Thursday, October 29, 2009

Don't back a lion into a corner!

In my last post, I explained how lion tamers use chairs to "bounce a lion" and coaxing reactions that will challenge them to move around in different directions in the arena.  I used this process as a metaphor for how good teachers can coax their students to accept challenges in solving problems and learning new skills.  Today, I'd like to apply the metaphor of the lion tamer's chair in a different way, by applying it to classroom behavior and discipline.

Before I jump into things, I want to clarify what I mean when I use the term "classroom."  I mean any learning environment in which teachers interact with students.  That could be in a traditional classroom, or in a lab, or on a field trip, or in an online environment, or . . . well . . . anywhere you can imagine.

As I've stated, the lion tamer's chair is merely a tool that helps coax a lion to move in a particular direction under the direction of the trainer.  Its use requires knowledge of the natural behavior of lions and skill in using that knowledge to manage the behavior of the lions to achieve desired outcomes.  Likewise, knowing something about human behavior allows teachers to develop skills in managing the behavior of people in the  classroom environment.

Applying the chair metaphor, we as teachers can develop skills in stepping through boundaries in ways that promote good classroom discipline and thus enhance the learning environment.  Recall from my previous post that the lion tamer's chair is used to enter the "personal space" of a lion to different degrees, each of which elicits different reactions.  Enter the outer boundary and the lion backs away.  Move past the inner boundary and the cat gets irritated and moves toward us . . . menacingly.

As you can imagine, different lions have different boundaries.  Some lions let you get fairly close before they back away, whereas others back away before you can get close to them.  Lion tamers learn this by interacting cautiously with each lion until they know the boundaries well.  Teachers can also take time to learn the boundaries of their students.  Different students have different personalities and experiences that mold their boundaries, just as lions do.  If we learn some of these boundaries we can more efficiently learn how to apply that knowledge to managing classroom discipline.

For example, some students are very sensitive to the "push" of a teacher who appropriately challenges a class.  When a student who feels threatened, we have crossed a boundary with them.  They may lash out at us, even if only in subtle ways, just as a lion does when it is "bounced."  If we push harder, then it's likely that we will cross another boundary and the situation will escalate into something very negative . . . and perhaps even dangerous.  But if we step back just a bit . . . just outside that boundary we crossed . . . the student will feel less threatened and can be approached again from a different angle.

Lion tamers often puzzle over how best to approach a particular lion.  Some lions can be quite enigmatic in their boundaries and reactions.  But nearly always, sometimes after some failed experiments and consultation with other trainers, a good lion tamer can figure out a way to work with any lion.

Disruptive lions can be dangerous in the arena, just as disruptive students can.  Not only physically dangerous, but also a threat to the learning process for everyone in the classroom.  But if we take the time and effort to learn the boundaries of our students, and their reactions to our crossing those boundaries, then we can tailor our behavior to avoid conflict and instead challenge students in positive ways.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A whip and a chair

A classic image of a lion tamer includes a whip and a chair.  That style of lion taming was popularized in the early 20th century by American trainer Clyde Beatty and others.  It is called the "fighting style" because the audience is led to believe that the lions are fresh from the jungle, ready to attack, and the lion tamer must therefore constantly fight back at the ferocious beasts.

Of course, this is largely illusion.  I say "of course" but many folks still do think that these old lion tamers really were fighting, beating, and subjugating the animals.  The illusion was too well done, I guess!  Although some of the cats were "fresh from the jungle" in those days, they were definitely not itching for fight.  The behavior was induced in the lions for dramatic purposes.  Although lions really are dangerous, and a lion tamer does indeed take certain risks by being in there with these big predators, it's largely "for show."

Lions, like people, do not like chairs waved in their faces.  A trainer who approaches a lion with the legs of a chair extended outward will eventually invade the "personal space" of a lion.

