Teaching Zebras

I discovered something not long ago that I find incredible. It’s been on my mind ever since. However, judging from the reaction of most people, they either already know about it, or aren’t as impressed as I am. So, I’ve taken to explaining it even more forcefully, which is like speaking louder to a deaf person.

Here’s what I learned: unlike nearly every other animal, zebras aren’t camouflaged to blend with their environment to hide from predators. Instead, they are camouflaged to blend with each other to hide from predators. This, even though no two zebras have the same pattern of stripes.

If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, why in God’s name an animal would stand out like a sore thumb in its natural habitat, this is the reason. I’ve been in the Maasai mara in Kenya, which is a reserve composed of brown grasslands and hills. I could spot a zebra a mile away. Literally. So could, I’m sure, a lion. Interestingly, there were a lot of wildebeest bones lying around, but no zebra bones.

Here’s the thing. You never spot just one zebra. One zebra would never be able to create the whirring blur that confuses hungry lions, so they travel in harems and herds. When danger threatens, they whip into a striped tumult of panting breath, pounding hooves, and dust that must be jarring for anything that isn’t a zebra.

What’s a poor predator to do? Wait. Wait for what? The thing that sets an individual zebra apart from the rest of the herd. It could be a blood stain, a strange gallop, or eyes like Marty Feldman. Once spotted, the lion, hyena, leopard, or whatever is stalking them, makes his move. At that point, it becomes a matter of timing.

The lesson? Individuality kills but conformity saves lives.

As far as I can tell (you know, because of my extensive zoological training), conformity to each other instead of the environment does three things for zebras: (1) forces greater reliance on the herd, (2) increases the grazing area, since zebras are not restricted to one type of environment, and (3) offers better protection from predators.

It didn’t take me long to make the comparison to students. Certainly, students constitute a herd, blending with each other rather than the university. But I never realized that part of their behavior was to avoid getting picked off by me, the crouching hyena. The unfortunate impact of “zebra mentality” is an attitude of non-engagement in the classroom. Don’t stand out, don’t answer questions, and–for God’s sake!–don’t make eye contact. You might as well have a red X on your forehead. You’ll be eaten alive.

On a fundamental level, behaving in a non-engaged way might work in the grasslands. It’s even highly effective for riding the D train. But for learning, especially at private-school prices, it’s definitely the wrong approach. On a deeper level, it subverts learning and turns students into passive observers as if the classroom were just another video game.

Why do they do it? I have to wonder about the educational system that brought them to the university. Many students look beaten down and suspicious. They can’t all be hungover. Is it the result of standardized teaching? Just the way students look nowadays? I suspect there’s more to it than that, because I’ve noticed that non-engagement extends beyond the classroom. They don’t seem to be excited about anything. I am reminded of Voltaire’s line about God being a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.

Frankly, I don’t understand zebras or their mentality, which is probably a good thing, because I’m a human being. Why blend when you can stand out? Why hide when you can engage? Why slouch along when you can fly? Why conform when you can be proud of who and what you are?

If what students are afraid of is taking a risk, well, guess what? This is business school. It’s all about risk. It’s like life that way.

Next class, I am going to remind them that they are not zebras. We’ll see what happens.

You want a piece of me? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Photo of two zebras by Frans Van Heerden. Note to self: “I’m a holy man minus the holiness” (E.M Forster).

5 thoughts on “Teaching Zebras

  1. p.s. as long as we are talking about engaging students, have you ever noticed how “fearless” they become when facing a screen instead of each other? and the zuckerbergs (mark and his evil stepsister) used to say “that would change if they had to give us their photo and real names– i mean if they werent cloaked by anonymity!” but they continue to struggle to control the “classroom,” resorting this year to “we are going to make this experience a little more ‘personal'” (we are going to use another round of hype to get even more data about you.) enjoy?

    i dont believe that screens are the complete answer (or even half the answer) to education, and the modern phone society is an enormous step backwards– for computing, for society, for evolution. that said– students hold their breath to avoid engagement in the classroom– and you cant shut them up online– the cleverest teachers may learn to exploit this somehow. of course, retraining them to be fearless while face-to-face might be a better approach once theyre in a business school.

