High Expectations, Student Conformity or Clipping Wings?

Stories can be wonderful pedagogical tools; their openness and ambiguity can draw students into deep and rich conversation; and an appreciation of the ideas of others.

Stories can be wonderful pedagogical tools

I recently came across a tale that has stayed with me, and that now hovers in the back of mind when I interpret a situation.  I’m going to share it with a class, to see what they make of it.   It’s from Sufi thinker Idries Shah’s stories about Nasrudin, the 13th century Iranian philosopher-comic, and is a typical mix of his humour and wisdom:

Nasrudin found a weary falcon sitting one day on his window-sill. He had never seen a bird like this before.

“You poor thing”, he said, “how ever were you to allowed to get into this state?” He clipped the falcon’s talons and cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers.

 “Now you look more like a bird”, said Nasrudin.

The more I think about this, the more there seems to be in this story – about knowing when to act and when not to; about recognising our own needs for control and order; about understanding nature; about helping others be the best they can be; and about living with messiness.  But the most powerful message to me comes from knowing that without its clipped talons and straight beak, the bird cannot hunt; and with its feathers trimmed it cannot fly.  That message is that sometimes our expectations can lead us to damage the very things we love.

This famous image is usually applied to success.   But it’s much more widely applicable.

I have been thinking about this as I have been watching my own children this term. They are making many choices, not all entirely to my liking.  But they are their choices. I don’t want to be a laissez-faire anything goes parent; but nor do I want to hammer the messy knot of their reality into the over-simplified linear arrow of my expectations.   So when to intervene?  The question is easy to pose; but easy answers are hard to come by.  I have tried a few general principles to guide me (when it’s a matter of safety or when it involves other people or when there is danger of upsetting someone or when it is inconsiderate) but none of these guidelines ever really fully work across the board, and each situation seems to raise its own complexities.

The same applies, perhaps more forcefully, to general school life.  For organisational management, for reasons of equity, and pragmatic safety concerns when we schools have so many students, we cannot always allow every individual to be totally individual.  Of course, learning about living in groups is an important skill in itself, so there is a gain as well as a loss here, and having clipped talons may be necessary in a community.  There is, furthermore, a great deal to be said for high expectations –  but one person’s high is another’s absurd.  My own take away here is that as we develop policy and procedures, we should remain mindful of Nasrudin, and how much damage he did with his steps to bring the thing he loved in line with his expectations.


Shah, I.(1985) The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. London: Octagon Press



By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin

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