Archive for the ‘Commentaries on TTC’ Category

Thank you

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

A lot of kind words have been said. Lao Tzu said “Beautiful words are not truthful.” Stupid old sod.

Occasionally I come back to look at the site stats. It’s like watching the heart monitor of a loved one in hospital. There’s not long left now. Sniff. Sniff.

But life goes on. Thanks again for the kind words. This little project has been of immense enjoyment to me. This is made all the more worthwhile by the knowledge that it brought some enjoyment to others too.

Slan go foill!

Categories: Commentaries on TTC


April 6, 2011 3 comments

And now, the end is near and so I face the final curtain. It’s time to thank those of you who may have stopped by and lingered and those who stopped by and contributed. It’s time to thank those of you who have encouraged others to come and join the readership of this blog. I would like to name everybody in my thank you speech, but I’m not going to. But I am going to say that I am really appreciative of the efforts of some to share this blog with other people and equally appreciative of those who have come to the blog and tried to deepen the exploration of certain themes by offering their views. As the album notes frequently say, you know who you are.

There’s no point in writing -well, very little point- without a readership. And it was encouraging to see that this readership grew over time until it settled at a modestly low total. When I am treading along the Way of Heaven, you will be able to say, I followed him before he got big. Metaphorically speaking. He was always quite big, physically speaking. Your grandchildren will envy just how damn smoking you were. You will be seen as so hot that, years later, people will surreptiotiously place tinfoil-wrapped jacket potatoes in your coat pockets and wait for them to cook. Well done, you!

Thanks are obviously due to the Old Master. But he’s dead so there’s very little point in ladling it on too thickly. Lao Tzu wrote a book (probably not) that provides an excellent vehicle for exploring all sorts of different things. If tao is what taoism says, then there is a tao for all seasons. Where other blogs post weedy challenges that anyone can do, this blog postures macho…[errr…what’s the adverb for macho? Macholy? Shurely shome mishtake?] and challenges you to write the Tao of your teaching. 81 chapters, each one a reflection of what you do in the classroom. I know that nobody will respond to this challenge, buy that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t.

Blogs, like most writing in the 21st century, are ephemera that are blown away in the wind. Taoism would probably see that as a strength. So this blog doesn’t expect to be missed too much by its reader(s). At best it hopes for a sadness at its passing, but realises that by the time that you turn away from the keyboard, it will no longer be a concern. And I think that it is OK with this, but it would like you to do it the honour of reflecting for one moment about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. We live in a disposable society where people’s work can be consumed and then expunged from the brain. Are we missing the middle step of digesting much of what we consume?  Or is there some truth to the argument that technology makes so much pre-digested pap available to us that we don’t have to? If the latter is true, then I hope that this blog has at least provided some food for thought.

The blog’s primary reader was myself. This was an idea for a book that I had had for some years but knew that my literary talents would not stretch that far. When I discovered blogs, it occurred to me that I no longer needed to meet any standards. I could churn out my book and force myself upon unsuspecting people at the party. Really, I think I just tapped away every morning in the hope that something would become clearer to me or would make me laugh. I am still immensely proud of my observation that Lao Tzu was a sage who certainly knew his onions. It’s probably a hackneyed old pun -I’m too scared to Google it- but it’s my hackneyed old pun. And I’ve had the good grace not to repeat it until now.

Thank you once again for putting up with me. Even if you only ever stopped by a couple of times before it all got too much for you. For those of you who felt trapped into staying until the bitter end, my thanks are accompanied by my apologies. I can be a right arse a lot of the time. I hope that this blog will have at least inspired you to take up a copy of the Tao Te Ching – or the Dao De Jing- and re-read it. It’s a fantastic tool for self-reflection. I’d try to do a Tao of ELT Management, but I think that I am too far from my path in this calling…I’d love to read somebody else’s efforts.

So good luck in finding your Way. And as the words Way and Road take on a new layer of meaning for some of you, your final piece of homework is to compare and contrast the following and reflect upon which one is more poignant at this sad time of our paths diverging. HEIGH HO SILVER!

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.



Categories: Commentaries on TTC

81 – Number of stanzas or chapters in the Tao te Ching (in the most common arrangements).

April 6, 2011 1 comment

True words aren’t charming,

charming words aren’t true,

People who know aren’t learned,

learned people don’t know.

And so concludes the Tao Te Ching – in much the same way as it began: Things are not what they seem, Neo. Which I might slightly alter to stress the fact that things are never what they seem. Something that we should always remember when walking into a classroom, a post-observation session, an argument with a manager, a dispute with a colleague, or an ideological stance. This isn’t some sort of teenage relativism: it’s a reflection of the fact that the worlds and its mysteries are far beyond the reach of our intellects. We inevitably have to simplify everything in our life in order to understand it.

