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Sjutton också!

This is one of those parts of the TTC that need to be memorised and then lived by, especially if you’re a teacher. It deals with, on the surface, the nature of leadership. Lao favoured the kind of leader who “is barely known by men”. Presumably the women could have his picture all over the ladies’ washroom.

...and now, "The future perfect".

The top dog, says Lao, is the one that nobody realises is there. The one who just lets people get on with things. “WAIT A MINUTE!” shouts the teaching profession, “You can’t just let Them get on with it. There’d be anarchy!” An argument which, when talking to an anarchist, is rather diminished. And of course, an argument which is totally groundless. Because removal of constraint is not freedom, it is the granting of permission to act freely. Now, if you have the power to give somebody the right to act freely, they are not really free. They are still subject to your granting of their rights. It’s the same with the mot du jour “empowerment”. We do activities to empower our learners. But if you are powerful enough to give power to your learners, it doesn’t really address the fundamental hierarchy, does it? After all, he who giveth also taketh away. The learners, might I venture, should be empowering themselves.

Lao was talking about acting as real anarchists! Power is not yours to bestow, it is yours to share. But it is also the students’ to share. How could Lao have had such daft ideas? Well, because he trusted people. And in return he was trusted by people. They knew that he wasn’t trying to control them. And so they didn’t see him as a threat to be resisted. As a result, people were free to get on with things. When things we accomplished, people were able to look back and say “We did it!”

And that’s what this chapter is about. People doing things “without unnecessary speech” and looking back to say “We did it!” Not “You’re a really good teacher!”, but “We did it.” In the Taoist EFL classroom there is very little glory for the teacher. The teacher takes a back seat and creates space for people to use the language. As the play is being written, the teacher can join in and point out where things appear to be getting a reaction that is different to the intended one, but the main focus is on students AND teacher recreating a world within their classroom. At the end of the learning experience, the students should be able to look back and see how their learning has helped them achieve things that they couldn’t do before. They should look around the classroom and see their classmates and the evidence that their studies have progressed and they should use the first person PLURAL to summarise their achievements. They don’t say “I did it,” or “You helped ME do it.” They recognise that the space they inhabit, the time they inhabit, is a shared time and a shared space and that it was constructed by all. They are almost oblivious to the teacher who scampered around helping to resolve problems and maintain the impetus. For Lao, this kind of teacher is the “true leader.” The next time you see a student in the street who clearly doesn’t remember your name, you should feel honoured, not rejected!

There is also a message here for the applied linguists, those people of science who have spent the last sixty years trying to come up with order in this apparently chaotic system. Lao says that in order to achieve, “actions…without unnecessary speech” are vital. Do, don’t talk. Lao was, it would appear, not very enamoured with the academics. This might have been because Taoists tend to view the world as an illusion or perhaps they view it as illusory. That is, the things we agonise over are pretty insignificant and are often the objects of our gaze because we want to find out how to control them. Applied Linguists look at language acquisition in the hope that they discover a quick and easy Way to Language Learning. Michel Thomas, the language guru to the stars, is busy making a fortune out of telling people that his method is the method. All of it nonsense, of course. Lao says that we need to get on and do and forget about the whys and wherefores – quite the opposite from Socrates’ admonition that the unexamined life is not worth living.

In fact, Lao has often been criticised for preaching a creed of passivity and resignation. This idea of people not really thinking and just doing  might be a good example of this. Shouldn’t Lao be advising people to think about their situation? Shouldn’t we be analysing things first then acting? Well, Lao is not advocating passivity or resignation. He is advocating action and recognising that this is what happens first. The peasants and working class of the Russian revolution didn’t sit around arguing whether it was better to be a dialectical materialist rather than one of those vodka swilling dialectical idealists. They thought no more than, “Bloody hell it’s cold and I’m starving. Let’s go and see what old Alex has got over at the Winter Palace.”

