Home > Commentaries on TTC > Two little ducks

Two little ducks

Yield and overcome;

Bend and be straight;

Empty and be full;

Wear out and be new;

Have little and gain;

Have much and be confused.

Here we go again…

I imagine it was groundbreaking literary stuff at the time – Lao would come up with these little conundrums that appeared to make no sense at all: “Whoah! He said, like, yield AND overcome!!! I mean, like WTF?!” These days it is almost a clicheed marketing trick: “Coca cola: the taste of a new generation.”  Does this really mean that if you bite a younger person, they will taste of Coke? That, my friend(s), is progress. At least, it’s progress as Ted Kaczynski would have seen it.

This chapter comes just as Gavin Dudeney directs me and his other acolytes to a blogular Top 40 where my humble efforts are conspicuously absent and the efforts of others are rewarded. Once I’d swept up the smashed glasses and plates, and replastered the fist prints in the kitchen wall, I turned to my Tao Te Ching and was told, “Chill out, daddio. The Tao is all you need.”  And I think it is probably right. You know how it is: you’re told that it’s not about winning, it’s the taking part that counts. The Tao doesn’t tell us that it is the taking part that counts. The Tao is not that kind of parent.

No. The Tao writes the smartest t-shirt of slogan I have ever seen: if you never try, you’ll never fail. As a pedagogical rule of thumb, this ranks just below, “Give up learning…” mentioned in Yan Tan Tethera. And it’s not at all defeatist. It doesn’t condemn you to a lifetime of bathrobe wearing, cheesy-snack gobbling, and bong-toking (unless that is what tickles your fancy).

Wise taoists, says LT, “embrace the one and set an example to all.” The one, for the slower readers, is the Tao, the way, the path. The path that they have chosen. And by concentrating solely on doing what they want to do, they get their rewards: “they shine forth”; “they are distinguished”; “they receive recognition”; “they never falter;” “no one quarrels with them.” How do they get this fame and recognition? By not looking for it. Our taoist teacher will quietly go about her business, ignoring everything other than what she believes to be pedagogically worthwhile; she will read articles and journals and will draw from them what she chooses to draw from them; she will observe others teaching and will form her own impressions of what is worthwhile and what is worth less (note the diplomatic space there). She won’t stand up -virtually or otherwise- and shout, “LOOK AT ME!!!” She won’t feel the need to provide a grounded rationale for her pedagogy or her actions; she won’t ever claim to have found the answer to successful teaching (or blogging!); she won’t sing her own praises. She will just get on with doing whatever it is that she does. And because she is well and truly grounded in what she does and because she has complete faith and belief (forgive the tautologies, it just works better for me like that) in what she is doing, she will not fail. LT says, “Be really whole,/And all things will come to you.” I interpret “whole” as meaning “yourself”. Be who you are and everything that you need will come to you.

Taoism is often criticised as being an imperial cult that encouraged submission and acceptance and thus allowed the emperor to walk on the necks of the poor. But this is a superficial interpretation of a very unsuperficial text. Yield and overcome does not mean doing whatever your Director of Studies tells you to do; it means that you should yield to the tao – indeed, any other response to tao would call to mind the other t-shirt slogan: resistance is futile. When teaching, it is futile to teach in any other way that is alien to who you are and what you believe: when I started teaching one particular nationality, I was advised to leave what I believed at the door and to give Them what They expect. I couldn’t. What They expected was the polar opposite of what I believed. My pedagogy tells me that the resultant clash provided the richest education – for all concerned. If you yield to other people’s expectations, you will be overcome; if you yield to yours, you will find a way to overcoming all other obstacles (even if that means having to completely rewrite your expectations).

Empty and be full: again, our cultures and our societies, and our education, and our training all shape the way that we believe the world to be. To follow our way in life, we need to empty everything out and go through it critically asking whether or not we really believe this or we were just socialized into accepting it. Once we empty out, we can refill – this time leaving out the unnecessary extras. This is kind of similar to the advice regarding holiday packing: put everything you think you’ll need in the suitcase; take it all out and then put in everything that you REALLY need. You will have achieved Taoist #1 status if you can put your hand on your heart and reply affirmatively  when asked at the metaphysical airport, “And did you pack these bags yourself?”

