43 – A Herrodian number (see comments)
I know the good in not doing.
The wordless teaching,
the profit in not-doing -
not many people understand it.
What amazes me more than anything about the Tao Te Ching is that it was written 2500 years ago and yet still says things like this. How is this different from Dogme? How is this different from learner-centred education? How is this different from developing learner autonomy? Why do people argue that you can’t impose “western” ways on a “Chinese” teaching culture? Not-doing? Wordless teaching? So, what is this mysterious “Chinese” teaching culture? Might it not be a “communist” teaching culture? Or – to risk avoid the ire of my friends over at the seemingly defunct (?) Marxist ELF- more accurately a “State Capitalist” teaching culture? How can we seriously suggest that a culture which gave rise to the likes of Tao and Lao Tzu is rigidly hierarchical and in need of a teaching style that is at odds with our enlightened western ways? 2500 years ago, Lao Tzu would have kicked our ass (although there is no evidence to suggest that he was ever anything but respectful to dumb beasts of burden).
Allons-y, mes braves.
Riddle me this: what is the softest thing in the universe?
Riddle me that: What is the hardest thing in the universe?
Clue: The answer to one of these questions is water; the answer to the other is stone. Good luck. A bottle of Cuarenta y Tres to the winner (don’t try and enforce this offer through the courts).
And what happens when water tries to force its way trhough stone? I’ll tell you what happens: water wins. There’s a very good reason why we don’t play “Rock, paper, scissors, water.” Water would always win. It’d turn the scissors rusty and render them ineffective. It would turn the paper soggy and then burst through the bottom, leaving only mulch behind. It’d erode the rock and leave some interesting…errr…stalagmites/stalagtites/stalag lufts. Water would even beat water. The game would have to be rained off.
Lao’s point is that if the softest can smash the strongest, the world is a pretty messed-up place. In a move that would seem him decried as work-shy in David Cameron’s Britain and stripped of all of his state benefits, Lao draws the conclusion that there is value in non-action. Non-action, or wu-wei, as it is usually transcribed from Chinese, is a central tenet of taoism. We’ve come across it before when Lao advised us that if we leave things alone, we will later be able to jump up and shout, “We did it!” Bob the Builder is not a taoist. Because when we stop interfering, what gets done is usually what gets done. Very often, it is not entirely dissimilar from what needed to get done. Leave well alone.
And just how is it that water creates mountains? How can the wind bend a tree? Water is flexible: it takes the shape of the container in to which it is poured and it also shapes itself around any obstacle that you may choose to put in its way. Wind is flexible. It also allows itself to adapt to the dimensions of whatever it meets. By shaping ourselves to whatever we encounter, we are able to bend it to our will [cue Evil laugh].
To do this, we must look carefully at whatever it is that we encounter. What do we see? A Chinese learner? No! We see an individual. And the individual has a story, has many stories. It is our job to allow these stories to come forth. And, as they do, we adapt our shape to the form that begins to emerge. We adapt our language to the stories that begin to emerge. Our language -which forms part of who we are- must also take on the properties of water and wind and adapt itself to its surroundings. If teachers were able to drive around in Teacher Cars, like the police get Police Cars, instead of To Serve and Protect, we’d have To Allow and Adapt painted on the side. Allow what? Other people’s actions. Adapt to what? Other people’s actions. So, with so many people doing things, the teacher is left to do nothing? Yes. Like Lao, I know the good in not-doing.
The wordless teaching requires a very verbose learning. That’s not a bad thing. The teacher taking a back seat creates a need for the learners to take the reins. That’s not a bad thing. Responsibility for learning is placed where it should be – in the hands of the learners. The teacher morphs from the traditional manager-of-learners into a manager-of-learning. There is uproar from some: WHAT ABOUT THE LEARNERS WHO JUST WANT TO BE TAUGHT? HOW DARE YOU ABDICATE ALL OF YOUR RESPONSIBILITY AS A TEACHER? SO WHAT ARE YOU GETTING PAID FOR THEN? I have but two words for these people. Can you guess what they might be?
Wu-wei. (Actually, “Wu-wei, M**********rs.”) If they don’t understand, I take solace from the Tao Te Ching reminding me that
Teaching without words and work without doing
Are understood by very few.
I’d like to invite you to try it out the next time you are observed as part of your qualification or as part of your institution’s accreditation or your annual appraisal. You may wish to drop the “M**********rs” element.