Monday, February 27, 2012

Don't judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree - The problem with assessment

Editor's note: This is one of my favorite stories highlighting some of what is wrong with assessment, but first a great comic that captures the fables sentiment and a quote.

‎"Everyone is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." -Albert Einstein

The Animal School: A Fable

by George Reavis

Animal SchoolOnce upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

Does this fable have a moral?

Note: This story was written when George Reavis was the Assistant Superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools back in the 1940s! This content is in the public domain and free to copy, duplicate, and distribute. If you would prefer a full-color, illustrated book, one is currently available from Crystal Springs Books at1-800-321-0401 or 603-924-9621 (fax 603-924-6688)


  1. I love this fable. Thank you very much for sharing it. Einstein's quote is one of my personal favourites about abilities.
    I often tell a story about a young man who works for me. He has handwriting and printing that looks like a young child. He hates to even pick up a pen. He struggled to pass 9th grade. Because he did not have a diagnosed Learning Disability, they would not make accomodation for this. He ended up quitting school before the end of grade 10. However, he is one of the brightest young men I know. His memory is astounding! He has instant recall of more than 3000 complex item identification codes. He recognizes patterns in these codes, to aid in the recall He can take apart any broken tool and repair it. Our industry requires the use of geometric concepts, and numerical calculations constantly and he is very skilled at both, even though he never studied geometry. I once asked him why he did not return to school to become an engineer and he told me point blank, that it was because he is "dumb".
    How could the lack of ability to hand-write mean that he is dumb? When pressed, he told me that he always failed test, because no one could read what he wrote. He could not write the answers that the teachers wanted. I often wonder how far that same young man would have gotten if he had been in a program that allowed him to build on his strengths and allowed him to mitigate his weakness, by allowing him to work as part of a team on assignments. He would have been a great team leader.

  2. That quote is NOT by Einstein. Please set the recors straight so this stops spreading.

  3. Replies
    1. A wonderful fable, thanks for sharing it!
      ‘Don’t judge a fish…’ is one of my favourite quotes about learning differences. David Sousa, author of 'How the Brain Learns' was also spot-on, when he admonished, “Do not ask how smart is my child, but how is my child smart?” Children ARE smart but in DIFFERENT ways; they ARE talented, but in different areas. Learning IS more than test scores and it really is time the education system recognized the need for educating wholistically!
      (If the Arts, were standardize-tested, you can bet your life they would figure much more prominently in schools! Have a lyrical day! ♫ ♫ ♫ :-)

      Nuala O’Hanlon
      Primary Teacher

      Keystone Creations ~ Educational Songs

  4. Fable? Perhaps. Analogy? No. A school full of only ducks SHOULD be assessed on their ability to swim and fly, just as a school full of people should be assessed on their ability to do "people things". Assessments for human students are constantly revised and updated to reflect new knowledge and new understandings of human learning and capabilities. Curriculum are assessments are differentiated to attempt to reach all learners and provide measures of individual achievement. But we still needs standards and expectations to judge which personal acheivements rise to the level of rocket scientist.


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