The Thinker: Praise the Tortoise and Recognize the Hare

Daniel Vollrath

Daniel Vollrath, Ed.D. (@HabitsofMindInc) is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, and a United States Professional Development Trainer for the Institute for Habits of Mind. As a current educational leader within the classroom, Daniel’s best practices, strategies, goals, classroom culture, and interactions with students with a learning disability are centered around the Habits of Mind. Infusing dispositional thinking and strategies into IEP procedural formats, behavioral plans, inclusive environments, and developing 21st-century skills into students with learning disabilities is paramount to his beliefs and values as an educator. Daniel provides extensive workshops custom-fit to the needs, visions, and goals of any school district.

Please feel free to email any questions or ideas you may have in regard to topics – danvollrath44@gmail.com. In addition, follow Daniel on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


As human beings, we all possess an ability to think and process information in order to make sense of an idea. Completing a task like this varies with regard to an individual’s speed, accuracy, and success. Take, for example, a recent experience I encountered in the classroom when I distributed an open-ended reading comprehension quiz to assess students’ knowledge on the first five chapters of The Catcher in the Rye. This formative 10 question check often takes students an average of 20 minutes to complete.

What caught my immediate attention was the disparity of time, mostly, with regard to “when” students finished, and “how” well they did.

Of the 16 out of 23 students who finished at or under the 20-minute mark, their answers provided less detail, minimal information, and general lack of sufficient understanding. For the students who were over the 20-minute mark, their answers showed deeper thinking and more refined answers connected to the questions asked. When I uncovered this trend, it got me questioning the way I approach and recognize the behavior of “thinking” within and surrounding my students varying learning capacities.

To what extent does the culture of learning in my classroom value the tortoises (those who need extra time to finish or learn a concept) and the hares (those who finish or learn a concept quickly)?

In the fable, The Tortoise and the Hare a slow yet persistent tortoise challenged an outspoken self-boasting hare to a race. To the hare, this challenge was accepted with cockiness and laughter as this was more of a joke than anything else. So the race began and off the hare went dominating his opponent from the start. With few respites throughout the course, the hare relaxed and enjoyed the pleasures of the day. Although, the persistent tortoise kept moving along the path until it finally came to the finish line. And, as we all could expect, beat the hare. Yes, the slow and steady tortoise won the race!

The central message from this fable serves as an analogy for identifying what teachers tend to overlook – intention and pace matter more than completion and speed.

What does this mean?

All teachers have students that are “hares” – those who finish first with assignments, answer discussion questions before others have an opportunity, and complete a quiz at an alarming speed. This should not be viewed as a problem especially when these students are showing progress and success in learning the intended goals. Although, it does impact the equitability for the “tortoises” in the classroom. These students may process information at a slower pace, struggle retaining information, display weakness in recalling prior knowledge, and/or stumble when trying to communicate ideas when speaking.

To alleviate the pressure and anxiety that comes along with this persona of being a tortoise is the response of just not participating, rushing to complete a quiz, and neglecting the act of engagement. A strategic approach for creating a more equitable and safe zone for “tortoises” is by incorporating four specific Habits of Mind as a common language and behavioral practice in a learning environment while keeping an equitable learning experience for all. In addition, this approach leads to a more personalized learning experience for children.

Habits of Mind for Learning Equity

  1. Promote Creating, Imagining, and Innovating with Formative Assessments. When designing assessments offer a choice of creative tasks or questions. Plus, set a reasonable time limit for when the assessment needs to be turned in – taking into consideration a rough time expectation of your tortoises in the classroom.
  2. Thinking Independently through Discussion Format. To keep equitable opportunities to share and learn from a discussion, when it comes time to assess understanding, instead of asking the whole class, ask students to share with a partner their thoughts or ideas to a question. As a teacher, you can walk around and monitor this process. This gives voice to all through an equitable approach.
  3. Thumbs Up when Striving for Accuracy in Note Taking. Whether it’s math formulas, powerpoint science notes, writing down dates in history, or grammar corrections in English – note-taking can become an arduous task. You need to make sure you get notes before the teacher moves on. As a teacher, to make sure all students have equal opportunity to take notes, provide a simple sign that everyone can share when they are ready to move on. Thumbs up, nod, peace sign….whatever fits your culture.
  4. Using Metacognition for Setting a Deadline. Offer a range of dates for assignment deadlines. This allows students to brainstorm, plan ahead, set goals, and follow through with an assignment at their own pace – accountability must be a standard within and throughout this process. In the end, all students are personalizing their time frame and learning.

Remember, always allow the tortoises to shine just as much as the hare – that is equality matching up with learning at its best.

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