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One…being the first

Anyone who tells you that they know the secret to teaching English is talking out of their…errr…hat. The people who have been around for a while like to bamboozle newcomers by pontificating that principled eclecticism is the key to effective teaching. In other words, plunder what you can from where you can and if it works, then call it principled eclecticism.

This is all well and good, but it still requires teachers to plunder from an already existing body of knowledge; it still reinforces the ideas that there are people out there who know and people out there who just follow in their starry trail.

But the opening of the TTC tells us that the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao. When you start naming things, you start putting up boundaries that pin concepts down. When you resist sticking labels and definitions onto things, you acknowledge that they are still alive and still changing and therefore beyond (any useful) definition.

This is very true of teaching. Books and magazines are all full of references to how fads from previous decades are being brought back to life and now sit alongside new things that will soon be discredited and dismissed before being resuscitated to sit alongside old ideas that have been reborn as new ones. This only becomes a problem for those who have already defined themselves as followers of the communicative approach or who have sold all their worldly goods and donated the earnings to the School of Task Based Learning.

Such people would do well to remember one Essential Truth: we haven’t got a clue about how people learn languages. All the theories about second language acquisition remain just that: theories. Now, the TTC tells us that if we just learn how to get over ourselves, it will all become clear. If we keep agonising about it all, we’ll end up with very limited vision.

Somewhat unpromisingly, the TTC also tells us that what will become clear is darkness. Great. So, having transcended to a higher level and achieved a rare insight, you learn that the secret is…a complete mystery. And all that money going into SLA…

Without mystery, there isn’t much of a driving force. But our world thinks that mysteries are bad and are to be solved. It’s not good for nature to hold onto its secrets; if it does that, then we can’t control it. A taoist answer might be that we can’t control it anyway, we can just limit its impact on us and why would we want to do that? Mysteries are to be enjoyed. They also offer us security: you can never know, so why worry about it? Just work with what presents itself before you. Sometimes you may need to revert to unprincipled eclecticism as well.

Ursula Le Guin writes that she feels this first part of the TTC is impossible to translate accurately. It is, she believes, the key to the whole thing. Within its lines is contained all of the wisdom of the TTC. It was a brave move of Lao, putting this right at the start. How many EFL books are sitting on my bookshelves with only the first two or three pages dog-eared, the rest of the book pristine? More than one.

In brief, the EFL teacher can draw from this first part that there is no one way of teaching, not even principled eclecticism. The best way to teach is to teach in the way that you think is best. If you do this, you’re onto a winner and opening the door into the darkness. Of course, it’s not as easy as this. You will be surrounded by people, books and magazines who will have plenty to say about your choices and they may not always be very complimentary. You will have to battle against your experience that tells you that children need limits or that adults won’t do this. You will have to rewire the circuits that tell you that a good teacher does it this way or that. Perhaps there are only two things that can be said about a good teacher: firstly, that they care about themselves, their students and their work. The other thing is that you are a good teacher.

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