Image: Creative Commons, Forest by Nihal Jiban

The Tao of Teaching: Part 1

This article is part of a series of writings on Greta Nagel’s book The Tao of Teaching: The Ageless Wisdom of Taoism and the Art of Teaching. The goal of this series is to promote discourse on topics related to teaching, classroom management, student-centered learning and other progressive educational methods. Utilizing the enlightenment and wisdom offered in this book as an impetus and guide, I will critically reflect on my own teaching practices and connect my own experiences to the anecdotes and examples provided by Nagel.

Check out The Tao of Teaching here.

Learn more about Greta Nagel here.

The Way is Nameless

“One may know the insights of the Way without having to give it a name.” — The Tao of Teaching

I walk into an ESL classroom on the first day of class. The first meeting. We are all preparing for the learning journey ahead. Expectations abound on all sides. Introductions are given and received. Ice breaker activities are navigated. It’s now time to move into the meat of the lesson. “OK everyone, today we’re going to learn about the present continuous tense.” Blank, confused, disengaged stares…

Image: Creative Commons, Google

As an educator of any kind, you may have experienced this in some form during your career. I realized quite early on, within the first year of teaching English, thanks to a helpful peer and supervisor, that in language learning it is more beneficial for a student to learn how to produce a specific grammatical structure or verb tense and grasp how to use it than it is for him or her to know what that tense or structure is called.

In life, we often feel the need to identify, label and name things. We want a name to put to a face. Some scientists and biologists devote their life’s work towards identifying and naming chemicals, compounds and organisms. This is an important aspect to learning. However, it need not always be the focus.

Teachers study methods, philosophies and theories in order to build a foundation for their practice and understand why it is they do what they do the way they do it. Yet, often it seems educators can become too focused on explaining what something is rather than simply playing their role in the learning environment to help produce learning. We get wrapped up in a web of terminology that clouds the learning objective and often results in disengaging the learners from the learning process. Your colleague might ask you, “So, would you say you’re teaching style is more pragmatic or humanistic?” Does it matter?

I am happy to be teaching in a program that is closely aligned with my teaching philosophy and methodology. The freshman EFL (English as a Foreign Language) program that I teach in my university promotes task-based student-centered learning. This method of teaching is extremely new and usually uncomfortable for South Korean freshman university students who have spent around 10 years studying English in a teacher centered environment that promotes cram studying to achieve high test scores.

I have found myself, too often, toting this student-directed approach in pep talks to learners. This has proven both unnecessary and ineffective in my classrooms. “Hey everyone, this is student-centered learning. I know it’s different, but it works.” Half of them probably have no idea what that term even means. The other half probably don’t care. Regardless, it will be much more beneficial to simply encourage them to “get on with it”, as my program director loves to reiterate.

The wise teacher does not choose to give a particular name to her or his style of educating…

It is easy for educators to become bogged down with discussions of which method or practice is best or who’s philosophy should be applied in what situation. I believe most of us could benefit from just “getting on with it”, rather than spending time deciding what to call our teaching style or arguing over which method should prevail. When we focus on the learner and building the most appropriate and beneficial learning environment for each class we interact with, the importance of labels and names falls away.

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In the opening chapters of The Tao of Teaching, Nagel sets up this premise. As educators our focus should be on our learners and providing them with the best opportunity to develop their skills. Nagel states very directly and simply: “The wise teacher does not choose to give a particular name to her or his style of educating…” Names are limiting and could evoke unwarranted reactions based on implied meanings. In the Tao, Nagel says, it is important to maintain individuality.

Nagel supplements her own words with anecdotes from other educators. An educator who Nagel refers to only as Katherine says, “I don’t teach; I set up an environment in which children can grow.” This is simple yet powerful advice and essentially a promotion of student-centered, self-directed learning. When we strip away the names and labels and focus on the learning, allowing learners to direct themselves, we establish an opportunity for meaningful growth.

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As educators, we are most likely influenced by and combine a number of theories, methods and practices into our classrooms. In the Tao of teaching, teachers select practices that are best suited to the needs of their learners, not because that is how we are taught it should be done or because this theorist says this is the way it should be.

Nagel closes her first chapter with a powerful quote:

We would have all children become individuals who: possess inner-directedness with feelings of personal identity, have confidence in themselves, cherish uniqueness and differences in themselves and others, are open to experience, have highly developed communication skills, cultivate their intellectual power, use initiative and exercise imagination, are committed to constructive production of some kind, and accept responsibility for participation and action for the common good.

As I continue this series, I will explore, through Nagel’s guidance and my own personal experience, how educators can work to achieve this goal.

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…next time in The Tao of Teaching: Silence is a Virtue

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