Home > Commentaries on TTC > 46 – the number of bottles of vodka drunk by an adult in Scotland (according to the BBC)

46 – the number of bottles of vodka drunk by an adult in Scotland (according to the BBC)

My tribute to Messrs Henry and Werner

There is no greater sin than desire,

No greater curse than discontent,

No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.

Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.

No flippancy today. Just Lao’s words for your consideration. Desire, discontent, greed: all things that keep you off the path to a better life. And yet, in the world in which we live, these qualities are often revered as energising motivators that make us try that little bit harder. Are they to be found in your classroom? Do you try to harness them in the hope that the students will learn from them? Lao would advise against this.

So if they are gone, what replaces them? Awareness. Self-knowledge. Recognition of the world around us. Critical engagement with the world and with others. Uh-oh! I thought that this one was going to be a short, but I can feel the inspiration circling above my head. Forgive me…

Lao seems to be talking about motivation. And he seems to be saying that if you are driven to act merely because you want more, you will never have enough. With learning, the temptation is to think that this is a positive state to find oneself in. After all, we’re talking about a self-perpetuating stream of knowledge that ceaselessly waters the flowerbeds of your intellect. What could be better?

"Turn to page 666 in your workbooks."

But Lao warns us in this chapter that a taolike existence sees horses being used to cart manure, but When the world gets off the way,/they breed warhorses on the common. And within this is a clue to the relevance of this chapter to our joint endeavour. It is a controversial idea, but I think that we can see in this chapter a link between the utopia of the classroom and the dystopia of the outside world. This chapter of the Tao Te Ching therefore appears to say to me that the way of the world as-it-is is not conducive to learning. Those people who want to learn English because it will get them more, will open doors, will land them a job are suffering from a curse and the greatest misfortune. They are at war with themselves and their reality. They don’t want to learn English, but are compelled to do it. Even more of their precious time is torn from them in the pursuit of the unattainable. One can’t help but wonder if a modern Dante would find an English class in progress on one of the circles of the inferno.

These poor souls are more than often absent from the teaching manuals which would have you believe that you have a collection of empty slates in front of you, all waiting to be written upon. Your job, as teacher, is to motivate them. All of them can be motivated. All of them are eager to learn. And those who fail to be motivated or those who fail to learn are testament to your ineptness. The circle of discontentment spins around. And it’s all an illusion. Teachers’ manuals should say more clearly that some students will regard the learning of English as an imposition and will be highly resistant to all of your approaches. New teachers should be reassured that sometimes they will know that they have done a good job if their students have enjoyed themselves despite the language! They need to know, say I, that learning English is not the same as learning any other foreign language.

The person who knows that he – or she, in these more enlightened times, has enough will always have enough. What does that mean in the context of a language learning environment? It strikes me (ow!) that this is proto-dogme. If you know that enough is enough, you will always have enough. In other words, if you know when to stop looking for supplementary materials, be they cuisenaire rods, OHTs, IWBs or opinionated blog posts, why – you will have all that you need to do your job. If you’re a teacher, you will know that what is needed for a language class is language; if you’re a student, you will know that all that is needed for a language class is the desire to learn. Enough is enough.

Which is great news for the teachers who live in Utopia, but less pleasing to those of us who don’t. Our classes (well, my classes) are populated by students who were never really asked if they wanted to learn English. It was decided for them. By their parents, by the economic imbalance of the world, by the sociocultural prestige that English enjoys, by their governments…but not necessarily by them. What’s more, they sit in front of me knowing that English is learnt by assimilating quick shortcuts to writing an essay (In the morden world, whether a coin has two sides is a hot topic that, like a sword, has a double-edge). Reading consists of finding the key word. Listening consists of acting upon tips such as, “If the question uses the word ‘never’, then the answer is always ‘No’.” Speaking is dealt with by using stock phrases such as, “That’s an interesting point. Let me think about it,” or limiting ones output to talking about one’s hometown.

Interestingly, this take on language learning inevitably results in poor language users (surprise, surprise). It is as if something or someone is rebelling against this bastardised form of language use. But what options are left to the teacher who knows that enough is enough but whose learners know that only passing the test with the minimum score will be enough?

I believe that my time on earth will consist of trying to answer this last question. Colleagues think that such a teacher is the one who ought to compromise. The teacher sets her own views on language learning to one side in order to meet the students’ expectations. Then a process of weaning them off such expectations is embarked upon.

Others may believe that the best alternative is shock and awe. No more pandering to the test. No more stock phrases. Just a ruthless wave of lesson after lesson of teaching that is utterly alien to the learners. Lessons where they are not able to place all responsibility in the hands of the teachers. Lessons where they must assume full responsibility for their own learning. It’s like waking up in the desert with a map that shows the immediate vicinity and nothing else.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect that there is no single answer. The circumstances will dictate what approach will work best. I struggle with the idea that I can teach people how to learn effectively by pandering to a view of education that is utterly at odds with my own personal pedagogy. But I am not so foolish as to believe that my own personal pedagogy will  win the hearts and minds of the people who have paid to sit in my class.  How I resolve the conflict is a mystery to me…but I do. Term after term. Year after year. It is always an exhausting experience. Perhaps Lao’s words may best be paraphrased as, “What works best is always what works best.” It seems glib and facetious, but it contains a profound truth.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
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