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.

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