Everything I Needed to Know About Teaching Came from The Little Prince

The Little Prince

Written and illustrated by

Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal. Here is a copy of the drawing.

LESSON #1:  Children become curious and excited about learning when they come to it organically.  They find things to be exciting and deliciously interesting when they stumble upon them through their own exploration of content.  When that happens, we must allow that exploration to extend and fan the flames of imagination and curiosity. 

When students are able to entertain their imaginations through curious exploration and discovery, they become passionate learners.  They are filled with eagerness, insatiable determination, and need no redirection to remain on task.  They are willing to share, listen, note, and refine their learning about the topic.  

 In the book it said: "Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion."
I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing. My Drawing Number One. It looked something like this:

I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.
But they answered: "Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?" 

                                       Administer this test to your own students.  

Most of my second graders surprisingly had already "grown up" replying that a hat is not scary.   A few, however, said it kind of scared them because it looked, "like a fat snake," or "a weird dinosaur without legs," or "a scary man hiding under a blanket."  It occurred to me that I had my work cut out for me if I was going to teach them to become imaginative thinkers and problem solvers. 

My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. But since the grown-ups were not able to understand it, I made another drawing: I drew the inside of a boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it clearly. They always need to have things explained. My Drawing Number Two looked like this:
The grown-ups' response, this time, was to advise me to lay aside my drawings of boa constrictors, whether from the inside or the outside, and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. That is why, at the age of six, I gave up what might have been a magnificent career as a painter. I had been disheartened by the failure of my Drawing Number One and my Drawing Number Two. Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.

Lesson #2: Do whatever it take so that you do NOT inhibit imagination or "procedure it to death."  In other words, don't demand so much from the procedure of "demonstrating understanding of the content" that students become programmed to look only for those specific procedures. 

Whenever I met one of (the grown-ups) who seemed to me at all clear-sighted, I tried the experiment of showing him my Drawing Number One, which I have always kept. I would try to find out, so, if this was a person of true understanding. But, whoever it was, he, or she, would always say:
"That is a hat."
Then I would never talk to that person about boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars. I would bring myself down to his level. I would talk to him about bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties. And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man. 

Lesson #3:  Don't silence your own imagination and playfulness.  Students need to feel like they can be themselves and celebrate their own thinking.  They need to feel like their ideas matter.  

"If you please--draw me a sheep . . ."
When a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey. Absurd as it might seem to me, a thousand miles from any human habitation and in danger of death, I took out of my pocket a sheet of paper and my fountain-pen. But then I remembered how my studies had been concentrated on geography, history, arithmetic and grammar, and I told the little chap (a little crossly, too) that I did not know how to draw. He answered me:
"That doesn't matter. Draw me a sheep . . ."
But I had never drawn a sheep. So I drew for him one of the two pictures I had drawn so often. It was that of the boa constrictor from the outside. And I was astounded to hear the little fellow greet it with,
"No, no, no! I do not want an elephant inside a boa constrictor. A boa constrictor is a very dangerous creature, and an elephant is very cumbersome. Where I live, everything is very small. What I need is a sheep. Draw me a sheep."
So then I made a drawing.

He looked at it carefully, then he said:
"No. This sheep is already very sickly. Make me another."
So I made another drawing.

My friend smiled gently and indulgently.
"You see yourself," he said, "that this is not a sheep. This is a ram. It has horns."
So then I did my drawing over once more.

But it was rejected too, just like the others.
"This one is too old. I want a sheep that will live a long time."
By this time my patience was exhausted, because I was in a hurry to start taking my engine apart. So I tossed off this drawing.

And I threw out an explanation with it.
"This is only his box. The sheep you asked for is inside."
I was very surprised to see a light break over the face of my young judge:
"That is exactly the way I wanted it!

Lesson #4:  Always continue to innovate and teach with variety and options because when you come to a place where you are just about to give up and just get out of the way and let the student mull it over for himself, you just might find he/she can discover the perfect solution to their own needs.  You just have to provide the opportunity to imagine.

I have serious reason to believe that the planet from which the little prince came is the asteroid known as B-612.
This asteroid has only once been seen through the telescope. That was by a Turkish astronomer, in 1909.

On making his discovery, the astronomer had presented it to the International Astronomical Congress, in a great demonstration. But he was in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said.
Grown-ups are like that . . .
Fortunately, however, for the reputation of Asteroid B-612, a Turkish dictator made a law that his subjects, under pain of death, should change to European costume. So in 1920 the astronomer gave his demonstration all over again, dressed with impressive style and elegance. And this time everybody accepted his report.

If I have told you these details about the asteroid, and made a note of its number for you, it is on account of the grown-ups and their ways.

Lesson #5:  Never judge a student based on anything other than what you experience with that student.  Don't meet with the teacher from last year to discuss "behaviors" or "concerns".  Don't worry about academic struggles from last year.  Be aware of them, but know that you are different.  You are fearless.  And you will be the teacher who changes everything for that student.  

