Last week, our fourth grade team was told a story about a Russian circus by our new Head of Grammar School. One of the acts featured a bear riding a motorcycle. The bear, balancing his weight while working the throttle, completed a few laps around a track to the amazement of spectators.
We were asked to identify the object of the audience’s amazement. Was it the fact that a bear learned to ride a motorcycle? Or was it the fact that a bear appeared to have learned to ride a motorcycle?
She answered this question for us: Clearly, that bear did not “know” how to ride a motorcycle. A few minutes on a highway or on some inner-city streets would be all the proof one needed to make that conclusion. While it was charming and amusing in the setting of a circus, the bear would not willingly jump on the bike in his free time and navigate downtown Moscow!
The point of the story (at least what I took to be the point), is that we can fall into the trap of treating our students like that bear. We do this when we train them to imitate things which they do not necessarily understand to the point of being willing (and able) to do it on their own. This illusion of learning might gain the praise of spectators at programs put on for parents, but what happens when the students are left to their own devices?
When we are finished a lesson in literature will our students willingly jump into other books and navigate through the worlds created by different authors? If not, we have trained bears to ride motorcycles. And the school has become….well, a place where bears do that sort of thing.