Friday, June 13, 2008

Caterpillars into Butterflies

I don’t know where I’ve been for the past several decades but I had never heard the expression “turning caterpillars into butterflies” used in relation to teaching. That is, until this spring when my daughter’s softball coaches used it several times to explain their goal of coaching twelve eight-and-under girls. Add to this the coaches’ commitment to “no child left behind”—meaning every girl on the team, no matter how young or inexperienced, would learn how to throw, catch, and bat or, if an older veteran, how to improve these skills—and you have a heck of a model of teaching. Winning certainly was not the only thing, and most of the girls did not seem to attach any significance to it, but winning did follow from the teaching.

So what does the metaphor mean for teaching? It is a biological process that turns caterpillars into butterflies, occurring naturally with proper nurture and a minimum of interference from predators and the elements. For teaching, this means that children are natural learners and therefore do not need to be forced to learn. They need guidance and motivation perhaps more importantly than any particular knowledge content; they need encouragement, not coercion, angry yelling, or contemptuous denigration. The goal of teaching is to build confidence in the child’s own ability to learn such that the child can continue to learn throughout life without need, or with only occasional need, of additional teaching. The butterfly knows how to fly and does not need additional “instruction” or development. A clipped wing, however, will destroy it.

Many years ago, when I was in high school, I played in an orchestra of extremely talented teenagers. (Almost all, I should say, were far more talented than I.) Several different conductors would direct us in weekly concerts. Only one knew how to get the butterflies to fly. He was a motivator of adolescents and young adults and was well liked. He would make exclamations like “Sound! I want to hear sound from you!” and “Brass, I can’t hear you!” Which to trumpeters, trombonists, and French horn players was a call to action. Not loud noise, but beautiful, controlled, and confidently self-assertive sound that made the difference between amateurishness and near professionalism.

The keyword here is “controlled,” for that is what skilled musicians exhibit—control of air stream and finger movement for wind instrument players and control of muscle movements for stringed instrument players and percussionists. Control is also what skilled athletes exhibit, in muscle movement of course, but also, as sports psychologists point out, in their thoughts about playing the game. The good motivator is the one who finds ways to make sure their students or musicians or athletes get their heads in the game and keep them there.

In contrast to the above orchestra motivator, one stern task master of a conductor succeeded in clipping the wings of the orchestral butterflies with one simple but true statement. He said, “Remember, the audience is applauding the composer as much as they are you, the performers.” Message: “don’t think you are so good.” The statement is true about audiences and, often, their standing ovations, but to say it to teenagers was utterly deflating to their developing egos. The conductor did not ask for sound and he did not get it. Was he predator or the elements? Take your pick. Demeaning comments kill confidence and a willingness to perform.

Patience is a requirement of good teaching and the passage of time is what is required for a caterpillar to pass through the chrysalis stage to turn into a butterfly. Let me conclude this post by bringing back my daughter’s softball coaches and describing their seemingly infinite patience with even the youngest, most inexperienced girl on the team, a girl who would tend to get down on herself and say “I can’t do it.” At one practice the assistant coach must have thrown thirty or forty balls to this girl for her to swing at, and with each swing she would fail to make contact. Periodically, the coach would stop to make an adjustment in her stance, then he would pitch more balls. On about the fortieth pitch . . . boom. A big pop fly went to shortstop. High fives, the coach insisted, were called for from all the other players; then he picked up the girl and said, “I don’t want to ever again hear you say that you can’t do it.”

A week or two later, the same girl made contact with the ball in a game that helped drive in winning runs. This caterpillar metamorphosed into a beautiful butterfly and that is the ultimate payoff of good teaching.

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