When the Horse is Dead, Dismount

New Rule:  When the Horse is Dead, Have Sense Enough to Dismount

Years ago I found the following story which I attached to the end of this new rule.  A few years ago a colleague told me about a book If You’re Riding a Horse and It Dies. Get Off. (1999) by Jim Grant and Char Forsten. Some of the statements in the story are similar to the book.

Although both have similar statements, the lesson is the same. If the idea is dead, stop and do something else.  When I am asked, ‘what have you learned during your forty years in education?’ I respond, ‘If what you are doing isn’t working. DO SOMETHING ELSE.’  Duh!

Think of organizations that have gone out of business because of the inability to change.  Alan Deutschman (2007) wrote a book titled Change or Die.  A quote in Deutschman’s book is, “The best teachers do much more than demonstrating technique and correct errors. They inspire and sustain hope by communicating their belief in you and point out the small improvements you’re making, which often you don’t notice yourself.  They sell you on their competence, they sell you on their methods, and most important, they sell you on your own potential.”

Selling, or helping students believe in their own potential is behind two of my most admired educational authors and committed teachers.  Yvette Jackson (2011) wrote Pedagogy of Confidence.  As the former Director of Gifted and Talented in New York City, she writes about high engagement strategies to use in classrooms with under-resourced students. Secondly, Jon Saphier (2017) wrote High Expectation Teaching.  I have mentioned Jon’s work previously. He provides fifty ways to help kids know they are smart.  These two people are my shero and hero for taking on the difficult task of helping kids learn with real classroom-tested strategies.

I know I have seen this quote somewhere,  ‘some people would rather die than change, in fact, they do.’  Those people have gone down with the horse.  Unfortunately, riding a horse when it dies, may mean you get your leg caught underneath the carcass.  Then, being trapped, you can’t get out from underneath the horse. Of course, that is one result, not the one I would like for learning and education. No Learning – No Change.  No Change – No Learning. These two are interconnected.

As my friend and colleague Skip Olsen is fond of saying, “the carcass starts to stink when the horse is dead.”  I recommend reflecting on the great ideas and strategies we have implemented in education.  Many were responses to problems to solve negative consequences.  Kudos to those who keep trying to solve problems.  However, what worked five years ago might not be working as well now.  Yes, systems change, demographics change, and those in education have to figure out what to change and what not to while preparing students for a future unknown to us.

Another friend and colleague, former 3M leadership trainer said, “intended consequences sometimes happen, unintended consequences always happen.”  Because of the lagging indicators, we sometimes do not see the unintended consequences until a lot of time has passed.  That is the reason we need to keep focusing on results and being creative rather than assuming what worked in the past will work in the future.  By addressing new problems we can generate new strategies thereby expanding our repertoire to ignite learning for more kids.

One more thought is from Matt Miller (2009) in his book, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.” Miller uses the term “intellectual inertia” which says that major shocks are sometimes needed to expose that conventional wisdom is not being productive.  Examples he offers are in the 30s, the great depression; in the 60s, the Civil Rights movement; and in the 70s, the savings and loan crisis.  Of course, in 2008 we had the financial collapse that caused the need for new approaches. I strongly suggest reading ‘the Tyranny of Dead Ideas’ to examine some of his dead ideas and reflect on our own practice in schools.  Here’s one  Miller presents – our kids will earn more than we do.  Yikes.  Miller also addresses school board, health care, and open markets.

Here are few others he says are on the horizon:  TOMORROW’S DESTINED IDEAS

  • Only government can save business
  • Only the (lower) upper class can save us from inequality
  • Only a dose of “nationalization” can save local schools
  • Only lessons from abroad can save American ideals

Dead Ideas give way under the pressure of events. Our task is to get ready for the world that is being born.

A quote that keeps me up at night from Miller’s book is, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” I believe the need to increase learning for students is directly proportional to the need to increase learning for our teachers and administrators.  So, what are you learning?  What are you modeling?  Are your behaviors dead or alive?

Miller suggests we develop a “Dead Ideas Watch List.”  What’s on your list? What is not working? What policies or procedures are near death? How else can we address those issues?  Again, if it isn’t working, try something else.

There is NO more important relationship than a student to a teacher.  We learn more from someone we believe in and trust.  At least I did. Maybe we change the language to learner and learning guides.  Whatever you call it, GET UP, TODAY IS  A WORK DAY.  (Angeles Arrien)

I offer the following story I mentioned in the opening paragraph to help us understand how we may have tried to deal with problems in the past.  It can be used as a checklist of current practices that may need to be re-examined.  I got this years ago and if I knew who wrote it or sent it to me, I would cite them.  If anyone knows, please let me know so I can give proper credit.

An Educational Horse Story

Seems simple enough; yet, in the education business, we don’t always follow that advice.  Instead, we choose from an array of other alternatives that include:

  1. Buying a stronger whip.
  2. Trying a new bit or bridle.
  3. Switching riders.
  4. Moving the horse to a new location.
  5. Riding the horse for longer periods of time.
  6. Appointing a committee to study the horse.
  7. Visit other sites where they ride dead horses more efficiently.
  8. Increasing the standards for riding dead horses.
  9. Creating an assessment to measure our riding ability.
  10. Conduct a study to compare how we’re riding dead horses now as compared with how we did ten or twenty years ago.
  11. Designing new styles of riding dead horses.
  12. Blaming the horse’s parents.
  13. Saying things like, “This is the way we’ve always ridden dead horses.”
  14. Tightening the saddle cinch.
  15. Identify pilot sites and have them develop innovative ways to ride dead horses.
  16. Complain about the state of horses these days.




Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!