lessons from a horse whisperer

On NPR today, I listened to a story about a horse whisperer. He described the way he began as a horse trainer. He used two-by-fours in order to “break the will” of the horse. Often, the success seemed immediate, but a few horses would refuse to conform. One ran away. Another nearly killed him. Still, he would dish out the punishments and offer carrots and apples as rewards. “It was the tradition back then. We figured that a horse who wouldn’t make it, just wasn’t cut out for it.” Then he met a horse whisperer and learned a new approach.

The new approach seems so counterintuitive. Though he is a six-foot tall, powerful man, he uses a gentle, reassuring voice (though it does seem to have some bass to it). His approach begins with allowing the horse the option to leave and slowly gaining the horse’s trust. Although there are moments when he establishes power, he does not seem to treat power as a commodity to use, but as a result of the respect.

I started thinking about the staff retreat I attended. We spent a few hours working on a new discipline plan and teachers argued the minutia of punishments and rewards. Some believed in a step-system, while others advocated a one-size-fits-all consequence for each infraction. I felt like a scientist in behavior management – like I was engaged in a dialogue about social engineering. Skinner would be proud of our ziplock, air-tight system of reinforcements.

I began to wonder why a horse was so different than an adolescent. I wonder how many kids have run away, feeling like they have been blasted by a two-by-four while we blame the kid for refusing to conform to the system. Perhaps we should think about what it means to win a student’s trust, to give a student a sense of control and autonomy and to empower students to make better decisions rather than offering an apple or a carrot or a pizza party and gold stickers.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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