Heaven and Earth are ruthless;
They see the ten thousand things as dummies.
The wise are ruthless;
They see the people as dummies.
Did you ever wonder why there weren’t more people called Ruth in EFL?
“OK, whaddawegot here?” as they say in TV cop programmes. Lao describes the natural world as ruthless. It doesn’t have any morality. It’ll stomp on your brains without even stopping to take off its shoes. It’ll drown the cute little kittens by tossing them into a well, weighted down with cute little puppies. The natural world is one mean mo’fo. Next to the natural world, everything else is pretty much a fake, inanimate dummy.
Wise people, like you, but principally like me, are also pretty goddamn ruthless.We see everyone else as a dummy. Eh? Oh! Right! Not going to win many friends that way. No…wise people, that is people who don’t waste their time navel-gazing, are aware that all the theoreticians and their theories are also like shopwindow dummies. They look real, but when you look under their pants, you find out that they’re just pale imitations.
Actually, I think Old Todger was just trying to reiterate his main point about how the duality of the Natural World and the Civilised World is based on an illusion. We are part of the natural world, for all of our conceits about how we have tamed nature. So, how do people learn language? The natural way. What’s the natural way? Only a dummy would think that they understand. Is there anything we can say about the natural way? Yes: it’s constant.
The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes, but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
More words count less.
Hold fast to the centre.
This is open to interpretation on any one of a number of levels. Let”s look at what it has to tell us about teaching. Well, we all know that teaching passes through fads. One moment it’s a good idea to electrocute students who give the wrong answers and feed cheese to those who give the right answers; the next, it’s all about making them try to forget the fact that the quickest way around an information-gap is to show your partner your text/picture/screen. But essentially, whilst the shape changes, the form remains the same: teaching involves creating experiences for learners that will help them develop their knowledge of the subject.
The best sort of teaching is the most natural sort of teaching. This is the teaching that is not fixed and permanent, but flexible and adaptive. It changes form and shape to meet the needs and demands that it comes up against. It yields when put under pressure. It is shaped by external forces and pressures. And when it does this it blows sparks and starts fires. [CUE THE PRODIGY] So what external forces and pressures start the best fires?
Well, the ones that exert the right kind of forces and pressures. For example, you can take a bellows and submit it to all sorts of forces and pressures that would not be conducive to the purpose of the firestarting. You can blow up its hole; you can wrench its handles apart. But that’s not really a very good use of a bellows, is it (he bellowed)? In education, that might be the same as decreeing that teaching must be done to groups of 60, with mixed abilities, twice a week for twenty minutes each time. It’s cheap, cheerless and chotally chtupid. Yet it’s what passes for educational policy in many places; evidence that governments are imbeciles.
Then you get the pressures and forces that students bring to class. You go in meaning to talk about chaffinches and the students are all talking about World of Warcraft. What do you do? You’ve got the chaffinch or the warlocks. Chaffinch. Warlock. Chaffinch. Warlock. WARLOCK OF BLOODY COURSE! Succumb to the pressures of student interests. Why would you do anything different -despite what some people
OK…it seems obvious now. But how were you to know that it would be better to shut up about the bloody chaffinch and listen to the students. Where was the clue? Well – the wise old prune told you that “More words count less.” He meant that if you just blab on and on and on, you’re not really helping anyone, although it might feel niiiiice. Let other people get a word in. Understand that if you are still talking, it’s unlikely that anyone’s still listening. This blog post has over 1000 words…
“Hold fast to the centre.” Hold fast to the centre? What the hell does that mean? The centre is where there is least movement. The world spins around the centre. Don’t believe me? Go and sit in the middle of a roundabout in a kids’ playground. Hold fast. Now do the same without sitting at the centre. Now run like the wind before the police arrive. So Lao tells us to go to a place of relative stillness, but be where we can move with the rest. We can sit at the centre where we will also serve as a useful point of reference for the whirling dervishes that we constantly talk about with…AT…our students!
Holding fast to the centre may also mean saying goodbye to lesson plans and schemes of work and a fixed idea of where you are going in each lesson. You can’t plan the unplannable and schemes of work are unlikely to say anything that is worthwhile saying. As for where you are going, you can only hope that it is a better place than the present. Surprisingly, you may find some resistance from managers and even students. Although you are expected to buy into the dream of flexibility and adaptation, the system can be very inflexible with people who question its order. Lesson plans must be written. Schemes of work are evidence of planning and are needed by students to know the path ahead. But how can you know the path ahead until you are on it? It’s a journey into unchartered territory. Your learners are individuals working in society. Never before in the history of teaching have these individuals combined to form what is now the class that you teach and consequently, you cannot be expected to predict the outcomes. You can offer to write post-lesson schemes of work and plans that record what has happened as opposed to what might happen. You could argue that students will benefit more from knowing what they have done rather than what you planned for them to do. After all, we regularly plan to do things that don’t get done, as the partner of any reluctant DIYer will tell you.
So, in summary: let nature take its course (as if you have any choice); trust no Right Answer because nobody knows the right answer (well…I do, but I’m not telling). Move with the demands that come from the students; ignore all other external forces; stay central, but let things happen around you. Never choose the chaffinch.