So, Lao says, wise people don’t hoard. They recognise that there’s very little point to clinging onto whatever they gain: the world changes, language changes. No, wise people don’t hoard their knowledge, they do things with it. And the more they use it, the smarter they get. The more they lose, the more they gain. Lao was a very clever cookie.

Therefore, my brethren and sistren, as we move towards the light, let us reflect on the messages that have been thrown out at us: teaching needs to be simple; focus on people rather than learners and teachers; there is no right way to language learning or language teaching – there are only your way and the ways of others; stick to what you know works; enjoy the little that you need; when you fall back to the natural ways of learning languages, languages will be learned; it’s not rocket science (and it might not even be brain science). Don’t monopolise power and authority in the classroom, but don’t abandon your responsibilities as a leader. And enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC

80 – The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

April 4, 2011 2 comments

Once again, Lao produces a turn of phrase that I can only envy. Chapter 80 calls for a pre-method “state of grace” – when all there was was a room with a few chairs, a blackboard, a teacher and some students, and where learning was jointly constructed out of the talk that evolved in that simplest, and most prototypical of situations. OK, that was Thornbury Tzu. Lao Tzu called for a society where technological tools exist but grow dusty through disuse. People are happy with what they have and don’t feel the need to add to it. Even writing is left in favour of the use of knotted ropes (not some sort of flagellant society, but a precursor to writing in ancient China). Oh lawks! I can hear you thinking, He was some sort of mad anarcho-primitivist. Another Unabomber. But this is to miss the point.

Lao doesn’t advocate a return to the Stone Age just because he thinks technology is bad. He wants a life where people are happy, contented, and able to rediscover the pleasure in the simplest things that their worlds have to offer. Why? Well in a verse that I am going to quote in full because I think it’s so damned beautiful, he explains that if we obsess with the need to fill our life with ephemeral junk

The next little country might be so close

the people could hear cocks crowing

and dogs barking there,

but they’d get old and die

without ever having been there.

Phew! I’ve referenced Tolstoy’s view that the kingdom of God is within you and here we have the same. If we divorce ourselves from the simplest delights and experiences of this world, we will be oblivious to the fact that the promises of Paradise are already with us. This is all there is. So, for language teachers, we can extrapolate, Lao is telling us once again that all we need to do a grand job can be found in the room that we teach in. Teachers’ books, DVD guides, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wordles, Word Magnets, Hot Potatoes, talking avatars – all may carry the echo of dogs barking and cocks crowing, but if we rely only on tracing the echo to find the real thing, we will grow old and die without ever finding our goal. A chair, a blackboard, some students and a teacher.

I am reminded of a poem when I read Scott’s “some chairs, a blackboard, some students and a teacher.” The poem was written by Yannis Ritsos and goes, “A man, before going to bed, put his watch under his pillow./Then he went to sleep. Outside the wind was blowing. You who know/the miraculous continuity of little motions, understand./ A man, his watch, the wind. Nothing else.”

79 – a sexy prime. Mathematicians try to engage the public.

April 4, 2011 Leave a comment

How many of you are managers? Presumably some management is involved whether you are a newly-qualified teacher or a seasoned, grizzly old DoS. If you feel this way, then this chapter is for you. It speaks of the need to settle disputes quickly and graciously. Lao recognises that tension never really dissipates entirely, even once a quarrel has been settled. But how can we minimise the impact? Well, we shouldn’t be looking for an opportunity to justify our previous grievances. No saying, “Huh! I knew you weren’t going to start to come to class more often.” If this is the case, perhaps the person isn’t coming to class because you don’t have a sufficiently high opinion of them.

People whose power is real fulfil their obligations/ People whose power is hollow insist on their claims. I think that this should be read out at any meeting of teachers (or managers). It is another reminder that we live to serve. Sorry for the bland cliches, but they once meant a lot and I think that a ghost of meaning is still lurking around the ruins. We belong in a social environment and our principle aim has to be to facilitate our own social involvement and the social involvement of others. Perhaps this is where I value progressive education over humanistic. As such, rather than focusing on ourselves, we are always only ever really focusing on how we fit into society or the image we wish to give to society. Even those people who are most self-obsessed are really concerned with this. Teachers whose power is real fulfil their obligations to their students, their institution, their cultural environment and themselves. Teachers whose power is hollow crush dissent with the power of their knowledge (and the odd page of Murphy).

