Home > Commentaries on TTC > 48 – the birth year of the inventor of paper.

48 – the birth year of the inventor of paper.

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

This may reassure those of you who have sat in classrooms where the routines are punctuated by the sound of pens and pencils that, having been twirled distractedly by less than proficient hands, fall to the floor. In the past, I have assumed that such pen-twirling was a semi-conscious signal of non-involvement or non-investment in what was being studied. Lao’s kind words help me see that we were just getting closer to the Way.

Less and less is done


Until non-action is achieved.


When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

We return to the taoist concept of weiwu-wei – action through non-action. The concept is, perhaps, not dissimilar to thinking, “Que sera, sera” and needs to be set in the context of Taoists thinking/knowing that the world is an illusion. But for those of us who haven’t eaten the pretty toadstool, what does it mean?

In the context of a language learning classroom, Lao is confirming Scott Thornbury’s metaphor of uncovering grammar as opposed to covering it. Lao might faithfully be paraphrased as saying, “When people stop writing grammar syllabuses, or dividing language into chunks that are supposedly graded, or refusing to teach a piece of grammar or answer a particular question because it is not supposed to be dealt with until X level, then there is a good chance of covering/uncovering everything that needs to be taught.”

Lao is also arguing for a teaching practice that is more grounded in practice than it is in theory. Leave the pedagogues to theorise and pontificate about how we should behave and act. Teachers, on the other hand, need to wipe the slate clean of other people’s opinions and begin to start formulating their own. In our world of celebrated individualism, this kind of thinking has become de rigeur. But let’s remember that Lao was hobbling around some 200 years before the hippy from Nazareth. Forget what you have been taught, he urges us, this is the only way to help you discover the truth. THE truth? The truth that is peculiar to you. This is surely a sound approach to teacher training. But is it not also a sound approach to language learning? We read about it when we see articles that expound the theory of interlanguage: students formulate and test hypotheses of language use. The feedback that they receive enables them to reformulate and re-test. They are not operating to some standardised grammatical rules. They are thinking for themselves.

Abandon the idea that things are done in class. This metaphor seems to incorporate the sense that everything that happens in a language class must be self-contained. Today we did the past simple. Really? I imagine that that was quite complicated. Today we did language connected to the family. In a lesson that lasted 50 minutes? Madre mia! I suspect that my eight year old son has a taoist take on education. He routinely answers the question, “What did you do in school today?” with a disyllabic, “Nothing.” Similarly, my 4 and a half year old son tells me that they “played.” My ten year old daughter, on the other hand, could regale me with events that took place until way beyond either her bedtime or mine. Does this mean that young males are naturally more inclined towards a taoist approach or does it mean that as we progress through the education system, our ability to find meaning and understanding in nothing becomes debilitated – eventually to the point of annihliation?

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering

It can be seen from this why many people would like to see the seeds of early anarchism in Lao’s writings. People tend to dismiss anarchism outright, but what is there within these two lines that can be disputed? Let things take their course – as if we have any option! All we have is the illusion of options. Our greatest achievements can be snuffed out in an instant. The sooner we are humble enough to accept this, the sooner we might be able to harness whatever power it is that we seek. Of course, if we are talking about things external to the classroom, there are massive ramifications. So massive that change is mo’ than likely never gonna come. Nobody is going to argue that we should abandon our investigations for a cure for cancer in favour of letting things take their course. But in a language classroom, the ramifications are less severe. We can rule the world -that is, become the language users we want to be- if we accept that language cannot be confined in text books or syllabuses. If we – as both teachers and learners- recognise that the language that we have is all the language that we need in order to learn more language, then we recognise that the need to interfere and compartmentalise and label is counterproductive.

I have taught all sorts of manner of complicated grammar to virtual beginners because they asked me what I had just said. And I wonde whether or not they would have ever asked me these questions if we had not eschewed the conceits of the coursebooks and the syllabus and made our lessons about whatever we had been talking about. I think back to my first efforts in castellano and how I quickly became aware of the need to hypothesise – something that I would presumably have had to wait for many years to be taught if I was following any of the more traditional prescribed syllabuses. What level of the CEFR would I have had to reach before someone would have helped me say, “I don’t believe in God, but if I did, I imagine that s/he would not be the kind of being that would allow such things to happen?” [Would anyone like to confirm or refute my punctuation in that last sentence? I never know whether the question mark should be included within or without the inverted commas.] I imagine that many people are driven to view English as a tediously artificial tool precisely because they are not taught how to use it to express themselves more precisely, they are taught it to manipulate sentences that are utterly meaningless to them as individuals. I certainly don’t mean to throw yet more brickbats at the coursebook writers or editors. I mean, what do you do? I can only answer that you act at the local lvel – but then again, I have never taught a class of 50. Perhaps the coursebook writers could just leave blank pages for grammar study. Or include tasks such as, “Look at the first paragraph in the text with great care. Is there anything there in the language that you would like to know more about? Could you ever imagine yourself needing to use these kinds of structures? If so, what would you be saying? Your teacher will help you formulate these things more precisely. Ask your teacher lots of questions.

Ursual Leguin translates the last part of this stanza quite beautifully. She writes,

To run things,

don’t fuss with them.

Nobody who fusses

is fit to run things.

Your challenge for this week is to find areas where you fuss and to experiment with de-fussing. You might even humour me by reporting back here and letting my other reader know how it went.


Categories: Commentaries on TTC
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