Home > Commentaries on TTC > 76 – The number of trombonists leading the parade in “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

76 – The number of trombonists leading the parade in “Seventy-Six Trombones.”

Chapter 76 – about the need to maintain one’s flexibility and ability to yield and dodge the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. As Lao points out, living things tend to be soft and pliable. In my case, this is woefully true. It is the dead who are hard and rigid. I am tempted to grafitti this on the gym that I pass on my way to work. And this isn’t just a human characteristic, Lao reminds us. The grass sways and bends until it’s dead. Then it’s brittle and dry.And dead trees get chopped down and turned into firewood.

So what does this mean for teachers. Well, one interpretation (the need for flexibility and adaptability) is obvious. So let’s look beyond that and see what it says about language teaching. A traditional way of teaching is to see language as being concerned with the inculcation of rules and formulae that can be manipulated to produce correct utterances that students can be assessed upon. But this is quite an unyielding approach to language learner. In this understanding, there is a Right Way, that of The Teacher. But…the tao which can be told is not the eternal tao.

So what is language teaching if we drop the primacy of rules and formulae? Language teaching for me is really helping students find their way. Over the years, it has become far less about grammar and far more about effective study strategies and self-reflection. At times I have to ask myself if we actually learnt anything in a particular class. But lessons are most likely to have students speaking in small groups and trying to be understood. There are “time outs” when we look at the problems that students are facing or I ask them to break the discussion and reflect upon how many people are actively listening, how many people are having difficulty in understanding them, how effective are their monitoring strategies etc. I have also noticed that this last one is a sign of how language teaching works against language learning. When students are engaged in breaktime conversation, they monitor much more effectively. When they are engaged in classroom-focused conversation, they seem to resort to delivering monologues, oblivious to their public. Tao teaching would seem to be about extending the breaks until the lesson is no more.

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Categories: Commentaries on TTC
  1. March 31, 2011 at 11:08

    It’s easy when the teacher’s students are interested in knowing the way; in having the desire, they become gentle and yielding, and the teacher responds by flowing with the prevalent energy.
    But, what if, as it is in a lot of cases, the students aren’t interested in any form of teaching, neither Tao nor TEFL, and they become stiff and unbending? Lao Tzu might perhaps remain flexible and go along with the students, and I have done that with, ahem, some disastrous consequences, or would he just pack his bags up and go? 😉

  2. dfogarty
    March 31, 2011 at 21:12

    It’s certainly easier! But I think the answer to the dilemma might be found in #64. Deal with the problem before it becomes a problem. If teaching is resulting in the petrification of the students, don’t teach. Allow learning to happen. How? There is no singular answer to that. But I have long held the opinion that for many teachers, the answer may be in a lowering of expectations. I think the prime goal for all teachers should be to foster a love of learning. This should override all other goals. If a student leaves a school without a certificate but a barrowful of good memories, the chances are that they will run back to education when they are better suited to deal with it. In my world, there would be no school-age. People would be able to go to school when they were ready to commit to it.
    Of course, if this were as easy to say as to do, we would already be walking along the Way. For most of us, this is still an ambition rather than a habit. And the difficulties are what inspire us to keep walking.

    Ye Gods. I have gone from being an aspiring Destructor of The System to being a wage slave inside the galleys of Hallmark’s Creative Department.

  3. April 1, 2011 at 15:47

    Only variety absorbs variety.

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