When I was a kid, I learned how to walk.
Very few people would be surprised at this statement, but some would be surprised to consider that I learned how to do so all on my own. I certainly did not lack the encouragement of parents, or the irresistible learning environment of treats set in tiny boxes just outside the reach of a crawling baby. However, it was my own willpower and effort that helped me to raise my little chest up off the floor and reach with all my might for the next Cheerio sitting up on the couch cushion. How I probably wished that someone could carry me there instead of having to go through all the work – and how many times did I have to land on my diaper before I actually reached my goal?
Who knows if I had thought of walking before this point. I don’t remember much other than that the couch seemed to be much taller in those days. Fortunately, after a few tries, I enjoyed a couple moments of celebration as I reached my chubby little fingers toward the snack-in-the-box and moved on with life.
Today, the objective of eating a Cheerio stuffed snuggly into a little blue box is much easier for me to reach. I have mastered the art of walking and could perhaps even help others get places if they let me carry them. On the other hand, there are other objectives of mine that still seem to tower inaccessibly over my life. It would be nice if somebody could just pick me up and carry me there. Maybe if they did, they would find a growing sense of usefulness and value from their active role in my achievement.
But then I wonder what would have happened if my teachers had not let me learn how to fall and get back up in order to achieve the Cheerio on my own. What if they had felt a greater sense of satisfaction from watching me enjoy the reward of my effort than from watching me learn how to tumble over less frequently. What if they needed me to ride in their arms in order to feel like they were making some useful contribution to the quality of my life? What if they had moved the Cheerio so I didn’t have to get up off the ground in order to reach it?
Anyone who has observed the field of education for some time might easily recognize the parallels between my story and that of every other student. However, in most cases, the Cheerio looks more like an A and the couch is a mountain of homework, reading, and thought that must be climbed in order to celebrate success. What is it that causes some students to perform better than others in this assignment of learning how to use their academic legs? Why do some babies believe it is possible to reach the Cheerio while others are content to wait for someone to bring it over and start spoon-feeding?
I would suggest that this has more to do with the ego of the teacher than many of us educators are willing to recognize. We have deadlines for when the Cheerio has to go back in the cupboard. Baby only gets five minutes or he will not get to eat the snack. How does it feel when he begins to cry pitifully? What about when day after day he fails to reach the goal and begins to think of snack time as a cruel joke? Furthermore, the context of learning can go a long way to threaten the fragile ego of the teacher. What about when my students fail to reach the Cheerios while the other teacher watches hers munching happily away? Finally, what will the parents think if their poor child is on try number 45 when all the others have finished their snacks and gone home?
In some ways, the learning environment dictates the activities that will take place, but in many others, the educator gets to decide how much beating their ego can take before they pick up the child in their arms and carry him over to the goal. Maybe these kids will only get half a Cheerio (like a B-), but at least they got something, right? A poor administrator might make faulty assumptions about the success of the learning environment on the basis of how many Cheerios get eaten. There is obviously something to be said for this kind of measurement. After all, only the babies that learn how to walk get the Cheerios, right?
A report by The Atlantic came out in 2005 highlighting a Harvard professor who finally took a stand to complain about how many Harvard Cheerios were being eaten by babies that still didn’t know how to walk. The primary cause of this phenomenon was not explicitly stated in the article, but can be summarized in a single word: ego. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/03/the-truth-about-harvard/303726/
The professor in question had grown frustrated with the reputation he had gained on campus by forcing students to perform at a higher level in order to get their Cheerios. The other professors were all carrying their students over to the couch, but this one watched while they fell over again and again, waiting patiently for them to stand up on their own. The babies started looking around at everyone else eating their Cheerios without trying very hard and wanted to switch to a different professor. After all, who wants to go home with a friend who ate 3, when you barely got close to grasping your first one. Baby 1 has more bragging rights. Furthermore, who wants to be the professor whose students only got 100 Cheerios while everyone else is giving away thousands? Nobody is going to sign up for your class anymore. No Cheerios there…!
As a teacher myself, there is no question that watching students achieve their goals and perform well is a highly gratifying experience. It would be so easy to move those Cheerio boxes just a little bit closer, or maybe just offer a little bit of support to those students who need it. Those shaky legs are just waiting to tumble over sometimes. What if they decide not to get up again this time? I want them to reach the goal – sometimes more than they want it! It sometimes takes everything within me not to grab the baby or the snack box and bring them together. I want to see that smile, hear the happy sounds, feel the sense of success! I want the students to go brag about what a cool teacher I am.
However, I sometimes forget that as the teacher, I need to grasp the bigger picture. I need to learn how to see beyond the snack box. It’s not about the Cheerios at all; It’s about learning how to walk!
Granted I am not going to put a Cheerio on the edge of a cliff, nor am I going to avoid using little incentives like that until students also get a sense of the bigger picture and understand the joys of walking instead of crawling around everywhere. After all, my function as a teacher is to create an environment where students can learn how to succeed. It is going to take a lot of falling down and sometimes I will probably feel like a bad teacher. More often than not the Cheerios will go un-eaten, but with time, persistence, and a continual struggle against my ego, I look forward to the day when all my little students learn how to walk on their own and reach for much bigger prizes than they had ever imagined.