To the Editor:
Brenda Powers’ Commentary about what schools can learn from exotic-animal trainers (“We Are All Shamu,” Oct. 18, 2006) took me back to a valley floor in Northern Thailand, where I once watched an old Shan man train a young elephant. I had hiked down from a village where I was staying during a vacation from teaching to watch him. The old man, knowing I was a teacher, said I could learn a lot from him. So I sat on a log and observed for hours.
Afterward, I told the trainer I was in awe of his skills, but that I couldn’t keep my students tethered and corralled, nor did I have the resources to offer them the equivalent of his sugar-cane treat as reinforcement.
What I should have added—something especially true in these days of high-stakes testing and accountability according to yearly timetables—is that I envied his relaxed training schedule, low student-to-teacher ratio, and the fact that he could claim success whenever the elephant thoroughly learned its lesson.
Not every elephant is trained in the same way.
If that trainer had been given 40 days to turn out an efficient, working elephant, and had not succeeded (maybe because his charge had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), he might have lost his job and his reputation as a skilled trainer, even though he had done a stellar job with all the other elephants he had trained in the past.
The trainer couldn’t read or write, but his heart was clearly in his work. Teachers worldwide have that in common. I pray that this vital characteristic isn’t lost, as society treats the process of education more and more like the one for making widgets.
Perhaps all education policymakers should be required to make a pilgrimage to watch animal trainers in the wild. That might give them the impetus to reconsider their policies.
A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as Animal-Training Lessons For School Policymakers?