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The Round Pen

Yesterday morning I exchanged replies with a parent who was concerned that my assignment translated into a form of punishment. The assignment required the students to correct a wrong answer by rewriting it 10 times. In the next week or so I will ask the questions again to repeat the assessment. Is this appropriate, and is it classical – which is really the same question?

Some may ask,

  1. did the students fully understand what they were asked to do on the original assessment?
  2. why use repetition, and why 10 times?

How many times will a good writer review and edit a document before submission? How many times will a good speaker work over and re-read a speech before delivering it? How many times will a musician play a song before a performance? How many times will a ball player work through batting practice?

An intimate knowledge of something and a mastered skill never come in single servings. Repetition labors towards the potential moments of discovery. It draws the eyes and ears to detail, and allows the mind to rest upon the securities of form, constancy, and being. Repetition does not constrict the possible; it forms the ground out of which the possible may break. Chesterton referred once to God saying to the sun, “Do it again!” at the dawn of each new day.

The danger in any classroom and with any subject amounts to “priming the pump.” Dumping the information in that you expect the students to pour back out.

I try to teach and work from the round pen. The round pen is the initial and primary training ground for every fundamental skill a horse will ever use. If the horse demonstrates he is not yet ready, it is back to the round pen.

In a similar way, if students demonstrate they are not yet ready to exercise fundamental concepts we have previously worked on, then we stop and go back to the round pen, and review. It is senseless to attempt moving forward.

I am increasingly dissatisfied with the common, practically routine classroom practice of delivering a lesson, test, score, and move on regardless of how well the student grasped the material. I think the main reason for this type of teaching boils down to time and number. What can a teacher do with this many students in this amount of time? Breaking this debilitating cycle will cause frustration for the students and work for the teacher.

For the teacher, it will simply require more work because not every student will move at the same pace. For students, it will force them to paddle upstream. It will demand them to slow down, to focus on one thing long enough to discover its beauty and not dispense of it because it does not immediately gratify the senses. This will be difficult in a culture dictated by sound bites.

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