Have little and gain/ Have much and be confused: if you have everything, it is impossible to gain anything. Obviously, if you have nothing, you stand to make the  greatest gains. LT is also saying that the simple approach is one that returns most benefits. Look at Master Thornbury and his dogme tribe: they believe(d) that the greatest gains to be had in the language classroom would come about if people just used the language; they reject(ed) the idea that to be efficient you need to fill every space in the classroom with some sort of resource: computers, IWBs, resource books, videos, DVDs, interactive software, badges, pins, flags, sinks, comically painted elephants and juggling monkeys. They argue(d) that you just need a teacher, a bunch of students, some tables and some chairs. The taoist blogger will hold back from printing out worksheets and activities because these are other people’s perceptions about how your lessons can go and the taoist blogger suspects that they are eagerly seized upon by time-starved teachers largely because they are time-starved. The taoist blogger doesn’t think that time starvation is a very useful criterion for materials selection.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. March 10, 2010 at 13:19

    “Yield and overcome”. Exactly. This is what I am up against. Educated European students that want grammar gapfills and to have mastered a tense a week (or all of them last week). I can’t realistically and wouldn’t do so completely. Thanks for reminding me that I don’t *have* to, though I might need to alter my expectations slightly…

    Much prefer teaching the responsive and not all-the-time demanding ESOL students…

    Enjoyed reading that one. Thanks!


  2. dfogarty
    March 11, 2010 at 06:52

    How long would it take you to learn their languages, Mike? It might be worth asking them that. As well as whether English is easier or more difficult than their languages. They might then want to reflect on whether or not their language acquisition theories hold much water. I’ve also asked students in the past to assess how well their previous experience of learning/being taught English has served them. There is a certain irony when a student in a pre-intermediate class who has been studying English for 9 years is arguing for a return to a style of teaching that they might be familiar with but which has singularly failed to advance them very far.

    If I were to go all critical, I might consider whether the (presumably richer) fee-paying students have been relatively well-served by the status quo and therefore don’t question it or see the need to look for alternatives. The status quo has provided them with a relatively good position in society and the status quo says that They Can Do Anything If They Put Their Mind To It. It also says that Time is Money. The status quo tells them that there is One Way To Teach and One Way To Learn. They are presumably struggling with the cognitive dissonance when The One Way is a Bum Way.

    ESOL learners, on the other hand, are people who tend to have been ill-served by the status quo. Perhaps they were once well-served by it, but something has happened that obliged them (or made them feel obliged) to abandon the status quo and come to live in a cold, often hostile environment hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they grew up. It MAY be that this prepares contributes to their acceptance of other ways of learning and teaching. Of course, there is the added factor that they have a vested interest in getting to grips with the language as quickly as possible.

    I remember some years ago when I was mooching around the doorway of my place of work, smoking a fag.Two guys were talking about their lesson and their English was absolutely amazing. They had the accent, the turns of phrase, the cadence – everything. They were in a Pre-Intermediate ESOL class. At the time, I was teaching a pre-intermediate EFL class. These students were virtually incomprehensible in both speech and writing. Meaning was tortuously constructed, largely by the listener adopting a sympathetic and imaginative approach.

    Have you ever thought about asking one of your ESOL students to come and do a talk about their experience of living in the UK and how they have learnt their language? It might be an interesting exchange – and has lots of other potential for all.

  3. March 11, 2010 at 20:54

    Thanks, Diarmuid. That has put into words, very succinctly and nicely, the thoughts that have been going around my head. It’s interesting that you give the example of those two guys in the ESOL class appearing to be virtually fluent – this is something I encounter quite regularly. The ESOL students (very broad generalisation here) seem to pick up the nuances of spoken English fairly well, and make themselves understood easily. Then, there are the EFL students, who might be fantastic at writing and grammar (not all of them) but getting them to speak (and well) is like getting blood from a stone. I really like the idea of ESOL vs. EFL exchange about how they have learnt English and how they use it – I’m going to think seriously about doing something along those lines.

    To refer to your being critical about EFL students and the supposed One Way – I think that’s on the button totally. They’re almost bred into a way of language-learning. I thrived in that kind of environment at school learning French and German, but by the time I got to university I just wanted to use the language and let the rest of it (grammar, pronunciation, vocab, register) come as it may. I don’t get that vibe from these students 😦

    I always seem to pick up a pearl of wisdom here – Thanks very much!!

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