Home > Commentaries on TTC > 36 – The Atomic Number of Krypton.

36 – The Atomic Number of Krypton.

That which is cast down must first be raised

This chapter of the TTC reminds us of the duality of the world. Things are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. My table is a table in part because it doesn’t have four wheels and a motor. It was made by Ikea, not by Volvo. If it had these things and was made by Volvo, dinner time chez Fogarty would be an event of international renown.

Chapter 36 is also home to some wonderfully cryptic insights. Next time you are out with friends and musing over the ways of the world, look thoughtful, stroke your chin, take a deep breath in order to stop the conversation and focus everybody’s attention on you, and then offer up the observation that, “Fish cannot leave deep waters.” If the assembled crowds look at you quizzically, inform them sagaciously, “This is called perception of the nature of things.” If they still don’t get it, you need some smarter friends.

Over on dogme, there is debate from time to time about whether or not experience is necessary to be a dogmetic. The argument put forward by some is that in order to break free of the confines of method, one must first learn through being ensconced in method. A new teacher cannot just walk into the room unprepared. Only the experience of slavishly preparing equips you with the tools that enable you to go to class without preparing materials.

I have always argued against this, preferring the view that if teacher training was less about trying to sell a package of teaching techniques and more about helping a training teacher discover their own teaching techniques, our profession might benefit considerably. Why do you need to be an experienced teacher to encourage students to talk about their lives, their views, their thoughts and their experiences? Can’t you teach just as well by taking the layperson’s strategy of saying, “What? Oh! No, we don’t say it like that. We say…” Wouldn’t teacher training be much better if it followed an apprenticeship model? I think it might.

But LT seems to disagree with me and favour the crackpots. He tells us that “Things need to grow before they can become smaller.” You can’t throw something to the ground without raising it off the ground first. Something can’t be received unless it has been given. These truisms might seem quite trite, but if you stroll up this mountain with me and meditate on them for a month, they might begin to open up some truths. One thing that they seem to be highlighting is our inability to describe the world in all its glory. Whenever we say what something is, we are failing to say what it is not. This presumably sounds like balderdash to you, but the underlying point is crucial to the language teacher (and to the language user).

We must accept that our language limits us to describing only our perception of how the world is. For us, this perception takes on the highest priority, but if we are to be objective, we must recognise the perceived priorities of all other perceptions. Communication is the act of working towards a shared perception through the use of language or other tools. What seems right to me is wrong to others; one person’s meat is another person’s freedom fighter, and all that.

This more flexible approach to the world may seem a bit daft or a bit weak. But Lao tells us, a la Sermon on the Mount, that “Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.” If Sylvester Stallone started to punch the ocean, the chances are that the water would remain as unperturbed as ever and that he would eventually have to surrender in defeat. Things which yield are things which abide. “Those who fight and run away/live to fight another day.”

So, be flexible in your teaching. And foster flexibility in your students’ learning. Don’t ask them, “What does X mean?” Ask them what X might mean to them; do they think that X would mean the same thing to a person living in Baghdad? Don’t ask this if you actually live in Baghdad.

And what about those fish? Well, put simply, for me this means that when you immerse yourself too deeply in a position, you find yourself a prisoner of it. So, be prepared to avoid linking yourself too firmly with any one method or any one pedagogical view. “Aha!” you may think, “Principled eclecticism!” But principled eclecticism is a position in itself. And one which has a more pompous view of itself than it merits. When you label anything you are narrowing the definition down too much. Rather than “principled eclecticism” which smothers the ideas in camphor and then pins them down within a glass case, it is better to say that you favour this approach and that approach and this approach and that approach and this approach and that approach. Well, at least you used to. Now you like this approach and that approach and this approach and that approach. As you flit around from approach to approach, you resemble more the pedagogical butterfly that you should be than the specimen on display in our principled entomologist’s cabinet.

Good golly, Miss Molly. I think I need to stop now. Remember, you are all individuals.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. September 24, 2010 at 19:42

    My thoughts exactly at the end there – don’t stick to one method/way/idea/whatever, change it up from time to time.

    The only things I’d add would be, use what works (for your students, for you, for your environment – I mean, don’t do loads of PowerPoints or whatever if there aren’t any PCs or projectors!); and you shouldn’t be forced to do anything, just like we shouldn’t force our students to do anything (we can do some bloody persistent encouraging and cajoling though!)

  2. dfogarty
    September 24, 2010 at 21:22

    Go with what works, indeed. Which begs the question what point is there is syllabi/schemes of work/curricula? How convinced are you by the idea that it is possible to plan your teaching? Is there any evidence that it works?

    • September 24, 2010 at 21:39

      More and more I’m coming round to the idea that it really isn’t: there are just too many variables. I can’t know for definite that Pavel is going to pick up something quicker than Fatimeh, but I can prepare for the event. I can’t always rely on technology, but I ready myself with alternatives should the projector be up the spout. Can I set out an entire month/term/year of teaching?? Not really: I don’t know what’s going to take one day or more, really until I get to those lessons. Any document like a syllabus/scheme of work/curriculum I’d like to see as more a ‘declaration of intent’ (credit to that must go to Philida Schellekens) rather than any kind of plan.

      I do like asking for and incorporating the learner’s perpective of the language and the world into teaching – this is the ideal, right?

      As for evidence, I’d have to leave that to someone else…

      (Sorry my comment reads a bit rambling, now that I look back over it!)

  3. dfogarty
    September 26, 2010 at 21:46

    And in such readiness, what a harvest might be missed! One of my favourite Heaney poems is Exposure (“It is December in Wicklow…”). The poet is looking out of his window in the south of the island, having hot-footed it out of the war zone that was encroaching upon his ability to write. He’s waiting for a comet to pass (not on the off-chance, one is timetabled) and musing about the life he left behind. His musings take him on a winding path and before he knows it, he’s only gawn and missed the bleedin’ comet. Now he’ll have to wait another half a millennium. A problem that came up and yet he carfts it into a bloody marvellous poem that encapsulates his feelings about leaving behind “his people” in the north, the mindlessness of the war, the beauty of nature, the habit that the world has of intruding upon Utopia and so much more.

    Why waste your life writing declarations of intent that relate to contexts in which you are merely a bit part player? That time might be spent reading, writing, arguing and all. And if the projector goes up the spout, you might be surprised to hear that Pavel once had a very successful electronics firm back home before a Wizard from Persia whisked him away on a magic carpet.

    Why plan any further than we do in any other aspect of our daily life. Tomorrow I’m going to get up at such and such a time, have my breakfast, shower, get dressed, go to work and hope that I live to see the following day. This isn’t any Zen nonsense. This is what life is. I know I don’t need to convince you, Mike, but what the hell have the rest of us swallowed?!?!

    That said, it is this attitude that is causing me all sorts of problems when it comes to choosing a topic for my MA dissertation. For the third time today, here is my call for ideas (or people who will slyly volunteer to do the bloody thing for me).

  4. September 29, 2010 at 09:19

    I didn’t have a plan (as in a written plan) for either Monday morning’s or yesterday’s lessons and nobody died…

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