“Today, you will learn to tie a bowline knot,” I say. Then quickly add, “Mastery for the lesson I am teaching is you tying the knot three times without assistance. My goal is to have everyone achieve mastery, and for at least 10 of you to tie the knot behind your back with your eyes closed.”

I pause while the 100 teachers in the room absorb the learning goals for my lesson—100-percent mastery, 10-percent exceeds, and none fail. Knowing full well that not a single one of them consistently achieves such results with their teaching. Then say, “Let’s get started.”

I proceed to provide information about the bowline. How the working end of the rope and a fixed loop comprise the knot. That, during the making of the knot, a portion of the loop may pass around or through an object, such as a pole or person. How pulling the non-loop part of the line tightens the knot. The knot, when tight, will not slip or come loose.

The tightness, non-slipping is why sailors use a bowline to raise and lower the sails of their ships. Forest rangers use it to rescue people who have fallen off a cliff onto a ledge. Firefighters use it help people get out of burning buildings. Soldiers rely on the knot to repel down fortress walls. And aviators use it for tying down light aircraft.

“Okay, eyes on me,” I say. “Watch as I tie a bowline knot.” Facing the class, using both hands, I tie a bowline with a three-foot piece of rope. All the while, holding the rope, with knot and loop visible for all to see. Done, I say, “Now, you tie a bowline knot using your piece of rope.”

I stand at the front of the room, holding the rope with the knot and loop as teachers attempt to tie the knot. As seconds pass, groans fill the room. Soon, groans turn to pleas for help. Not budging from the front of the room, I wait a few minutes then say, “Who correctly tied the knot?”

Six teachers proudly present their knots. A quick check determines that four are correct. On a nearby whiteboard, I write four out of 100. Four percent is woefully short of my goal—all correctly tying the knot.

“Okay, let’s try this again,” I say. “Please follow along. Hold one end of your rope between the thumb and index finger of your left hand.” Standing in front of the room, I hold up my rope—its end between the thumb and index finger of my left hand. “Now, with your right hand, make a small loop in the rope,” I say as I make a loop. “Now take the end of the rope in your left hand. Put it through the loop, around the rope, and back into the loop. Pull it tight.” I model each step.

Holding up my rope, with knot and loop, I ask, “Who has a correct knot?” Hands rise. I count them—33. After checking the knots, I write 31-percent on the board, 31 out of 100 correct. My goal attainment remains far away.

“One more time,” I say. “Here is a strategy for tying the knot. Watch me as I teach the strategy.” Holding up the rope, I make a loop. Holding the loop with my right thumb and index finger, I say, “This is a rabbit hole.” Holding the far end of the rope with my left thumb and index finger, I shake the end while saying, “This is the rabbit.”

“Now, watch carefully,” I say. “The rabbit comes out of the hole.” As I say this, I bring the end of the rope up through the loop. “It goes around the tree,” I say as I bring the end of the rope over the lower portion of the rope. “Now the rabbit goes back into the hole,” I say as I pull the rope taunt to form a bowline knot.

“Let’s do this together, one step at a time, using the strategy,” I say. I model each step of the strategy—the hole, the rabbit, out of the hole, around the tree, and back in the hole. At each step, I rotate around the room, checking to see if teachers correctly do each step. When not, I provide instruction.

Steps complete, I ask, “Who correctly tied the knot?” This time, most hands go up. A quick check indicates 92-percent with a correct knot. My goal near, I push on.

“Now, please tie it again. This time by yourself, without my help,” I say. Each time a teacher holds up her knot, I review its correctness then, if correct I say, “Again.” The first teacher to tie the knot correctly three times, I match with one the eight teachers who has yet to succeed, saying, “Show her how you tie the knot.” I do the same with the second, third and so on until eight pairs of teachers are tying knots together.

Once more I ask, “Who has a correct knot?” All teachers eagerly hold their ropes high. I say, “Please check each other’s work for correctness.” The report out, all teachers with correct knots, means one goal achieved, now for the other.

“Volunteers, please come forward,” I say. Eleven teachers rush to the front of the room. I pull one aside, give her a stopwatch, and ask that she keep time. I line the remaining ten teachers facing the large group of teachers, then say, “With your eyes closed, tie the bowline knot behind your back—ready, set, GO!”

Tick, tick, tick…five seconds pass, tick, tick, tick, and then ten. Tick, tick at the 13-second mark, one teacher holds up her knot. One more second passes, another teacher holds up her knot. Then another, another, and another…at the 27-second mark the last of the 10 teachers holds up her knot. Quick inspection, all knots correct. Behind their backs, with eyes closed—second goal achieved.

When the teachers are back in their seats, and the applause subsides, I ask, “What did you learn today?” An animated exchange ensues. During which no teacher, not one, mentions learning to tie a bowline knot. Not even the ten who tie knots with eyes closed.

The exchange is about how students learn differently and at various rates. That insufficient instruction–as my first teaching shows–does work for some students. However, if the goal is for most students to achieve, and some to exceed mastery then instruction must be well designed and delivered. It must establish the relevance of the lesson, consider the learning styles of students, teach strategies that aid learning, scaffold learning-tasks, guide practice, rotate-and-check learning, harness peer power… and more.

Every time I teach this lesson, and I often do, a similar pattern emerges. As teachers learn to tie the bowline knot, their instructional practices start slipping and sliding. They question their instruction and its effect on their students’ learning. They want for all their students what they experience during the lesson. So they untie, and retie their instruction to enable that to happen. Teachers who persevere in this way, make previously unattainable learning goals attainable for themselves and their students. They have a knot that holds true.

*Mark *

Note: *This is the 17th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.*

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