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Kids, horses, teachers …and other living things

I hadn’t thought about Monte Roberts for years, and that’s why last week after seeing the Lincoln Center’s production of WarHorse, I was surprised to see in the Lincoln Center Review, how much they credited him for the success and power of the play.  It differs from the current film in that all the horses are full size “puppets” controlled by actors inside them. But their behavior is so realistic that even living horses have believed they were real.  How could that be?

For those not familiar with his history, Monty Roberts became known for his revolutionary work with horses, Possibly because of a novel and movie by the name, many people refer to him as a “horse whisperer.”  But the actual title of his book refers to a Horse LISTENER — The Man Who Listens to Horses” – and as it turns out it’s the difference that makes the difference.

Roberts and his approach to “teaching” has special relevance to me and the story of the Montgomery County Public Schools told on this site because in February 2000, I co-led along with Peg Howell, a leadership development course for the MCPS —  “Boosting Productivity Through Coaching” that drew on Robert’s approach. (He since has gone on to apply it himself in teacher and leadership training for schools, and management training for business and industry.)

Here’s how, at the time, we described and used it to raise questions that would provide a different context for the content we would offer.


The difference between a “Horse Whisperer” and a Horse LISTENER is the real power of what Robert’s work means for all of us who attempt to influence behaviors of living systems.  How much of teaching is “talking” and how much is “listening?”  Think of the teachers who most influenced you.  Was it the content they delivered or what they seemed to understand about you?  How, and where, are those two “teaching skills” connected?

•   Note that the key to Robert’s success as a “teacher” was that first he listened and found out what the horses could tell him about how they learned.  Roberts’ knew he always was dealing with a “whole horse” … that had a mind of its own. And because he had figured out its learning process, he knew “what it wanted.”

By going with the flow of the process already pre-wired in the brain he proved that changed behaviors can be effective, sustainable, and accomplished in far less time (from three-months down to 30 minutes) than any of the traditional way’s people have used to teach (or “break”) horses.

•    How does his Join-up process –(first engage, and establish trust; then use that trust to support interaction; and out of these interactions begin to develop an intrinsically-driven relationship that becomes the support of all “work” that may follow) — compare to what you know about effective teaching and coaching?

•    How does his “simple” logic — starting with the learner you have with its already embedded learning structure, then reinforcing it, and using that capacity to develop what you don’t have — relate to the beliefs and strategies underlying other effective approaches to individual and organizational change?

For instance, doesn’t developmentally-appropriate education start with a similar “catch-them-doing-something-right” principle?  And if you know about organizations and communities using OD approaches such as Appreciative InquiryAssets-based Community Development, or Positive Deviance” … aren’t they starting at the same place?

•    How does this approach to intrinsically-driven changes in behavior relate to the management goal of “continual improvement?”

•   In his book, one can see that to develop understanding and acceptance of his way of “breaking” horses, Roberts had to address several conditions that similarly get in the way of understanding these learning/teaching processes in schools.

The old ways still “seem” to work.

They take longer and cost more though, and increasingly people are beginning to realize that they have “consequences.”  For example, what is “broken” in traditional horse-breaking is not the horse, but its “will.”  The consequence is loss of the horse’s spirit.

We may not be used to thinking of schools as will-breaking institutions, but the structures and processes we ALL have accepted as the scope and nature of schools can produce that consequence.  As Peter Senge points out:

“The young child learns very quickly that school is not about learning. School is about avoiding mistakes.  School is about gaining approval and avoiding disapproval.  These are the same lessons the first time worker learns.  Don’t screw up, do what you’re told, if something is screwed up make sure you don’t get blamed, at all costs look good.”

In these post-Littleton days more people are recognizing that children are largely disconnected from the two institutions that are supposed to engage and nurture their growth – the family and the school.  And both lack a “join-up” process because the need for it hasn’t been seen as “essential.”

Most people don’t understand the nature of learning as a natural process.

Until the advent of scanning technologies in recent years, we’ve had no way to “listen” to the brain.  School structures we have all accepted, and continually try to improve, turn out to be like almost all other organizational structures — they require unnatural behavior of consenting adults…and children.

Unfortunately, this new knowledge isn’t easy or natural for many people to accept because it requires a shift of fundamental beliefs.  Today, as the public and profession have been learning about how the mind learns — the fundamental truths about the “wiring” of living beings — it is primarily believed to be something that applies to children’s minds.  Just another “theory” that adults need to be “trained” to apply.

But if, like Oz’s Scarecrow, adults in schools discovered they too “had a brain,” how could this knowledge be applied to intrinsically drive needed changes in teaching and schooling processes?

Support of credible “believers.”

Roberts’ book tells the fascinating story of the key role played by Queen Elizabeth in moving his concepts to the fundamental belief level throughout a nation.  One can’t read it with out seeing connections to the types of resistance to educational approaches that derive from lack of acceptance “at the top” of a fundamentally-different way of seeing and understanding the problem.

Importantly. the book also contains critical insights for overcoming that resistance.  Most relevant,  the Queen’s transformation – now there was no way she would allow any of her horses ever to be trained the old way — was “results”-driven.  But, as opposed to education’s focus on disconnected results, the Queen could see “results” and the consequences of the results.

Yes, it also was important that the process was reduced from three-months to 30 minutes, with obvious cost savings, but the consequence for the horses spirit provided the convincing data.  “Problem” horses that had been sent to Roberts for “remediation” became World Class “winners.”

Where, outside of schools today, can one find credible believers to make the case for approaches whose consequences are an integral part of the results being monitored?

Which approaches today have consequences important enough to bring people to the leap-of-of belief similar to the Queen’s?

How might they be mobilized to help schools and communities recognize the immediate relevance of these ideas for their children?


Re-reading these words and questions today, after twelve years watching that system of kids and adults exploring their own answers, I had some new personal ah-ha’s.

1.    While others have credited me with being a “system’s thinker,” I had seen myself as more of a pattern-seeing, “system’s see -er because of the particular lens I had been peering through.  Elsewhere on this site it’s described as a Systemic Leadership and Management Lens and referred to metaphorically as Alice’s Looking Glass.

But now I could see that, like Roberts, I had become a system –listener.  My hundreds of pages of notes taken over the years were driven by two questions:  “What’s happening here?…and Why?” And it was clear that the power of the processes they developed to support the work of learning and teaching were driven by their capacity not just to listen to each other, but also to prove by their subsequent actions that they had heard.

2.    And recalling Roberts’ beliefs makes me even more convinced that the type of top leadership change that causes other school systems to default to traditional ways of doing their work isn’t going to happen in Montgomery County.  Especially now that the new superintendent has initiated a series of community and school system wide “Book Clubs” aimed at developing the capacity to “listen” and understand what it is that “comes naturally” to children and adults.

As an example, their first two books —  Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, and Daniel Pink’s  Drive: A Whole New Mind – The surprising truth about what motivates us — share in common  the intent to develop a way of understanding required to be able to “listen” to human being’s doing what comes naturally. The hope, I surmise,  is for them use this understanding as a new way-of thinking to frame the work they do. And then, within that new “paradigm,” to develop better ways to continually sustain and support those “given” intrinsic, natural processes.

3.    And, thats why this new initiative might be on the way to finding an answer to the “impossibility question” that the guru of paradigm-shifting, Joel Barker, would often ask to help people understand the profound differences a different lens or paradigm could make on ways-of-thinking:

“What one thing is impossible to do today, which if it could be done, would fundamentally change your organization for the better?

Check out the above “One Thing” link for some of my old thoughts that suggest why MCPS may be on the edge of that possibility.

So stay tuned… (I know I’ll be listening.)

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