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  2. if i were a conspiracy theorist, i would say that school is purposely designed to make the students (and eventually, ultimately the teachers) into this zebra-like human hybrid.

    since im not a conspiracy theorist, i have to just throw my hands up and say “this really sucks. i wonder if it will ever be fixed somehow.”

    the optimist in me (i thrash him daily with reeds, except for the weekend– a bit like our school!) says that when cabs suck and hotels suck, we need the “uber of schools.” now i wot stop you from putting your face in your palm, because i too can think of all sorts of horrible (and more likely) implementations of *that.* i definitely do NOT think that education should rely on ios OR the android platform (nor windows.)

    and i dont believe the self-serving silicon valley hype about anything– the dichotomy between their “we should be making corporate drones with public education funds” vs the most mediocre educational models from the 1800s continuing to impose themselves on children (if you want to engage them, let them throw tomatoes at the poor child in the stocks– i mean at the blackboard) …is more likely to be solved by a third option than some sort of “everybody loses” peace process (peace worked in ireland and it could work the same in the middle east– eventually– but if silicon valley and feudalist-style education find a common ground, every student still loses.)

    what makes uber cool (and im only a fan in that its the lesser of two ridiculous evils) is that instead of trying to fix ancient rome gradually, from the inside, it says “im going to build my own theme park– with blackjack and hookers.” and if education has a future, it will be more like that. probably without blackjack and hookers (which to be fair, sounds more like the silicon valley version of educations future.)

    on the one hand– you have self-serving people trying to buy out the educational system with its own money– a trick only a handful of large corporations could even muster. and on the other, you have an absolutely archaic system that constantly reasserts itself at all costs, including majority-percentage costs to its only benefit. (education basically eats itself.)

    we need something that isnt anarchy, isnt archaic, and isnt a giant corporate handout to itself, nor a corporate takeover of education. what silicon valley is right about it is that it will take innovation. what silicon valley is wrong about is that silicon valley should have anything to do with that innovation whatsoever. and technology is a much smaller fraction of the solution than they ever want to admit– which i say as a technologist. remember kids– technology is a solution; but its just as often a problem. a herd of sheep cant do anything with that problem, and silicon valley is counting on it.

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    1. Years ago, a student wrote on my course evaluation, “Professor doesn’t motivate me enough.” Something like that. My attitude is that if paying $60,000/year in tuition isn’t motivation enough, then take a year off and figure out what’s wrong with you. You can’t handle your own investment, yet you want others to give you their money to manage in a private equity or wealth management firm. I don’t think so.

      I like the Uber idea if that means individual teachers can call their own shots, drive their own cabs, so to speak. I think it would be much better if students followed teachers wherever they might be–home, the Y, corner bar–instead of through the university. This model is already emerging with things like online academies and Patreon. I am thinking about doing it myself through my two Web sites. I just need a producer to help me figure out the back end. Rear end…?

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      1. if education doesnt become entirely decentralised, then it will certainly be augmented by things that are.

        computing has formative years that make a real difference later. even if you can start late, a lack of prior momentum means catching up later– too much momentum means burnout. (you can recover from that too, its just one more thing.)

        but for example in india, some people are taught “dont worry how the algorithm works, just memorise it.”

        memorise an algorithm! the best and easiest way to *memorise* something that complex is to first understand how it works– and if you dont then what are you going to do, cut-and-paste program?

        presenting information and saying “it doesnt matter how it works” is not even teaching, its a cheap alternative. we need better alternatives– but dont think im all hype. 21st century teaching is going to contain most of the elements of teaching in any other century. the problem with 20th century teaching is– when its “education” but not its teaching. theres more of that than ever and its got to stop if we want people that can (and do) think, instead of crossing the street while staring at their hand.

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        1. I don’t think students like it when I ask questions or needle them to think out loud, which is what I spend a lot of time in the classroom doing. I want them to see how I struggle with questions and that I don’t have answers a lot of the time. I’ll say this, though. I was never a fan of online courses, even though I have done them and even created a few from scratch. Students are much more open and communicative in discussion boards and chat rooms than they are in the classroom. So, for all of the talk about face-to-face, maybe that worked before, but it’s a problem now. Students are more comfortable communicating in an indirect way, which is probably the result of social media, as you point out. They can hide while still contributing. But I’ve tried using Twitter in courses and even during class. Didn’t work. What has teaching come down to? Motivation. How do I get students motivated…! As I said before, if I have to “motivate” somebody who’s already spent $60,000 in tuition just to sit in the classroom, that’s their problem. Of course, it’s not all bad. There are a handful of excellent students who get it. I suppose I should be happy about that. I am.

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