This is what I was trying to say when I wrote eight.
Taoism likes water and this chapter in the original text compares tao to water. The tao, as you may have gathered, is everything, so if it is like water, language is like water, teaching is like water etc. How so?
Lao Tzu answers that question pretty plainly – water gets everywhere and it brings things to life. It doesn’t set out to do this, it just does it. Teaching, it follows, can change a person’s life (for the better) in the most unexpected ways.
To teach well, it is vital to have the interests of the learners at heart. Not to say that you have them at heart, but really have them there. If this is the case, then pretty much anything that you choose to call teaching will hit the mark.
Lots of teachers worry about giving negative feedback – don’t! That is, don’t worry about it, but do give it. When students know that this is coming from a person who has their best interests at heart, they are invariably happy to get this sort of critical appraisal.
Don’t insist on students reproducing what you have taught them because you are the expert. Just because you’re the expert means nothing. You go and be the expert. How good does it feel? Teachers who feel the need to insist on their way or the highway are not really teachers. But at the same time, teachers are those who mark out the highway and insist that it is this way and this way alone. Am I contradicting myself? Yes and no.
What is the teacher’s job? The teacher’s job is to teach. So teach. How do you know when you are teaching? Answer that question and you are a teacher. Confused? Go back to the start of this paragraph and read it again. A teacher teaches. You know you are teaching when you are a teacher. Come on! This is straightforward stuff. Similarly, you know you are a teacher when you are teaching. But what is teaching? It’s what a teacher does. But how do you know if a teacher is teaching? Easy! If they’re not teaching, they’re not a teacher! If they’re not a teacher, they’re not teaching! This is the only acceptable definition of a teacher. No matter what you might think, all others are wrong; think again!
The line It’s about working with ignorance, not against it was inspired.
This is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased SEVEN.
The Tao Te Ching talks about “Heaven and earth lasting forever”. Heaven and earth are, of course, just conceptual labels that we have applied to reality. The nature of human conceptual labels is that they are all made of language. So, it didn’t seem too much of a jump to paraphrase Lao Tzu as saying that “Language lasts forever”. Following on from that, it didn’t seem too much of a jump to say that, just as heaven, earth and language last forever, so too do teaching and learning.
That is, as long as there are people to carve out measured time, there will be teachers and there will be learners. Teaching, learning, language…all these are inevitable for living people (and possibly dead ones too, but we just don’t know). So, dum spiro, doceo; dum spiro, accipio; and dum spiro, lingua est. No breathing, no language, no teaching, no learning. Members of the jury, I put it to you that life is teaching and learning.
That established, the question arises as to whether or not it is necessary to professionalise the role of the teacher. Surely, life itself is teaching (and learning), so why create another label and another concept? If we allow life to take the lead, the dance is much smoother and far more expressive. Smart teachers hold back. They allow life to return to the classroom and are there to observe it. Life, as the buddha taught, is not free from snaggles, so the observant teacher can unhook jerseys from mulberry bushes and pick up those who stumble on the way. The teacher who leads the way is far too busy to look back to make sure that everyone is safe.
When you don’t meddle, things tend to work out in their own way; in nature’s own way. Many people think that nature’s way can be improved upon. That’s their own nature! The cards are stacked. Throw down your hand. Nature always takes home the winnings.
This is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased SIX.
In my interpretation of this chapter, I went back to the first thing we were told about Tao – it can’t be described; it lies beyond all conceptual thinking. The moment you begin to use words to describe it, you are doomed. Words can only ever come close, but will always fall short. The American poet Jack Gilbert (a recent discovery for me) put it this way
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean and frightening that it does not quite.
I think Degas was also getting close to the truth when he admitted that art was not a reproduction of what was in front of the artist, but a prompt that would allow other people to imagine what was there. Our art, our language, only ever allows us to represent, never to reproduce.
Humans are driven by a need to understand and to conceptualise. We need to find out if there is life on Mars; we hate poems that seem to bar our understanding; it is important to us that we understand how the word works. And in language education, that means trying to understand how people learn languages and trying to understand what makes people learn and what makes people teach well.
Tao says that whatever understanding we reach is going to be a pretence. It’s not real. Whatever makes things the ways they are will always be beyond our understanding. The dangers come when people reach this flawed understanding and then work tirelessly to ensure that the world conforms to their perspective. This gives rise to the words should and must. These words form the bedrock of a lot of misery in this world.
Instead, says Lao Tse (and me, in my poor imitation), accept your limitations. Things are the way they are because, given everything that led to them being the way they are, they could be no other way. There’s no point tearing your hair out about things happening that shouldn’t be happening or students doing things that they simply mustn’t do. Things happened that made these things happen or made the students do what they do. How else could it be?
