Last weekend we took Pip and Polly to the local horse track. While in most places this would represent a moment of questionable parental judgment, in Lexington, KY it is a common and popular thing to do. The racing and breeding of horses is a significant industry in central Kentucky. The areas outside the city limits, particularly to the north and east, are filled with the rolling treeless fields of green grass encircled by double-layered white or black wooden fences that are the signature landscape of a horse farm. The lodestone for all of these farms and the local industry more broadly is the racing and auction facility at Keeneland. Going to the races at Keeneland is a bit like going to a golf tournament at Augusta National. It is immaculately kept and intentionally old-fashioned. The grandstands are made of painted black steel that is framed with grey limestone – the bedrock of the area. The grounds are all trimmed with dark green hedges and lots of flowers. The track officials, mostly older men, all wear kelly green sports jackets and slightly rumpled pants that make them look like friendly uncles. The facades of the betting windows are made of stained wood and contain directions handpainted in a script from the 1940s. It is a place that attempts to transport you to another world, and it largely succeeds.
One of the programs that Keeneland runs during its fall and spring race meets is a Saturday morning breakfast where people can come and watch the horses train while scarfing down scrambled eggs, sausage, and biscuits with gravy. While the food is decent, the real draw of the program is being out there early in the morning and watching the horses run as the rising sun begins to burn away the pre-dawn mists. It’s thrilling to stand at the rail as a pair of jet black thoroughbreds come sprinting down the track toward you. You can hear their hooves clomping in the dirt and their breathing pulsing louder and louder as they get closer. Then they fly past so quickly, your eyes have a tough time keeping up. Fortunately, you will get another chance as a second pair and then a third and a fourth will following in short order.
That thrill of standing at the rail is as powerful for kids as it is for adults. As such, we, along with a couple hundred other families, dragged our kids out of bed before sunrise this past Saturday morning to go have breakfast with the horses. Once we got there, Pip and Polly dutifully ate their eggs and biscuits and then reveled in trolling around the collection area by the rail, alternately watching the horses and watching the other kids watching the horses. After a while, we decided to take a walk through the stables to see what else was happening, and during that walk Pip gave me another of his ongoing lessons about teaching, learning, and the education of a child.
Every week Pip, Polly, and I designate a letter and number to work on during the week. Last week these were ‘L’ and ’10.’ Some weeks when we have some extra time we also add a shape or a color to the agenda. Last week was one of those weeks so on Wednesday morning out came the shape-sorter box and its 12 accompanying blocks. Pip fished around in the box for about a minute and then came up with a parallelogram in hand. We traced the block on a piece of paper while talking about the two main properties of a parallelogram: 1) it has four sides and 2) the opposite side pairs must be parallel to one another. I showed him that in addition to the common parallelogram that he pulled out of the box, squares, rectangles, and diamonds also fit this definition. Then I pulled a trapezoid out of the box and asked him if this shape was a parallelogram. He hesitantly said no. Then I asked why it wasn’t. I did this as a little test, both to see if he really understood what I had been telling him and to see if he could take an additional mental step by looking at the trapezoid and pulling out the significant difference between it and a parallelogram.
His response was to turn his metallic blue eyes towards me with a wide, helpless stare that I have learned means “I am no longer interested in taking part in this game. Just tell me the answer so we both can move on.” But I wasn’t ready to accept this. He had not even made a guess yet, and I really wanted him to give it a try. So, I let him play for a few minutes then came back at him with the trapezoid. He again gave me that pleading, blue-eyed stare before getting up to play with something else. When I tried to come at him a third time, Pip finally refused to sit still at all and I had to concede that he was not going to even try to answer the question.
It was a moment of classic parental overreach on my part. Correctly answering this kind of question would mean that he understood the concept and that his mind is agile enough to think around this kind of idea when it comes at him from another angle. It would also, most importantly in retrospect, validate my own efforts to teach him something. In this, his success would be my success, his failure would be my failure. Somewhere I vaguely I heard the Sirens singing.
Fortunately, by the time we went to breakfast on Saturday, this trapezoid episode had slipped from my mind. As we made our way away from the collection area and walked along the gravel drive between the track and the stables we passed a Ford F150 with an unusual horse trailer attached to it. The trailer was white and had a large half door at its midpoint. Over the top of the door we could see a series of pulleys and arms and straps hanging down from the underside of the roof. Along the side of the trailer were printed the words “Equine Ambulance.” When Ava read this out loud, it immediately caught Pip’s attention. He is an avid observer of emergency vehicles and has developed a keen ear for the subtle variations in the sirens of the fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars that regularly go down one of the busy roads near our apartment. An ambulance for horses was something Pip had not considered before, and he spent a minute or two looking this one over. Then he turned to me and said, “Daddy, why doesn’t this ambulance have any flashing lights?”
It was one of those simple, perceptive questions that require a series of verbal gymnastics to answer in a way that is satisfactory to both parent and child. The full answer is that an equine ambulance doesn’t have lights or sirens because if a racehorse is so badly injured that it would need to be rushed to a hospital, it is usually put down – i.e. killed - right there at the track. But how do you explain to a four-year old that horses aren’t cared for in the same way as humans? We opted not to and instead decided that this ambulance was for getting a horse off the track and that a second ambulance – one with lights and sirens – would be used to take a horse to the necessary medical facility. Pip seemed satisfied with that.
It wasn’t until several minutes later as we were strolling past a big chestnut horse being hosed down by a groom that I realized what Pip had done with the equine ambulance: he looked it over, compared it to what he already knew, and began asking questions to determine what meaning could be found in the similarities and differences. It was exactly what I had wanted him to do earlier in the week with the trapezoid. Now at one level I know that he does this kind of mental work all the time. But with the trapezoid failure still relatively fresh in my head, Pip’s evaluation of the equine ambulance was a welcome reminder of what he is capable of. Once I recognized this, I immediately brought up the equine ambulance again in order to compliment Pip on asking such a good question and to talk through the thought process indicated by the question. Hopefully, by making him aware of what he did, it will make it easier for him to harness that process again in the future.
Pip’s assessment of the equine ambulance also reminded me that I had gone about the whole trapezoid question the wrong way. While I have written in a previous post about the ability of parents to act as opportunistic teachers, I still possess an inclination to approach teaching as a direct linear process whereby the initiation of an educational moment is my responsibility (and also my privilege). This is largely a question of power and control. By reserving for myself the power to initiate an educational moment, I maintain control over the process and can feed the illusion that my contribution to my children’s learning is greater than it really is. The opportunist model turns this structure on its head. It is driven by the explorations of the kids. They show interest in something, then I figure out how to talk about it. With this, teaching becomes much more of a post facto and ad hoc activity, one in which I try to contextualize for Pip or Polly what they saw or did instead of instructing them beforehand on what they should see or learn from a particular experience.
The main benefit of this model of education is that I can capitalize on something which has already piqued their interest instead of trying to generate enthusiasm in them for something which I think is important or interesting. The main challenge of this model is relinquishing control over the immediate direction of learning and the vague feeling of power that goes with that control. It also means that I constantly have to scramble to keep up with them - though I am finding that with practice I can often find a way to make most things about some preferred set of ideas or concepts. It just requires being prepared with a range of ideas and finding which one fits best with the current object of interest.
This model is not fool proof or necessarily more productive than the teacher directed model. But, as a parent interested in taking part in my children’s education, it does mean fewer battles over trapezoids. Ultimately, I also hope it means more interesting conversations with my kids as we stumble together through the forest of possibilities that is the world in which we live. I just need to get better at staying out of the way.