As the Fall semester winds down in United States, I thought this post would be a good reminder for all of us. This post originally appeared on this blog in November 2019. Enjoy!
When I was a child, I remember going to the amusement park with my family. While I was excited to see the roller coasters, the Ferris Wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirl and the other rides, I have to admit that I was too frightened to venture on many of them. Maybe it stems from my fear of heights. Or maybe it comes from a hesitation to do something daring. Regardless of the originating emotions, I avoided riding on many of those amusement park rides as a child.
I say I avoided riding amusement park rides, but that’s not entirely true. There was actually one ride that I always want to go on: the carousel. I know that’s it’s kind of a tame ride in comparison to rides like the Pirate Ship or the Scrambler, but the carousel was MY ride. I know some readers are probably losing some respect for me as they read about my tame choices for amusement park rides, but the carousel was my absolute favorite. Sure, the ride just goes round and round without changing speed much. And the painted ponies just slowly go up and down. But it’s more than that. My favorite part was the brass ring.
Since a lot of modern carousels don’t have brass rings anymore, let me explain. Older carousels had this mechanical arm that would suspend a brass ring just a little outside of riders’ reach. As riders passed that point, they would try to reach for the brass ring. To grab the ring, riders would have to lean off of the edge of the seat and reach really far to pull the brass ring from the arm. If someone was successful, the mechanical arm would replace it with a new one. During any carousel ride, ambitious riders could grab dozens of brass rings as the mechanical arm kept the brass rings coming.
As I think back to my childhood love of the carousel, I think about how the ride is a really good metaphor for teaching and for motivating learners. We provide learning targets for students (brass rings?) and if we do a good job of gauging students’ ability and interest, those targets can push the students outside of where they’re comfortable. They have to lean and grab and extend to reach the goal. They have to be daring and take chances.
Thinking back to my carousel-riding days, however, I can’t remember ever seeing someone fall off of a horse. While people may have had to anxiously reach beyond what they thought they could, they didn’t really fail. If someone wasn’t able to grab a brass ring on one turn, they could try again on the next turn. The mechanical arm kept offering more and more brass rings until the ride stopped.
And that’s another important lesson here. As teachers, we may want to make our classes more exciting than a carousel, but we have to remember to give our students lots of opportunities to reach our learning targets. We have to motivate them to reach beyond what they think is capable but also not have them reach so far that they fall off the horse. While I’m probably taking this metaphor beyond its utility, the real take-away is carousels are anything but tame.