Why should we waste our time and our effort in agonising over the unexplainable? In the hope that progress is made…perhaps as an offshoot? Why not just teach? Why not just use language? The argument will be that because if we just taught that would mean that learners would still be sitting down translating the works of Shakespeare into Urdu. But that’s also the antithesis of Taoist EFL. Remember, the grammar translation method was there to force people to break the language down into grammatical structures. It also rested on the assumption that because it had been said in English, the same idea must exist in Urdu. Taoist EFL wouldn’t say that. Taoist EFL would say that language is about who you are and what your world looks like. It would expect you to use language to shape yourself and your world. The Taoist teacher would make room for your language to perform this task and would guide it to an effective way of achieving it. One way of doing this is to trust that nature will take care of providing a syllabus: learners will need to learn what they need to learn. This is a big concept for people to get their heads around. Without the guiding path of a syllabus (based, more often than not, on what sells books rather than anything else), people cannot trust that everything that needs to be covered will be covered. Thornbury made the point that grammar should be uncovered rather than covered. And I have to admit that the first image that comes into my mind when I think of things that are covered is a coroner pulling a sheet over a dead body. But for those people who are untrusting of the idea that people’s need for grammar will emerge from their need to be understood, Lao reminds us that, “To give no trust/Is to get no trust.”

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Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. January 12, 2010 at 15:13

    I’m just going to comment on the last bit about a syllabus. Well I entirely agree that a syllabus could naturally emerge from the classroom, I think this requires a very experienced teacher.

    I’ve been analyzing more and more what I do in the classroom and I realized I’m able to enable a more leaner-centered course because I’m very familiar with different grammar and functions that are useful. I know what to pull out of the learner’s language, what to highlight, and what to add. I have all these old syllabi in my head and I pull out the ones most relevant to the class at any given time. The same goes for relevant information or lesson activities. Someone mentions the word sick and I can think of a large number of activities and lessons I’ve done related to this. I know my learners, I know what to introduce, I know what to hold back on. I simply pull ideas and plans down from the mental shelf and incorporate it as necessary. I know how to expand on and support the learners in the direction they are taking the class. (Of course, I still have a long way to go with this myself. The Tao states that perfection is an illusion).

    Now ask a new teacher to do this. There is no way. Many teachers need or simply prefer a guide. This guide gives direction, as guides tend to do, and, whether you stick to that guide or throw it aside, it exists as a reference point. It provides a framework within which to work. It also helps teachers and students understand where they maybe should be and where they could go.

    Honestly, I tried discussing throwing out the books and syllabi with my teachers and there were just looks of horror. I tried showing alternatives ways of teaching and I met confusion. I started really breaking down dogme-style teaching and realized it’s incredibly hard to do if you don’t have solid experience. I also remember reading somewhere that teachers who are given a coursebook and given the option not to use it perform much better than teachers who were not given a coursebook in the first place.

  2. dfogarty
    January 12, 2010 at 22:28

    Thanks Nick. A good point. But one which the TTC might cover in Section Twenty. The verse begins with the exhortation to, “Give up learning and put an end to all your troubles.” I won’t preempt myself here, but think it is worth reflecting on whether or not giving up learning to “teach” might also be an option. You write that experience is fairly central, but it could be argued that experience helps us to undo the mess that teacher training leaves us in. Would things be different if teachers were trained to deal with emergent language? Might it even be better if teachers found their own way (or Way)? They wouldn’t have to do this in isolation – God knows there’s enough teaching books and peer observation would also be a very useful tool.

    I’ve argued this point in different places before. You write, “Many teachers need or simply prefer a guide.” The same could be said of heroine for junkies, but it doesn’t mean that it does them any good!

    Of course, we’re branching off into the hypothetical land of Utopia and it might not be the most useful place to be. But the Cuban singer-songwriter, Silvio Rodriguez, once sang, “I prefer to talk about impossible things because we know too well what “the possible” is.” It’s a beautiful line and one that you can hear him sing if you go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FS4T_n8kxDk.

