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.