Dial 999. It’s an Emerge-n-cy!
Many EFL teachers, faced with the task of teaching a particular point of grammar, blanch then get on with the task in hand. They may try to personalise the grammar, get it into context, drill it, hand out exercises, offer explanations, draw out what they hope are salient points, set homework and then feel mindnumbingly frustrated on reading “Today we have studied the present perfect. I have studied this last year.” Lao Tse warns us that if we fill to the brim, “it’ll spill over”. Students can’t be expected to take on board everything that we tell them. If we “Oversharpen the blade,…the edge will soon blunt.”
That is a fairly accurate description of what many of our students have experienced. Over-zealous teachers have filled their heads with too many facts and not enough experiences. It may benefit everybody if we simply “stop short”. But will the learners ever learn anything this way? One school of thought –at which I am a pupil…hell, at which I am the smarmy prefect- says “yes”. Language emerges from experience. When we teach in response to what the learners are trying to say, it seems obvious that our work is more likely to result in lasting learning. We are cautioned against spotting a weakness and wringing it dry. Remember what language is for. Ultimately, it is for putting to use, not for shoving under a microscope.
Lao Tse then urges us “To retire when the work is done.” “This,” he continues, “is the way of heaven”. The Tao of heaven. Although we have yet to decipher the language of the animals, it seems unlikely that a bird finishes its nest and then calls a few friends round to “have a quick look around the new place.” It is hard to imagine a few lions hanging out around the watering hole and reliving how they took that gazelle out. It seems hard to imagine the ants bragging about how quick they got the colony up and running. Such boasts, it would seem, are the exclusive preserve of the thinking beast, the human.
When a lesson is going well, that is the moment when the teacher should drop back and let it all unfold before his or her eyes. Harping on about it is unlikely to help much. We should avoid taking ownership of successful lessons or great ideas. After all, what works for one class, may fall flat on its face in another. More importantly, successful lessons don’t belong to us, they belong to the learners. When the lesson is over, we bow out gracefully and conserve our energies for future classes. By doing this, we are improving our chances of repeated success. The skill of teaching, LT might say, is knowing when to stop.
In an aside – and perhaps to drive up readership- let me suggest that this may be why there is some doubt about the positive role of technology –by which I mean digital technology- in the classroom. There are an awful lot of sites around now advocating the use of one program or another in the classroom. Teaching, it may be thought, is becoming technology-driven rather than learning-driven. And, like anything, when a teacher has a top lesson with whirly-bits and flashing lights, they are not going to abandon it just because people are using the language, are they? In other words, there may be the feeling that technology detracts from the teaching process by making it all about the medium not the message. And don’t come back with any Zen-shit about the medium being the message. This is a Taoist site, you feel me? Them Zen mofos can…well, perhaps I’ve been watching The Wire too much.
“Nobody can protect a house full of gold and jade,” says Lao. There are always people who can attack and make off with our goods. The Scottish Taoist, Robert Burns paraphrased “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft awry.” It is much better, then, to worry less about favourite activities, the gold and jade, and to keep things simple. It is surprising what the most simple activities can return. A dictogloss can lead the way to all sorts of grammar, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation work. It can lead onto discussion, writing and reading. But it is nothing new.
When something works well, enough to remember that it worked well and let the knowledge shape your future practice. Don’t think that you have the secret to success and then trumpet it around the staffroom. Don’t start a blog and preach in the wilderness. Don’t patent your thought and use the returns to buy a secret island. Leguin ends her translation of this part of the TTC by advising us to “do good, work well, lie low.” If that isn’t the Tao of Omar, then I don’t know what is. (And don’t read that link if you don’t want to know Omar’s future!)