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The Tortoise and the Hare in the Classroom

The Tortoise and the Hare in the Classroom

3 minutes

By Draper John Warren

Most everyone is familiar with the fable of the tortoise and the hare, but have you ever thought about what lessons this fable holds for education?

The fable is a cautionary tale about pride and overconfidence and the rewards of perseverance. The story, however, has deeper significance. The hare is the symbol of the naturally gifted person. Nature has made him the fastest animal in the forest. The tortoise is the person seemingly bereft of natural talent, but exercising the virtue of perseverance, he overcomes his lack of natural ability by hard work.

Most people are either tortoises or hares in various aspects of their lives. They might be gifted in some areas, but not in others. I have personally witnessed this dynamic over many years of academic work. Some people are simply intellectually gifted, and for others, learning comes with difficulty. Of course there is a lot of room in between, but you will often find that even for “average” students, they have strengths in certain subjects and weaknesses in others. It is the constant temptation for the gifted person to grow lax and overconfident like the hare, and for the person who struggles to lose hope.

The fabled tortoise does not give up—if he had, it would make a poor story. Unfortunately, many tortoises of the world do give up, a little each day. I certainly know that I have given up myself in many areas, and I imagine that we can all think of areas in our lives where something seemed to come easier to everyone else, so we just gave up on ever being good at that thing.

In the Classroom Environment

If we take this fable into the classroom, we see how this dynamic plays out amongst many students striving after some form of academic finish line. There are always a few students who are at the head of a class—the hares. For them, the pace of the class comes easily—too easily in fact. It isn’t much of a challenge to stay ahead of the rest of the class. Especially if the students are trying to “fit in” amongst their peers, the temptation will be to grow lax, resting on the laurels of their head start in life.

They maintain their advantage until high school, but without academic discipline, have a difficult time persevering with school work in the face of assignments (particularly writing assignments for boys) which they might find truly difficult for the first time. Without the habit of forcing themselves to excel in difficulty, that difficulty can overwhelm them and become a stumbling block.

Students who are not so naturally gifted—the tortoises—rarely get ahead in elementary school, and this is where they face their greatest challenge. If they can develop good study habits and they put in hard work, they will reach the finish line, but with the feeling that they will always be behind the other students. Hope is lost and many resign themselves to their perceived academic inferiority.

The dangers of both laxity in the hares and hopelessness of the tortoises are exacerbated in the classroom environment in which children are placed with a large group and their successes and failures are experienced as some kind of function of their artificial peer society.

In the Homeschool Environment

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One of the chief academic benefits of homeschooling is that students can move at their own pace. Without the confines of a classroom in which a teacher must move slowly enough for the tortoises yet quickly enough for the hares—which really is an impossible task when you think about it—children have the freedom and the motivation to excel.

As a bit of anecdotal evidence, I saw this play out in my own life. I attended Catholic school until 5th grade when my mother pulled me out of school (for reasons both religious and social) in order to homeschool with Seton. In school, I was a fairly average student. Mostly B’s with some A’s mixed in, but I also ended up in detention regularly for not completing homework assignments. I never considered myself particularly smart, and so resigning myself to my status in school, tried to establish my feelings of self-worth and excellence in non-academic areas.

Homeschooling allowed me the freedom to realize I was actually pretty good in areas such as math, but just had a much harder time with other areas such as writing. I also found the freedom to study more unusual subjects. I became an expert in world capitals and flags. It might sound a little odd (but I assure you it has been useful), and it provided me with a feeling of truly being a hare in at least one academic area. I knew something better than any adult I knew.

That taste of being a hare was very important, and I am convinced it is something I would not have gotten had I stayed in the classroom. By the end of elementary school, I was earning straight A’s and scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized tests (not uncommon for homeschoolers, I later found out).

To be honest, I think all of the homeschoolers I have met have seemed like hares. I doubt they started off that way, but being able to move at their own pace and find mastery in certain areas gave them the habits and motivation to be academically excellent.