Categories: Commentaries on TTC

78 – The total number of gifts in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas

April 2, 2011 4 comments

This chapter concludes, Right words sound wrong. It always makes me think of Dogme ELT when I read them. Dogme has become a reasonably well known phenomenon in the world of EFL. Based around a view that language teaching needs to be simplified. Needs to get back to basics. Needs to embrace a poor pedagogy. At times, it seems deliberately obscurantist. It seems elitist to some. It seems pompous and arrogant to others. But people struggle to define it. You only have to trawl through this blog to where I publicly vented my frustration with the delightfully named Olaf Elche. He had gotten his knickers into a twist because he thought I was trying to avoid giving a definition of dogme that was unambiguous. What is dogme, I had been asked. Dogme is a label I had suggested. What’s in the bottle? I was questioned. Smoke? I ventured. Read in the right voices, it could have been a dialogue from The Matrix. But perhaps I should have been utterly pompous and suggested that the Dogme that can be told is not the Eternal Dogme.

But back to the right words sounding wrong. Dogme ELT suggested that all that is needed to teach a language is to speak a language and to (self-)monitor what is being said. Where comprehension falters, the teacher(-students) can step in and help. It’s that simple. Oh, but it cant be. The right words sound wrong. Lao reverts back to using water to explain. He tells of how the softest elements of all, wind and water, can destroy the hardest most rigid element of stone and yet remain unchanged themselves. Everybody knows it, proclaims our wizened old sage. But the truth is that everybody knows the need to photocopy a hectare of the Amazon rainforest for each lesson; everybody knows that if it has to be taught, it needs to come in at least three different formats, at least one of which must be digital; everybody knows that the teacher cannot go into the classroom naked and unplugged. I hope that by this point in the blog, most of you (both of you) will see the absurdity contained within this knowledge. Naked might be too far, but unplugged is the bare minimum.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC

77 – a Swedish wartime password. Pronunciation helped identify if the speaker was Swedish, Norwegian, or German.

April 1, 2011 Leave a comment

An antifascist number...

Another beautiful contribution from Lao Tzu. The tao of heaven is like a bow. When it’s strung, the top is pulled down and the bottom is pulled up. The tao is all about raising those at the bottom and pulling down those at the top.  I don’t think the intention is to tell the poor to be content with their lot as much as it is to tell the rich that they should be concerned with theirs. But what does it mean for the language teacher?

Lao tells us that if we want to become taoist teachers, then we need to remember that taoism is about taking from those who have and giving to those who don’t. I’m interested by that first verb, taking. It implies agency on behalf of someone other than the possessor. Tao isn’t just about giving. This blog has made it clear before that taoism is in keeping with Freire’s teacher-students and student-teachers. In other words, it doesn’t delineate the classroom roles quite as clearly as others. So we need classrooms where all can be plundered and all can be enriched. Not a classroom with a benevolent emperor at the front who dispenses wisdom and knowledge to their people, because this kind of giving and taking keeps people dependent and enslaved. How do we do this? Lao answers:

the wise do without claiming,

achieve without asserting,

wishing not to show their worth.

In other words, teaching is not about crowd control and enforcing order. It is about letting learning happen rather than making it happen; a teacher who thinks this way will not need to show their worth because they will know that it really has very little to do with them and all to do with their students.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC

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

March 31, 2011 3 comments

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.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC

Looks like it’s going to rain

March 30, 2011 Leave a comment

What did I learn from this? I learnt that…

Read more…

Categories: Commentaries on TTC

75 – in April 1975, Robbie Fowler was born.

March 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Wikipedia was remarkably unforthcoming about this number.

Perhaps my favourite verse in the whole book. It’s a description of how reaction – and over-reaction – can actually cause the original problem to arise. Huh? Well, look at it this way: People rebel. The government repress them. This is why they rebel. People hold life cheap./ The rich make it costly,/That’s why people hold life cheap.

Problems can often find their roots in the solutions employed to deal with them:

Grammar is confusing. Teachers make rules to make it easier. These rules are why grammar is confusing. Speaking accurately is difficult.

Teachers work hard to train their students to be accurate. This is why it is difficult to speak accurately.

Reading is boring. Teachers work hard to find texts to study in class. This is why reading is boring.

English is a hateful subject. Students have to study it if they want to progress in life. This is why English is a hateful subject.

We could go on. But the message should be clear (???). Lao sums it up neatly, Having little to live on, one knows better than to value life too much. For our purposes, this can be glossed as, Knowing the little that needs to be done, one knows better than to value teachers too much.

Categories: Commentaries on TTC
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