Wit & Wisdom

Game Changers & Tales of Triumph and Woe

The Education Horse Story

CJ Westerberg, July 15, 2013 1:35 AM


NOTE: Check out today's The Trouble with Testing Mania by the NYTimes Editorial Board.  

"Common advice from knowledgeable horse trainers
includes the adage,

"If the horse you're riding dies, get off." 
Seems simple enough yet,
in the education business
we don't always follow that advice
-Seymour Sarason

15 Ways to Ride a Dead Horse
Switching Riders (#3) or Tightening the Cinch (#15)?

by C.J. Westerberg

If a student isn't motivated or connected to the learning  . . .  this 15-step program won't help. It's akin to the saying, "you can lead a horse to water . . . but you can't make him drink."

An excerpt from And What do YOU Mean by Learning? 2005 by Seymour B. Sarason (1919-2010), Professor Emeritus of Yale U's Dept. of Psychology where he taught for 45 years:

Test scores are or can be meaningful.  (I am no mindless critic of them.) Keep in mind that the act of taking a test is not an act of learning, it is a response to items which others deemed important for the students to be able to answer correctly.  By themselves test scores tell you absolutely nothing about the classroom context of learning for students. 
The potential significance of a test score is in the degree to which it directs you to examine students' classroom context of learning.  So, for example, when scores of children in classrooms of a particular school are considered unacceptably low, it leads to waiting, moaning and action.

But far more often than not the remedial action action has been to do more of the same but to do it "better" by putting more pressure on teachers and students, by expecting more from teachers who in turn expect more from students. 

The context of learning remains virtually the same, with the result that test scores
 remain what they were or go up a notch, and it is claimed "we are going in the right direction."  It is like saying that if a child got a score well below the norm last year and this year he or she gets a score three or four points higher, that child has become a better learner.  If his score goes down three or four points, does that mean the student is more dumb, a worse learner than he was before?

H.L Mencken said that for every major problem there is a simple answer that is wrong. Today the answer to our educational ills is elevated standards, higher expectations, and accountability.  Mencken is turning over in his grave.  Given my advanced age (CA84)
it will not be long before I join him.  What I have been saying in these pages I began to say, orally and is print, in 1965.  The Horse Story is relevant here; it was placed several years ago in the mailbox of my late friend and colleague, Dr. Emory Cowen, at Rochester University.

Common advice from knowledgeable horse trainers includes the adage,
"If the horse you're riding dies, get off."  Seems simple enough yet, in the education business we don't always follow that advice.  Instead, we often choose
from an array of alternatives which include:

  1. Buying a stronger whip.
  2. Trying a new bit or bridle.
  3. Switching riders.
  4. Moving the horse to a new location.
  5. Riding the horse for longer periods of time.
  6. Saying things like, "This is the way we've always ridden this horse."
  7. Appointing a committee to study the horse.
  8. Arranging to visit other sites where they ride dead horses efficiently.
  9. Increasing the standards for riding dead horses.
  10. Creating a test for measuring our riding ability.
  11. Comparing how we're riding now with how we did ten or twenty years ago.
  12. Complaining about the state of horses these days.
  13. Coming up with new styles of riding.
  14. Blaming the horse's parents. The problem is often in the breeding.
  15. Tightening the cinch.

For those more interested in Sarason beyond his book, here is a primer, especially his basic tenets. Mahalo for credit back to The Daily Riff and moi. 

Seymour Sarason: Sculptor of Ideas:  An excerpt:

Applying labels to people, especially children, based on pseudo-scientific presumptions about their intelligence, their disabilities, or their academic potential is futile
and unjust.
Since the thirties, with the introduction of IQ tests, and continuing with in-
creasing fervor today, millions of children have had their academic careers misshaped
by being tested and put into categories that often have had little to do with their real
potential as learners. Even the humanizing promise of legislation for the handicapped,
such as P. L. 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, has been un-
dermined by the tendency of schools and school districts to "code" and label students.

Related: Adaptive Testing Gains Momentum, Causes Concerns via Edweek


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It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.
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