style was not favored and I often got C's and (if lucky) B's. I had to work my heart-out for an A and often I just did not have enough time to understand principles before I was tested on them. 

Back to cursive. That week, I really thought this was my chance to shine - I never got positively recognized for anything. So, I tried everyday to improve my letters, I re-wrote entire assignments, striving for clean lines, clear eraser marks, uniform letters. The day came when she announced the names of those students whose handwriting had officially improved. She read the list, "Kacie, Jessie, Leslie, Brandon, and Keith." The list was her usual favorites and my name was not there - not even a mumble. "Brandon!" I thought, "He writes in all-caps. How can his writing even count? And, Jessie dots her i's with circles! Who does that?" At that point, I was sure that 5th grade was rigged and, I stopped trying. I thought, "Ok C's, I welcome you." 

The teacher did not know what to do with students like me, ones who asked questions and struggled to understand her response. She rewarded students who could regurgitate facts. I probably told the teacher "I don't get this" about 20 x a day. When someone tells you, "I don't get this" it may mean there is a hole in the logic you presented. Good teachers should rely on a student's questioning to validate their stream of logic. When someone does not get something; it does not mean they are stupid, not listening, not trying, or unable to understand. It means they do not follow the logic in the concept. In contrary, it means they are actually thinking, actively listening, trying very hard to understand, and they may have found a place where the information has a hiccup. 

True teachers love questions, they love explaining the information, exploring different possibilities, and thinking outside the box. Great discoveries are made when we ask "Why, how, what about…" Simply expecting students to blindly memorize and never question is not teaching, it is force-fed fact cramming. Gurus are people who want you to take their information and never question it, accept if for fact and blindly go with the flow (mainly because they are creating a cult-following.) If you question gurus, you are outcast, unaccepted, and labeled as such.

When my teacher did not call my name, I saw how she failed to recognize how hard I tried. I knew I was not one of her chosen students, and I began to dislike learning from her. Luckily, I had healthy things to captivate my attention, namely, horseback riding. I did not fall out of love with learning, in fact, I kept seeking information. 

The irony is that when I am training Vertigo, like my teacher, I have ignored this horse's ability to try. He checked-out with me and got to a point where he was fine with mediocre because he could not see the point of our exercises. He started to tolerate our time together, waiting until he could be dismissed and go back to playing with his fun friends - inventing games and sometimes figuring out how to open gates. 

Amazing and beautiful things happen when you start to notice, when you look closer, when you open your eyes and awaken. First, this actually takes getting your brain out of the way and start listening. I started with a simple exercise for Vertigo: move back when I press my fingers on your chest. At first I pressed hard and he wiggled around. I pressed harder and as soon as he stepped back I released my pressure. "Good boy!" I petted him. I repeated the exercise, pressed a little less hard into his chest with my fingertips and he stepped back again! "Great job!!" I petted him. A third and forth time occurred, by this time, with the pressure of what seemed like the weight of a dime, Vertigo responded to my cue. "Fantastic!!" I threw my arms around his neck. Vertigo stood there, licking and chewing with his mouth, ears and eyes forward - he was fully listening to me. With undivided attention, he was impressed with this interaction. We had communicated, he concentrated and fully listened. He was engaged and thinking, and best of all, we had fun!

Vertigo and I have a great time. He is blossoming and enjoying himself. Whenever we get into a snag and I start to feel his attention slipping, I change it up. I remember my name not being called and I stop to find where I lost him. Our search for perfection is never over, but the journey is amazing.  

Those early issues with school, the things which made me an unfavored student, now are qualities that I value. I have degrees in Chemistry and Biology and I use my questions as a litmus test for teachers. I listen closely and ask when the logic breaks down. I watch how the teacher lights up or dismisses questions. I am confident enough now to stand up to teachers and debate. It took me 20 years to do this. Now, I am a doctor and a scientist and I often have to solve riddles, mysteries, and understand complex organ systems, biochemistry, and pathology. I can't rely on memory for that, I need problem-solving capabilities. Oh, and as a doctor, I also don't need great handwriting.