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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Challenging Students to Think More Deeply

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

You lower yourself into the cage and tie your hand to the back of the big brown bull, which snorts with anger and irritation as they cinch the rope. You are careful to keep your legs from being smashed between the pen wall and the jittery 1,300-pound bull.

You are thankful for the cowboy in the front of the bull who is doing his best to distract it from what you are doing. The three other men who are helping you with the ropes and getting settled on the bull's back encourage you with "Go get 'em, cowboy!" and pats on the back. Then the gate opens, and you hang on for dear life.

You know that you must do two things to make the ride worth it: stay on for eight seconds by responding to and anticipating the rhythms of the bull's movements, and show some style in doing it.

The world is in slow motion as you experience the longest eight seconds of your life.

The bull heaves its bulk into the air, jumps, twists, and cavorts in every imaginable way to get you and that uncomfortable rope off. You realize your strength is insignificant compared to nearly 1 ton of muscle that is throwing you around like a rag doll. You feel like your arm is going to fall off, but you continue to hang on.

The buzzer sounds, and you let go of the rope and try to jump free of the angry bull's flailing hooves and vicious horns. The rodeo clowns get the bull's attention as you dash to safety.

After the bull is taken into the pen, you retrieve your hat and your favorite cinching rope from the arena's sandy floor. Only then do you hear the crowd's roar of approval. The thunderous applause, mixed with whoops and hollers of appreciation, make you stand a little straighter and walk taller.

You are just glad to be alive. This time, the bull lost.

The other day, I took my daughter, Sadie-Belle, to a professional bull-riding competition at San Antonio's AT&T Center, where they normally play basketball, and it was quite a show.

It has been a while since I had watched such an event, and though I have never ridden a bull, I imagine it would be something like what I wrote above.

I noticed that some bull riders wear helmets instead of hats. Most wear padded, protective vests. They all wear gloves, and they all wear spurs. But it took me a few moments to figure out what the bull rider's most valuable piece of equipment really is: that cinch rope each rider carefully went back and retrieved after each ride. As educators, we have a cinch rope, too.

The Educational Cinch Rope

What is the purpose of the cinch rope? To the uninitiated, the bulls seem like ferocious animals. The opposite is actually normally the case. For the most part, these bulls are docile, independent creatures. I actually saw one of the bulls lie down in the stocks, refusing to get up for the cowboy to ride.

So, how do the cowboys get the normally sedentary bull to leap in the air? They tie the cinch rope around the bull, and it is so uncomfortable that the bull is eager to do anything it can to buck the cowboy off for relief. Keep in mind that the bulls are trained to do this and are often successful in removing the rider: Out of 40 cowboys who rode on the day my daughter and I watched, only seven were able to stay on their bulls the full eight seconds.

A teacher's cinch rope is called cognitive dissonance. The term comes from the concept of different sound waves as they collide, creating disharmonic vibrations. It is uncomfortable to listen to such sour notes. Cognitively, speaking dissonance is produced when two ideas seem to collide and only one can be right.

The educational cinch rope has to be uncomfortable enough for the students to do something about it, and, just like the bulls, the students need to be trained on how to buck you for causing the dissonance.

In some cases, the information students have in their brains is incorrect. For example, if you ask a student what causes the seasons of the year, they will likely tell you it is because the distance from Earth to the Sun changes according to the planet's orbital path. In fact, the real reason is that the sun is 20 degrees colder in the winter than it is in the summer.

Did I create some dissonance? If I told you that neither reason mentioned above is true, are you motivated enough to find out the answer?

Cognitive dissonance can also be created by the careful gathering and analysis of data in order to dispel myths, assumptions, and general erroneous beliefs. Student-led investigations can find answers to questions all kids want to know: Does the butter side of the bread always land facing the floor? Do blondes have more fun? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop?

Finally, cognitive dissonance is created by a dedicated teacher who challenges the students' beliefs about their own capacity to learn. That teacher dares students to not be bucked off by accepting mediocrity or low performance.

We have an advantage over the bull riders, though. There are times when we can reason with the students -- when a teacher sits down with a student and reviews individual learning goals and asks, "Are you where you want to be?" "If not, what do you need to do?" "How can I help you reach your goal?"

The buzzer sounds, so to speak, and the teacher can then count that as a successful ride on one of the most energetic animals in the business!

What effective things do you do to cinch rope your students into active learning?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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