On Saturday, I took eight students from my elementary science methods class to Cross P Ranch for a morning with the EAGALA model of equine assisted learning. We used the unique environment of the horse arena to engage in a discussion of the art of teaching. EAGALA is an on-the-ground (no riding) form of experiential learning. We use experiences conducted with the horses to initiate metaphors we can hold up and connect to what it means to be a teacher. It provides a powerful experience building from a unique vantage point to explore our craft.
An oft-repeated phrase in training for certification in the EAGALA method of equine assisted learning is the adage to trust the horses – to trust the process. With goals articulated, the facilitation team designs activities and sets up the learning environment in the arena. With a plan in place, the team steps back, observes interactions, and allows the experience to unfold. When the learners indicate it is time, we step in and facilitate the processing of the experience. That processing is done largely through questions anchored directly in the learner experience. It is our job to help the learner construct their own meaning out of their experience. “What did you notice? What was it about that (thing noticed)? How did that work out for you? What connections are there to the classroom?”
Weeks ahead of time we defined our goals and laid out the frame we would use to move our students through the morning. My students were to be the teachers with the horses becoming their metaphorical students. Our three-hour session would be broken roughly into three segments: (1) founded in the importance of relationship in teaching, the teachers were to get to know their students. What were they like? What were their strengths? What were their quirks? How do they respond? (2) With the formative knowledge of their students in mind, the teachers were to set a developmentally appropriate goal and create a plan of how they would move their students to the goal. At that point, they were in a position to carry it out. (3) Building on the performance knowledge gained of their students, they made next step plans to advance the complexity of their goal and instruction. Between each segment, we would stop to process the experience.
A plan in place – all we had to do is move through it. There is a reason EAGALA sessions are co-facilitated. During phase one of getting to know the metaphorical students, my desire to control and step in at the first inkling of unease, went into high gear. I’m grateful, at least, I had recognized it. I grabbed Michelle’s jacket and looked for her support. She quietly stated, “Relax. It’s working. We need to trust the students, the horses, and the process.” We eventually moved in and asked a few questions. They didn’t need much help – what we set up did its job. They moved into the next phase. With a goal in hand, they went about their work. One group turned “my” 45-minute plan into 5 minute lesson. Their student moved right through their goal. Once again, I had to fight my desire to control and let them work through their own experience, which they ably did. Moving into the third segment, I, again, wanted to input “my” control and make adjustments into their work, but held back. Michelle asked them, “What would you like to do next?” They put together a plan that far surpassed anything I could have directed them to.
So the metaphor — I don’t consider myself a controlling person, but I can certainly struggle with feeling over-responsible for those in my care. We/I am reminded of the need to trust – trust in the process, trust in the system, trust in my students, trust in my colleagues, trust in myself. So often, the best thing we can do is to listen, nod, ask a few questions, but otherwise be quiet and allow our students space to work. EAGALA works, inquiry works, constructivism works, relationship works, maintaining students at the center works. It is good to have those messages reaffirmed from time to time. No better way than with our four legged colleagues in the arena.