Why a chair?  It's an easily obtained and carried object that is a good substitute for one's arms.  Better a lion take a swipe at a chair than at your arms!  A broken chair is easily replaced, eh?

When the lion tamer's chair first enters a lion's personal space, the lion will back away.  A savvy trainer uses this knowledge to artfully back the lion into whatever position is needed . . . up onto a pedestal, or whatever.

However, if the lion tamer makes a sudden move deeper into the lion's personal space, then the lion will defend its space and start to "fight" back.  Really, it's a more of a bluff than a full-out attack.  It's something lions do with each other all the time.  If you've been around house cats that live together you see this behavior frequently  . . . but with somewhat less noise and drama than when lions do it.  It's all about getting that darn chair out of the way.

A lion tamer can use this blustery, irritated reaction to get the lion to move toward the tamer.  A skillful trainer can use this interaction . . . which lion tamers call "bouncing" a cat . . . to get the lion to climb onto a nearby ball or cylinder.  With enough practice, the lion learns to bluster a bit and quickly move onto the ball and begin rolling it forward.  Now we have drama and acrobatic skill being demonstrated.

I think this aspect of lion taming is a good metaphor for teaching on several levels.

For example, just as lion tamers use their knowledge of lion behavior to induce certain reactions and eventually train complex behaviors, good teachers know what kinds of challenges will induce a "fight" in their students.  Not a literal fight, or even a blustery confrontation, but the kind of "push back" that allows the student to rise to a challenge.

Let me clarify with an example.  Just moments ago, my colleague Jennifer O'Malley told of today's lesson in which her biology students were expected to make some mathematical calculations about genetic probabilities.  Because she knows that nonscience majors often get scared by mathematical problems, she chose to "bounce" them through the exercise.  She broke the calculations down into steps and then for each step challenged them with, "can you add? sure you can! come on, get through it!"  The first "hoop" was jumped through.  Then, "can you multiply?  sure you can!  let's go!" and they jumped through the second hoop.

And so she continued with playful challenges as the students easily performed a mathematical calculation that they otherwise might have balked at  . . . and perhaps even have stubbornly refused to attempt.  But that chair in the face can be an effective stimulus to move forward anyway.

How many of us have challenged individual students or whole classes in this way?  Or perhaps by continually "getting in their face" to move forward and accomplish a goal that you have set for them?

Of course, as in the lion taming metaphor, a classroom teacher needs a certain degree of skill and savvy to do this effectively . . . and to avoid overstepping dangerous boundaries.  Happily, such skills are easy to acquire with practice. And when the teacher is willing to experiment and self-analyze the results of the experimentation.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Welcome to the Lion Tamers Guide to Teaching!


All I really need to know about teaching I learned as a lion tamer.


Apologies to Robert Fulghum


After working as a zookeeper and wild animal trainer for five years at the St. Louis Zoo while I was working on my undergraduate biology degree, I decided to try my hand at taming lions.

Why I did that, I'll tell you about later.

But I did it. And it was an amazing experience, as you might imagine.

And it was nothing like most people think!

I'll tell you more about that later, too.

After almost a year as an apprentice lion tamer, I decided to leave that profession and enter another profession that I am also passionate about . . . teaching.

For many years, I continued to work with wild animals part-time and during some summers. Even today, I have a strong interest in wild animal training and consider myself a serious student of the art and science of "lion taming."

I'm also a serious student of the art and science of teaching. As a student-practitioner of teaching, I've come to understand that a lot of the principles of good teaching and good lion-taming are very similar, if not the same.

Part of being a good student is taking good notes. So I thought I'd start this blog so I can "take notes" on what I've discovered.

Mainly it's to help me learn and think about and integrate what I'm learning as I continue in my life as a lion-tamer-turned-teacher. But I hope that some of what I share may get you thinking differently about your own teaching . . . and maybe even help you solve some problems now or in the future.

And I also hope this blog will be a forum for other teachers to share what they've learned, too!