Things I Have Learned From my Cats, About Teaching

If you don’t have cats, or don’t like cats, then (a) get cats or (b) give in to your feline masters. More seriously, cats are very handy as a reference for the professional (or enthusiastic amateur) educator, because they ground you before you go and try something that you are heavily invested in with a whole class of students.

The important lessons that you can learn from cats are:

  1. Cats will only do what you tell them if they were already planning to do it.Obviously, students are more intelligent than cats and can learn a whole range of complex things. However, it’s easy to sometimes think that a particular thing that you did led to a completely different behaviour on the students’ part. Once you’ve removed other factors, isolated the element, repeated the experiment and got the same result? Sure, that’s influential. Before then, it may be any one of the effects that contaminate this kind of perception.
  2. Cats have good days and bad days. These are randomly allocated.

    Sometimes cats stay off the table. Sometimes they don’t. This is for reasons that I don’t understand because I can’t see the whole of the cats’ thinking process – despite them living inside my house for the past 8 years and me being able to observe them the whole time. I’ve realised over the years that I see my students for a very small fraction of their lives and trying to determine  when they’re going to be really receptive or not is not easy. I can try to present or set up my course in a way that reaches them most of the time. Sometimes it won’t happen. (I should note that they generally do, however, stay off the tables.)
  3. Cats can’t tell you what’s wrong because they don’t have the vocabulary.Of course, students can talk to me most of the time and we can talk about what’s wrong, but we have very different vocabularies in many ways. By exposing my thoughts and my processes to the students in their language, and scaffolding them to an understanding of the vocabulary of teaching education, or to get them to understand how collaboration isn’t a shorthand for “straight copying”.

This is rather trivial but, as always, it’s about framing and engagement. I suppose I’m saying the things I usually say but with a strange linkage to cat stories. As you read this, I’m probably on a plane somewhere, so I’ll try to be more coherent once I land.

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