There is a fable often told at teachers’ workshops and conferences, especially if the topic is exceptional children. Exceptional is teacher speak for children who are either two deviations above or below the norm on an IQ test, students with learning disabilities or students with emotional or physical disabilities.
The Fable of the Animal School is told below. It is a ridiculous fable for reasons I will explain afterwards. Then I will tell an alternative fable. Enjoy.
The Animal School: A Fable
by George Reavis
Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.
The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.
The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.
The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.
The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.
At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.
The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.
Does this fable have a moral?
The intention of George Reavis was undoubtedly to suggest that teachers should recognise student’s strengths and not push them in their areas of weaknesses beyond what they are capable of doing.
Unfortunately, by comparing animal to animal who have things they can do and things they cannot do at all, Reeves does a disservice to all but the most handicapped of students. It suggests to many people that students should not be pushed at all in their areas of weakness. I disagree with that.
Let me propose an alternate fable.
A Tale of Two Bunny Schools
Flossie and Saucy went to the same Bunny School. Flossie was an amazing runner. She won all the races at her school and sometimes the races against all the district schools. She was weak at finding herbs and grasses and other good things to eat, especially when they were scarce but needed.
Her brother, Saucy, wasn’t much of a runner for a bunny, but he excelled at finding things to eat. In fact, if it was good for a bunny to eat, Saucy would be sure to find it first. Not only that, but Saucy could sniff a poisonous plant out before anyone got close enough to want to eat it.
Their teacher had read Reeves’ fable and applied the moral she thought she had learned. Flossie was coached to greater heights, jumping and running. Although she did take gathering lessons, she was not pushed to do better. Sometimes her mark was bumped up … just a little.
Saucy, on the other hand, not only excelled at gathering, but was gaining his own little following on Twitter. His followers were looking for tips on his success but Saucy really didn’t have any; he was just good. Of course, running was the worst part of his day. He would see Flossie bounding away and get discouraged. To improve his self esteem, he was praised for any slight improvement and got marks that were almost as good as Flossie’s.
They graduated with good marks and went out into the world. One day Saucy was out nibbling on herbs when a fox spotted him and gave chase. Saucy bolted for his burrow but the fox easily caught up with him and Saucy was dinner.
Flossie missed him and his knowledge about where to eat. Over a period of time, Flossie became malnourished because she couldn’t find the right foods for her athletic body. One day as she was grazing, the same fox spotted her. Saucy had been so delicious that the fox was thrilled to see another yummy bunny. Flossie bolted for the burrow but her body was no longer strong enough to sustain the speed she needed. The fox, on the other hand, had been well nourished by eating Saucy and soon caught her. Too bad she was mainly skin and bones.
The Cousins’ Bunny School
Meanwhile a few fields over, Peter and Juanita, the cousins of Flossie and Saucy, went to another school. Peter, like Flossie, was a good runner and not good at gathering. Juanita shared Saucy’s skill set: a great finder of food, but slow moving for a bunny.
Their teacher had a different philosophy. Perhaps she had never read the fable. She recognized that people have different talents and weaknesses but she believed that every adult needed certain knowledge and skills. Before she planned her teaching, she asked herself the purpose of the curriculum. The answer was that running was to escape predators and gathering was to keep the body nourished to stay healthy and eventually reproduce.
She encouraged Juanita’s talents in gathering and tried to find ways of enriching and challenging her. At the same time, she insisted that Juanita practice running and jumping daily. She taught her effective ruses such as dodging, quick turns, finding thick thickets to hide in, staying very still and assessing the situation. While Juanita would never run as fast as her brother, she became competent and knew ways to compensate for less speed.
Peter received similar instruction in running to Juanita, but because he had a talent for it, he improved faster. His teacher insisted that he learn what foods he needed to keep his body healthy and where he could find them. Sometimes he got extra help from Juanita until he knew where to find food in their area. He was never as good as Juanita, but he could feed himself.
They graduated. Juanita had become competent enough as an athlete to enjoy games with her brother, especially if she could use tactics as well as running. Peter enjoyed going on food hunts with her. He was pleased on the rare occasion when he found an herb that she had missed. Occasionally predators spotted them but they always escaped. The predators gave up in the end and went over a few fields were they had heard the bunnies were easier to catch.
One day, Juanita and Peter were saddened to hear that their cousins had been eaten. They were distracted from their sorrow, however, by bunnies who had heard of their skills and were visiting to assess them (favorably) as potential mates.