Do we roll over and accept whatever? Is Lao saying that some of the discipline problems that educators face should just be accepted? Not quite. Lao is saying that if those problems arise, the educators who do accept them are doing so for reasons beyond their control. The educators who decide to brook no nonsense and enforce strict discipline and high expectations are also doing so for reasons beyond their control. There are reasons why you are reading this bilge! There are reasons why some people aren’t and wouldn’t even if you threatened to burn down their house with all that they loved locked inside.
It’s not so much about passive acceptance as it is about not being emotionally disturbed by what is going on. Understand that what goes on has its reasons and then react as you believe is appropriate (which is what you’re going to do anyway). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your reaction is the only right one and the “natural” one. It won’t be. Don’t lose sleep over the world not conforming to your beliefs; not one of your beliefs is actually real.
Don’t presume that one day science will unveil the correct way of teaching and learning. It won’t. It can’t. Don’t doubt your way of teaching (or learning). It is the way that it is and it has reasons for being the way that it is. If you are inclined to look for ways of improving it, do so without lamenting how lamentable you are. That’s just the stage that you are at in your teaching and it could be no other way. Don’t get emotionally disturbed by the ways of your learners. They could be no other way. Don’t get frustrated by your lack of understanding, it could be no other way. I feel that this is the time to use an et cetera.
What is to be gained by taking this approach? Well, you’d be living much more in accordance with the Tao – with the way that the universe works and this is the path to a life free from stress and suffering.Sure, you won’t know how the brain stores language or what the secret to pain-free language acquisition is. But you might die smiling.
This is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased FIVE:
Years ago I wanted to write a dissertation that would call out the lie that language learning is a fun, benevolent experience. My hypothesis was that it was a terrifying, destabilising experience for most people who were all too caught up in the myth of their self and unaware that language learning brings about the birth of a new self – one that might be very different to what they thought they were really like. It is frustrating, exasperating, threatening and isolating to learn a new language. I thought that if teachers were wise to this fact, it could change the way that language learning happens. The metaphor I used at the time was teacher as midwife.
This is what I mean when I paraphrase chapter 5 of the TTC. We learn best from experiences that write themselves indelibly on our memory. The moments we were embarrassed or the things we said that were utterly absurd or insulting. They are recorded in the memory in order to avoid the same thing ever happening again. Teachers should look out for the opportunity to put students on the spot, with the skill lying in being able to do so without turning the student off ever opening their mouth to speak again.
“What has to be learnt does not exist without you,/Yet until it is learnt, nothing else exists!” might sound confusing, but is really just a straightforward claim that each learner brings their own curriculum. Each individual will differ in what needs to be learnt. On a crude level, the businessperson will want to know how better to handle negotiations or give presentations while the academic student may benefit more from learning about writing concisely and coherently. On a less superficial level, the student who wants to work to ensure that their humour and irreverence survives the rebirth into L2-speaking self will have a different curriculum to the student who wishes to come across as serious, considered and intellectual. Until they have learnt these aspects of being in L2, they are not. It is only once they can be humorous and irreverent that they begin to exist. There is little point in a student waiting to master their knowledge of language before they dare to start using it.
So the best teacher is the one who kicks the students into the deep end of the pool and who watches them bob up and down, willing them to start kick and thrashing in a more directed style towards either the shallow end or the sides of the pool. This type of teacher is ready to jump in when required, but reserves the right to decide just when she or he is required. Until then, the panic and the gasping may feel overwhelming.
By saying little, the teacher obliges the student to say a lot. By saying a lot, the student will make many mistakes – some so bad that they will be remembered for decades to come. And in making these mistakes, the new student will begin to emerge. This new creature may not be the same as the old one; nor, indeed, may it be the same as the old student had hoped would emerge. There is little that can be done to guarantee that the world will turn out as we would wish. The only option remaining to us is to stay focused on our goals.
This is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased FOUR:
Taoism is often simplified as saying that Nature is the Way and that we cannot go against The Way of Nature. That’s close, but it’s not quite it.
Nature is also part of Tao. Nature is not Tao – if it was, Lao would have begun, The Tao that can be named is not the Tao, and everyone would have responded Yes it is. Tao’s name is Nature.
What is Tao? That’s a good question, but the mistake is made when we try to find an answer. There are many questions that need to be asked, but which cannot be answered. This is one of them. Just asking the question (possibly repeatedly) is enough to change your way of acting. You don’t need an answer – in fact, there is no answer. But the question still has a transformative effect on your behaviour.
Tao, for the sake of ease, can be thought of here as effective teaching. This kind of thing cannot be turned into a simple formula. Why? Because there are so many variables. But it is a possibility in every single classroom. So, how do we realise effective teaching in every single classroom. Again, that’s a good question, but don’t waste your time trying to answer it. It’s enough to ask the question. Imagine walking into every class that you teach for the rest of your life with this question on your lips. Would it make a difference to the way that you taught the class? The way that you saw the class? The way that you reflected on the class? I think so.
