How Learners Are Like Cats

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Learners are like cats.

This occurred to me recently when teaching a group of 8th graders about the wonders of the preposition.

Cats are curious, aloof little prima donnas capable of great feats of athleticism and laziness. They have their own internal clocks, their own schedules, and their own reasons for breathing.

They are only selectively aware of anything–can sprint at barely discernible stimuli, or nap right through a thermonuclear explosion.

Truth be told, I’m not a cat person. They only use me for my calf, and then pee on my pillow when I turn my back.

How’s that for gratitude?

But cats are cool because they have this odd way of keeping you close without ever admitting they need you for anything.

They can also, in subtle, minor behaviors, let me in on a creepy little secret: not only are they way more aware than they pretend, but I also worry that they’re smarter than I am.

A lot like students.

These intelligent, stubborn, resilient, naturally curious, self-worshiping little creatures defy understanding.

And so do cats.

The Brutality of Formal Learning 

Formal learning settings are almost always teacher-centered. If learner-centeredness isn’t done well, it is a recipe for disaster in terms of not only classroom management, but how the parents and community perceive the quality of learning that doesn’t pass the eye-test for academia. So if a teacher can’t design a learner-centered system with efficacy and craftsmanship, a well-designed teacher-centered arrangement will likely serve the students better.

In these cases:

Teachers decide what to learn.

Teachers decide how to learn it.

Teachers decided what understanding looks like.

Teachers map out intervention to non-progress.

Teachers design instruction, group activities, assessment patterns, rubrics, how to leverage background knowledge, and so on.

Learners join, and as the learning experts, teachers do.

And learners are leashed, only given as much room to move as absolutely necessary to fit the requirement of the assignment.

While this light-hearted thought isn’t meant to be high-brow thought leadership, the takeaway here for education can be reduced to a single, clarifying analogy:

Have you ever tried to walk a cat on a leash?