When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?" Instead, they demand: "How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.
If you were to say to the grown-ups: "I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof," they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them: "I saw a house that cost $20,000." Then they would exclaim: "Oh, what a pretty house that is!"
Just so, you might say to them: "The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists." And what good would it do to tell them that? They would shrug their shoulders, and treat you like a child. But if you said to them: "The planet he came from is Asteroid B-612," then they would be convinced, and leave you in peace from their questions.
They are like that. One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people. 

Lesson #6:  Celebrate what makes a child unique.  If you have an "active"student, work with him.  Shape the need for activity, but don't try to create "cookie cutter kids."  Silencing your class and asking every student to behave, think, and act the same way is ineffective and damaging to who they are.   It is what makes each student unique that truly matters in creating a fearless classroom.

Abruptly, without anything to lead up to it, and as if the question had been born of long and silent meditation on his problem, he demanded:
"A sheep--if it eats little bushes, does it eat flowers, too?"
"A sheep," I answered, "eats anything it finds in its reach."
"Even flowers that have thorns?"
"Yes, even flowers that have thorns."
"Then the thorns--what use are they?"
I did not know. At that moment I was very busy trying to unscrew a bolt that had got stuck in my engine. I was very much worried, for it was becoming clear to me that the breakdown of my plane was extremely serious. And I had so little drinking-water left that I had to fear for the worst.
"The thorns--what use are they?"
The little prince never let go of a question, once he had asked it. As for me, I was upset over that bolt. And I answered with the first thing that came into my head:
"The thorns are of no use at all. Flowers have thorns just for spite!"
There was a moment of complete silence. Then the little prince flashed back at me, with a kind of resentfulness:
"I don't believe you! Flowers are weak creatures. They are naïve. They reassure themselves as best they can. They believe that their thorns are terrible weapons . . ."
I did not answer. At that instant I was saying to myself: "If this bolt still won't turn, I am going to knock it out with the hammer." Again the little prince disturbed my thoughts:
"And you actually believe that the flowers--"
"Oh, no!" I cried. "No, no, no! I don't believe anything. I answered you with the first thing that came into my head. Don't you see--I am very busy with matters of consequence!"
He stared at me, thunderstruck.
"Matters of consequence!"
He looked at me there, with my hammer in my hand, my fingers black with engine-grease, bending down over an object which seemed to him extremely ugly . . .
"You talk just like the grown-ups!"
That made me a little ashamed. But he went on, relentlessly:
"You mix everything up together . . . You confuse everything . . ."
He was really very angry. He tossed his golden curls in the breeze.
"I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved any one. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: 'I am busy with matters of consequence!' And that makes him swell up with pride. But he is not a man--he is a mushroom!"
"A what?"
"A mushroom!"
The little prince was now white with rage.
"The flowers have been growing thorns for millions of years. For millions of years the sheep have been eating them just the same. And is it not a matter of consequence to try to understand why the flowers go to so much trouble to grow thorns which are never of any use to them? Is the warfare between the sheep and the flowers not important? Is this not of more consequence than a fat red-faced gentleman's sums? And if I know--I, myself--one flower which is unique in the world, which grows nowhere but on my planet, but which one little sheep can destroy in a single bite some morning, without even noticing what he is doing--Oh! You think that is not important!"
His face turned from white to red as he continued:
"If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, 'Somewhere, my flower is there . . .' But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened . . . And you think that is not important!"
He could not say anything more. His words were choked by sobbing. 

Lesson #7:  If it is important to your student, it better be equally important to you.  When you catch a glimpse of passion in your students and ignore it, you are silently telling them that what they think is important, their opinions, don't matter.  Allow them time each day to share and explore their passions.

 What I learned from the planets the Little Prince visits:

From the royal king who alone ruled "over everything" and ordered the prince to yawn, sit, stand, etc. I learned

Lesson #8: that our authority is not absolute as educators.  We are not the experts in the sense that we are the primary source of information, nor are we so extraordinary that we cannot continue to learn from our students and each other.

From the planet of the conceited man I learned:

Lesson #9:  That my ego must not get in the way of my teaching or my growing as a professional.

From the planet belonged to a businessman I learned:  

Lesson #10:  Take time to enjoy the opportunity to engage in learning with your students.  Don't allow data, scores, grades, levels, etc. to prevent you from looking up often and experiencing the joy and blessings that occur in your classroom daily.

From the planet of the geographer who created maps but never actually went anywhere I learned:

Lesson #11:  Experiential learning is far more important than fact consumption.  Students come to us with limited experiences.  It is up to us to provide those experiences.  with technology today and virtual field trips, YouTube instructional videos for science labs and PBL, there really is no excuse to ask students to simply draw a map.  Allow them to experience the places they are learning about, travel virtually, connect with a class there, but don't just stop at drawing the map.

Lastly,  and perhaps most importantly, the following quote from The Little Prince is arguably the one I draw from most often:

“Goodbye, said the fox. And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

Lesson #12:  Teach from the heart.  Love your job, love the opportunities, love the kids.  Create and perpetuate genuine passion for what you do.  Facilitate passion in your students.  

Everything I needed to know about teaching...from a small little child from planet B-612.