About Draper Warren

Draper Warren
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Draper Warren is the Associate Director of the IHM Coalition, an apostolate which hosts Catholic homeschool conferences all around the country. He is an alumnus of Seton, a graduate of Christendom College majoring in History and Theology with a minor in Philosophy, and is currently trying to finish up a graduate degree in Theology. He has worked as an advocate of homeschooling for over 17 years.

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  • CatholicGinny1

    Terrific article! I was a hare, able to get A’s without much effort. My lack of study skills caught up with me in high school chemistry. I couldn’t ace it without diligent study, and I really did not know how to study. A lesson to us all, not to let our kids relax on their laurels.

    • Thanks Ginny! That means a lot coming from you.

  • Draper, I loved this! Bravo. I will be reading it to my homeschool students and sharing it widely.

    • Thanks so much Allison! It is funny, but I was focused so much on the primary and secondary school years, it didn’t occur to me until after I wrote the article that I ran into this again in college. Homeschoolers tend to be ahead of their peers when starting college… the danger is present to think you can slow down and rest.

  • Pamela Garcia

    You renewed my hope once again. Thank you Mr. Warren.

    • What a nice thing to say! Thank you!

  • John Clark

    Draper, Great article!!!

    • Thanks John! You set the bar pretty high.

  • Catherine

    We currently have a tortoise at home. I am not sure that perseverance is the reason. She has no motivation at all. It took her 16 months to finish 9th grade and that was with much prodding. She will not finish 10th grade in 12 months, either. We have talked to Seton counselors and received a little help in the “feel good” department, but nothing seems to motivate this child. This article is good, but our tortoise doesn’t seem to have any academic “hares.” Maybe someone could post an article from the “teaching the tortoise” point of view with realistic expectations of the amount of time it is going to take to finish the work Seton requires. Having schooled two sibling “hares,” this tortoise thing can be a daunting task.

    • Catherine, I realize that a student who lacks motivation can be very disheartening–perhaps even more so for the parent than for the student at times! I would like to try to offer just a little more “feel good” advice, but then to follow that up with some very practical suggestions.

      First the “feel good”. It would be silly for me to say “I know exactly what you are going through” on the basis of just one paragraph, but I swear you could be quoting my own mother from about 16 years ago. I actually spent 16 months in the 8th grade myself, and didn’t quite finish 9th in 12 months either. From most external appearances, even after homeschooling for a couple years, I must have looked like the world’s worst student. It was actually during that time I started to develop some of my “non-traditional” academic interests, so the amount of actual curriculum I finished suffered.
      Being a Hare isn’t about being quick at your work. In the fable after all, the hare ended up losing the race to the slowest animal in the forest. I my case, when I eventually got around to actually taking a test, I did well, but getting me to do any work was like pulling teeth for my mother for a couple of years. I don’t know if your daughter is naturally gifted or not, but what I do know is that she can be very successful in her education either way.

      Ok, so here is some practical advice. The #1 reason why students lack motivation is because they either feel that success is out of reach (or at least way too difficult to attain), or because success is so easy to attain that it isn’t worth doing. It sounds like the latter isn’t your daughter’s problem, so the overall advice is to find ways to help her feel successful. You need to try to bring out the hare in her in at least a few areas. One thing that is worth doing is identifying the subject that she is best in, and when the opportunity arises, let her know that she is good in that area. I hate to use the term “self-esteem”, but perhaps we can say–encourage her to take some pride in as many areas as you can identify. If a student feels that she is “no good” she will not get better.

      Secondly, if the path appears too long and she loses hope of ever reaching the end, you as her guide, should do whatever is possible to find short cuts to help her reach the end. My mother did this for me. The Seton lesson plans contain a lot of great material, but keep in mind that it is by no means necessary to do every single thing in those lesson plans. The important things are what are listed on the quarter report forms–those things which get sent into Seton for grading.

      I am sure your own path is difficult at times as the parent and teacher, but as a former homeschool student, I just want to say that I really admire you. I am so thankful that my own mother took the time and effort, and I hope your daughter appreciates (some day even if not today) all that you do. God bless!

  • Texas Cheri

    This is an outstanding article. Food for thought for many people.

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