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Aesop Got It Wrong!

In the fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” Aesop teaches us that steady, persistent hard work is better than natural talent, overconfidence, and a poor work ethic. That part is true. But the “slow and steady” moral of the fable has its limits.

Parents and teachers looking for slow, steady incremental improvement in their students will be frustrated and discouraged. Children—and adults for that matter—don’t learn “slow and steady.”

Try teaching a child to read. Faithfully, the teacher drills phonics flashcards every day. On Monday the student gets every flashcard correct. On Tuesday the student not only can’t remember the phoneme in question, but will often passionately argue that he has never seen it before in his life! By Wednesday, he is reading whole sentences flawlessly. But as soon as the teacher starts congratulating himself on little Johnny’s reading improvement Thursday rolls around and Johnny can’t remember half of his flashcards again. By Friday the teacher is convinced that either he is the worst reading teacher in the world or something is seriously wrong with little Johnny.

But nothing is wrong with Johnny or with the teaching. This is simply how kids learn. Little kids, big kids, it’s all the same.

Some days I wonder if my high school student is learning anything. He reads his books and I ask him questions and then torture myself that he just doesn’t seem to be “getting it.” A few days later he without prompting offers me his comparison of the current American political crisis and ancient Rome. I stare at him with my mouth open and wonder, Where has this kid been?

He’s been the hare. And he’s been asleep. But now he’s sprinting!

When it comes to learning, children are not tortoises. They are hares. They sprint and they nap and then they make mad dashes and leap ahead. In education, the teacher is the tortoise, slowly and steadily teaching his students, persevering even when his students seem mentally asleep. But in this scenario the tortoise and the hare aren’t racing, they are travelling companions heading toward that same finish line.

On those days when we can’t wake up our hares, we need to keep plodding along toward that finish line, confident that they will catch up. And unlike Aesop’s fable, our hares will ultimately pass us and we will consider that our victory.

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