    People may feel that they need the crutch of a coursebook or a syllabus, but imagine the sense of freedom if they find themselves without one!

  3. January 13, 2010 at 09:28

    Taoism has never been a big fan of education. I wouldn’t say experience has helped me leave behind the things I have been taught. It has helped me build and modify the things I have learned. For all we complain about CELTA certificate courses, I can’t imagine starting teaching without having gone through it and I still incorporate many of the foundational ideas I learned there.

    I’m not sure your analogy fits, but I do agree that prefering the book doesn’t mean it’s the best option.

    I like dogme or taoist approaches to teaching, but it’s not for everyone and a true taoists really have trouble advocating any one Way.

    I don’t know. I’ve been really struggling with trying to impart some of my teaching style to my teachers, but at the same time I’m a big advocate of the idea that there can be as many different styles to teaching as there are teachers and quite obviously, mine isn’t going to be the best for every teacher or every learner. What’s really difficult is sorting out things I feel every teacher really should be doing and at the same time allowing them to develop in their own direction. It’s an issue that I see constantly repeated on the net and often there are simply more ideologies than solutions given as answers.

  4. dfogarty
    January 14, 2010 at 07:19

    Thanks again, Nick, for taking the time. You have put a slight twist on what I wrote and I think that it may have skewed your response. I wrote that experience helps us undo the mess that training leaves us in which is not the same as to say that experience helps us leave behind what we have learned. Obviously, the training itself goes some way towards contributing to that experience! And we can’t move on from somewhere if we were never there to start with.

    My point is that training limits us. Even you say that you can’t imagine starting teaching without having gone through the CELTA. You say it in an endorsing, positive manner; I guess my point is that it might not be so benign. This is where my junkie analogy comes in. There are all sorts of anecdotes about how REAL heroin (not real heroines!) is not actually that dangerous to the individual who uses the correct dosage. But they still need the drug; they can’t function without the drug; the drug helps them get through the day; but the drug also limits their experience of what is happening around them; it dictates certain behaviours; it blocks off certain pathways. Ditto, say I, to coursebooks and syllabuses (I know…I know…I studied Latin at school…but I can’t bring myself to use the word syllabi).

    I am with you on the idea of letting ten thousand styles bloom. And I think that a taoist would also be alongside us (metaphorically, of course). As I wrote, I am no taoist, much preferring the smoking barrel of the AK47 to the shrugging off of the illusory fiction. But I disagree that taoism has never been a big fan of education. I think that taoism -as I choose to see it!!!- is solely concerned with education – it’s about self-education and how, to go utterly twee and frilly, the answers lie within you.

    So there is no need to struggle with imparting any style to anyone. Just provide people with the opportunity to share styles and ideas; question styles and ideas that seem strange to you. The dialectic (…oops…time to put the marxist back in the box) that emerges from seeing a new style or hearing a question about something that you do is the force for change. If you want me to go all Hegelian on yo’ ass, I mean by this that the thesis (ie your view of how teaching should be) APPEARS to clash with the antithesis (what you see or what is seem by your colleague) but really forms part of a bigger and higher SYNTHESIS (what can be when this clash is resolved).

    I should stress, however, that my knowledge of Hegel is limited to what Wikipedia has to say about him.

  5. January 14, 2010 at 10:54

    Does training limit us or focus us:)? I agree with you on that though. I’ve had several ah-ha moments where I realized something I had learned was wrong but just never thought to question it because that’s how I was trained. Training does have it’s benefits though.

    I think it was Foucault who said that the function of knowledge is not to increase understanding, but to cut. Every piece of information we learn effectively creates new divisions and separates us from the Way or whatever we want to call it. The more I learn about you, the more I know you are not me. The more I learn about teachng, the more separate teaching becomes from learning. Hmmm…

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