There’s no big secret to being an effective teacher and there’s nothing really astonishing to say about it. We do it every day. We come across good teachers every day. Sometimes good teachers are really bad teachers – that is, you might learn an awful lot from watching someone do something really badly. Good teachers might be YouTubers, bus drivers, shop assistants, parents, children, babies, old people. But, if we were to go back to the message of TWO, it is not possible to have good teachers if there are no good learners.
Anyone and anything can be a good teacher. But without a good learner, the lesson is lost. So, the message goes out to teachers who beat themselves up: it’s not you; it’s not them; it’s really not anything other than the situation as it presents itself. And this dire experience that you’ve just put yourself through…well, it’s among the best teachers that you can find. The best learners find the best teachers in the most unlikely places.
I like the observation that good teaching is right under our noses – ironically, ne of the body’s many blind spots! I think that this captures an essential part of Taoism. It’s not teaching and it’s not taoism (or is it?), but here’s an interesting thought: how would your self-image change had you never seen a reflection of yourself? Presumably, at some point in human existence, this was the case for many, many people. Were they happier or sadder than the Selfie Generation?
This is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased THREE.
Language teaching can be plagued by gurus. On the big pond level, these might be the Chomskys, the Pinkers, the Krashens. On a(n arguably) smaller pond level, the Thornburys, the Harmers, the Swans. Because they take a position, people take positions behind them. The world becomes full of disagreements and because we live in a very adversarial culture, not many people listen to others with the intention of putting their own beliefs to the test. Division results in people become more firmly entrenched.
Some people in language teaching argue for a middle path that they give the rather over-inflated name of principled eclecticism. This is just a high falutin’ term meaning, “pick the best bits”. But this isn’t necessary either. Because to cherry pick, you have to have a cherry tree. And the cherry trees are the divided experts and their teachings.
If, on the other hand, you were to just do what seemed to work for you, you wouldn’t need to worry too much about competing theories about language acquisition, the role of technology in the classroom, skills versus grammar, lexical approaches or whathaveyou. And you’d probably be quite content. And confident. And successful. Sure…sometimes you might not know what works well. But all you have to do is to ask for advice and then use your own judgement about what sounds most feasible. You don’t need experts pontificating about what works well or not.
And the same applies to your students. You can stop giving them goals and objectives. They know how to be, they know how to interact, they know how to live. But they might not have been, interacted or lived quite as much as you. So, you can share your experience and help them do these things better. If they were to concentrate on just being in another language and were saved from the curse of grammatical terminology or culturally-bound rhetoric, perhaps it would all be a lot less intimidating?
As I’ve already said, leaving things to work themselves out means that they will always work themselves out. The problem is that we are often dissatisfied with the way they turn out (although given the causes and conditions that led up to them, they could never have worked out any differently). Zen teachings suggest that everything is, by definition, perfect just as it is. You might not like the message, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true!
Here is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased TWO.
Taoism, like buddhism, contains the belief that nothing just is. Everything is the way it is because of one thing or another. Or, more accurately, one thing and another. At the same time, it is not a dualistic way of thinking. In other words, it doesn’t say there is this and that. If anything, it says there is this-and-that. This is something that will be repeated throughout the chapters.
What does this mean? It means that you can only talk about This if you know where its limits are. On the other side of the limits are That. Without That, you wouldn’t know where This began. So, This and That cannot be separated. They need each other to define each other.
When teachers are despondent because they have taught a bad class, they only know its bad because they know what a good class is. If all of their classes were bad, they wouldn’t be despondent because bad would be normal for them. Similarly, the consistently perfect teacher doesn’t exist. If someone is consistently anything, that anything is just average. To be perfect, you have to admit failure and frustration into your practice.
If students moan that they are not learning anything, they must have a clear idea of what they knew to begin with. Challenge them on this. You need to know what you’re bad at to get better; and to know what you’re bad at, you have to know what you’re good at. When you know what you’re good at, it is inevitable that you will see parts of your practice that are not good. This is usually followed by determined effort to improve upon these areas. When it isn’t, it is a sign that there are other things in your life that are clamouring for your attention.
People often beat themselves up about their shortcomings. But those shortcomings also have their causes and conditions. If you didn’t have them, the rest of your life would also be different (looking backwards, not forwards). So don’t try to eradicate your mistakes – just trust that if the causes and conditions are right, you will try to eradicate them; if the causes and conditions are not right, you will be defensive and resistant to change. Errare humanum est.
Finally, take the same approach when things go well. If they go well, the causes and conditions facilitated the whole endeavour. Sit down and try to analyse what made it work and you will end up intellectualising the whole thing. This leads to road maps and guides and How To…’s etc. People then try to implement these maps, guides and recipes even when the causes and conditions are not right. This leads to failure, recriminations and upset.
Accept that things will often go badly; accept that things will often go well. Be equally satisfied one way or another. This is the way to be!