You can lead cattle to water but you can't make them think

A lesson in animal behaviour helped Bob Blaisdell improve classroom comforts and student learning

November 13, 2008

I was a new professor but not new to teaching, and a few weeks into my first or second semester a senior professor in the department visited my class for an official observation. During the hour he made himself rather conspicuous, it seemed to me.

When I have to observe a colleague's class, I try to arrive early enough to find a seat in the back. I don't pretend I'm not there, but I try to stay quiet and out of the way. If the professor wants to remind the students I'm there (I usually did this when I was observed: "And look, here we have a visitor, Professor Pevetz, to evaluate how I'm doing, so let's pretend to be participating, guys"), that's fine. I'll nod, smile hello, and continue to take notes.

But my observer back then, never a wallflower (I would learn), sighed, fidgeted, shook his head and groaned. He corrected one of my students - and thereby, it seemed, me - about an answer offered during discussion.

Not only that, while I had a few students read aloud from a short story that we were discussing, he wrote fiercely, digging into his notepad with his pen. When the hour was up, my observer waited for the students to file out.

As soon as they had, he raised his eyebrows at me, made a mocking smile (perhaps he was mocking my nervous smile) and walked across the room to the strip of windows. I liked this classroom, but there was only one column of windows, about 3ft wide and the height of the room. I will also say, before I describe my observer's next action, that when I teach, which I almost always enjoy doing and which lifts my spirits, I also heat up a few degrees.

My observer went to the window, raised it, and said: "Blaisdell!" Whew! I needed some air, it was true.

"Well?" He closed the window, looked over his shoulder at me and then raised it again.

"Well?" I shrugged and guessed, "the window?"

He shot his forefinger at me (he refrained from saying "Bingo!") and then, nodding, said that as I was apparently a professor, I was in charge of the classroom atmosphere and that included regulating the temperature of the air.

I knew I was better off not explaining how hot I usually felt teaching, how being observed made me nervous or how my students would have felt perfectly at home opening the window themselves or asking me to do so.

I told him I would keep the windows open next time. He said, maybe out of embarrassment that he had blown his top, that while it might not seem like a big deal, it was. More importantly, however, he said, as we walked back towards the English department, was the fact that I had let incompetent readers read. I needed to have given them a lead and interacted with them more, he suggested. The only thing that happened when incompetent readers read aloud was to annoy the other students. I squawked a little at that, but I didn't argue.

I never forgave him for being angry at me for my neglecting to open the window until now, having written about it.

And I don't think I could have forgiven him if it were not for Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, who shows over and over again in Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, how she, in her work as a slaughterhouse designer, continually imagines what the cattle are thinking and feeling.

"I've seen this in several different places," she writes. "Animals don't have a problem with an electric fan that's turned on the way autistic children do. A lot of autistic children are riveted by the motion of the blades, or by just about anything that's spinning fast. I don't know why this happens, but I think they may be seeing the flicker of the fan blades even at very high speeds.

"I've met a number of dyslexic people who can see the flicker, so I assume many autistic people see it, too. Dyslexics who can see the blade flicker say it's horribly distracting and fatiguing.

"The motion is part of the attraction, too ... with fans, what drives an animal crazy is when the fan is turned off, but the blades are rotating slowly in the breeze. You have to put up big pieces of plywood or metal so the animals can't see the fan. Otherwise, forget it. They're going to balk. I went to one ranch where they had a windmill that was messing up the animals. On windy days the animals wouldn't move."

Is it that her thinking about her job makes me think of mine, teaching English? That she, with her own autism, understands distractions? That she naturally and unapologetically relates her own experience to that of animals? Certainly her mentioning dyslexia reminds me of my work.

I have dyslexic students for whom reading is a difficult and uncomfortable activity, and I have many more students who balk at reading simply because reading is difficult and they're not used to it. Grandin can't help paying attention to those details that we non-autistics so reflexively ignore.

Her lack of affectations and pretensions charms me, and her hypersensitivity revives me as she describes how she tries to see the details the cows see, how she tries to understand their reluctance, for instance, to move "up the chute" (to their death, true, but they don't know that). Where those in the slaughter industry for years defaulted to force (cattle prods, for one), Grandin shows instead how paying attention to distractions allowed her to remove the distractions.

So now, in the manner of Temple Grandin, I offer my comfort checklist for university classrooms:

- Windows - be grateful that you have them.

When I was first teaching in New York, some of the classrooms in our downtown Manhattan campus had no windows. I don't know about you, but I have to have a window. I need the light of day or the dark of night to help me imagine escape. I need to know I'm not locked in a box. My students and I find it pleasant to see that it's raining, snowing or getting dark. When we're stuck for topics, we can talk about the weather. Oh, yes, and if it's too warm we open the windows, and if it's too cold we close them.

