Being Ariadne: Helping Students Find Their Way

Thinking and writing metaphorically is often a recommended way to clarify one’s approach to teaching. Having a particular mental image provides a reference point, or compass, to guide teaching decisions and actions. There are many interesting and colorful characters in Greek mythology that might serve as possible metaphorical models for teaching faculty.

While as teachers we may sometimes feel frustrated like Sisyphus whose fate was to continually push a huge boulder up a steep incline with no progress, such is not a satisfactory model for our teaching endeavors. And, although we might occasionally identify with Cassandra who always spoke the truth without any believers, associating our role with her is likewise unproductive. Obviously, some mythological characters are less positive than others. However, I would like to share a helpful one that works for me.

Ariadne is a mythological character who often influences my view of teaching. The daughter of Minos, king of Crete, Ariadne helped Theseus maneuver the palace labyrinth in order to slay the minotaur. She did so by giving him a ball of thread so that Theseus could find his way through the maze. In many ways the process of teaching/learning is like a maze. There are surprises, uncertainties, and dead-ends with getting lost a real possibility. Let’s briefly examine the behaviors of Ariadne that make her a promising lens for viewing our teaching role.

First, she developed a caring relationship with Theseus by wanting to be useful to him. Second, she gave him a valuable tool to be successful. By doing so, Ariadne served as a guide–Theseus still had to go into the maze and come back out again. She did not do the job for him. Finally, her actions modeled problem solving. Ariadne was willing to help Theseus “figure it out” by giving him the means to do so.

As teachers we can approach our role in a similar vein by creating relationships with our students based upon an ethic of caring and service, by equipping them with the knowledge and cognitive tools necessary to survive, and by focusing on the importance of engaging in problem solving.

Functioning as Ariadne in the classroom, we can give our students hints, warnings, prompts, and strategies to overcome learning obstacles. We can help them understand the context of situations through careful analysis. We can encourage grappling by how we pose questions and conduct class sessions. In short, we can shape our students’ orientation to solving problems by promoting an attitude of “let’s figure it out” together.

In the end Theseus abandoned Ariadne on another island. This was a sad part of the story. But as our students depart us, we should celebrate that they have become more independent and know better how to find their way in future learning encounters, i.e., how to safely make it through other mazes.

Patty H. Phelps, Ed.D. is a professor in the department of Teaching & Learning at the University of Central Arkansas.