- Are you glad the students are there?
Tell them so. (At least show them so.)

When the students come into the classroom or you come in after them, greet them. If you're late, apologise and make it up to them by pulling out all the stops.

But what if they're late? I was a graduate student in my first year of teaching freshman English when a senior professor came to observe my class. Professor Donald was a romantic, very conscious of deliberate effects, someone who emoted when he read poetry or literary prose.

He certainly believed, as my later observer did, that teachers should model reading for their students. He was a nice man. But when we met in his office to discuss my teaching, he recalled how during class, when a burly student walked in, I looked over and said: "Hey, Charlie!"

I wasn't following Donald's point and replied: "Yeah?"

"What does that tell your other students?"

I knew the correct answer wasn't that I was glad to see that Charlie had finally made it to class, so I sat and waited for him to tell me.

He put on an expression of genial idiocy: "'I don't care what time you get here. Whenever you like, just drop in. I'll like you and you'll like me.'"

"Oh."

"You fix that Charlie with a glare," Donald said, demonstrating by curling his lip and staring me down as if I had insulted his mother and he was going to have to stab me.

"That's what you do. You make him feel that he never wants to show up late again. You show the other students, who respected you and the class, who showed up on time, that you won't tolerate Charlie's kind of foolishness."

"OK."

But I never got the hang of that one.

I tell the students not to call attention to themselves when they show up late. I tell them to keep quiet, that if they need to ask questions to catch up, they have to wait until after class. I tell them my cleverest students will act as if they've been there the whole time. They'll look attentive, interested and start contributing to the discussion and I'll forget they were late.

Fixing the latecomers with a mild glance of impatience, my begging expression pleads: "At the very least, Charlie, be quiet, all right?"

- Are the students there because they want to be?

Well, you need to tell them why you're there, and you really need to find out why they think they're there. My developmental students, in particular, often feel bent out of shape - judged, condemned, written off.

Some of them resent having been assigned to the class, and it can take weeks for them to accept that they're here on the basis of two failed entrance exams.

They weren't warned, they say, on that day when they came to enrol officially in the college, that these exams were for "high stakes" (this class costs them eight credits of coursework), and if they had known, they say, they would have performed better. I sympathise, but not too much, because most of us don't read or write better when we're under the gun.

If you're confident (and have a good basis for that confidence), I tell them, then you're more likely pass the exams. So, come on, I exhort them, let's work on our confidence. After another grumble or two, we get back to our chores.

Prove to your condemners, I tell them, that you don't belong in the developmental class. Sulking and quitting because of the misplacement is a strong indicator of incompatibility with college life, anyway. So, I say, show them how wrong they were to misplace you by doing spectacular work now.

I tell them why I'm there; why, for instance, I'm teaching developmental English. As a matter of fact, I like this course because I enjoy witnessing the progress that comes with reading and writing a lot. I don't simply have to have faith in progress. I tell them that most of them, from writing and reading so much, will see progress, too.

Why are they there? Why are you there? Get those answers out in the open.

In other classes, I tell the students why the department or the college wants or requires them to take this class.

If it's an optional class, I remind them that they're there because they chose to be there, that they know that it's a roll of the dice when it comes to taking courses. "You don't always get what you expect or the teacher most suited to you - sorry."

Listen to what they say about why they're there. Figure out why you're there.

- Don't try to force things.

"It's different," Grandin reminds us, "when you don't try to force things. On its own, an animal will always investigate a novel stimulus, even though new things are scary. I learnt that back when I was writing stories and taking photographs for Arizona Farmer Ranchman magazine.

"I noticed that if you left a pile of camera equipment alone in the middle of the field, all the cows would come up to it and investigate. But if you walked towards them carrying the same equipment, they'd take off. Motion was a problem, so if I just stood there holding the equipment the cows would come to me."

I know, I know: we're in a hurry to impart knowledge to our cattle. (We can lead the cattle to water, but we can't make them think.) Can we afford to be patient, observant? Can we take the time to be perceptive about the details that make classrooms so distracting?

"The reason cattle will approach something novel under their own steam is that they're curious. All animals are curious; it's built into their wiring. They have to be, because if they weren't they'd have a lot harder time finding what they need and avoiding what they don't need. Curiosity is the other side of caution. An animal has to have some drive to explore his environment to find food, water, mates and shelter."

We teachers default to force when we renounce our imagination, when we don't heed the details that sensibly distract our students.

"So it makes sense that a cow would voluntarily explore a yellow raincoat hanging on a fence but dig in his heels if you try to force him to walk past one," Grandin explains.

"Since anything new could be dangerous, an animal wants a clear escape route before he's going to poke his nose into something he's never seen before. When he's being forced through a one-way alley, there's no escape. So he refuses to move."

Our students are curious - it's built into their wiring. Maybe all we need to bring to class is the right equipment.

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