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Archive for August, 2014

Dare to Ask

How can a teacher get around student’s misconceptions about the nature of authority, for instance, without inviting disrespect? (We’re talking about adult learners here – who have already been trained into a lifetime of politeness about how to treat teachers.)

Instead of my lecturing, here’s an account from many years ago about a teacher of mine who I considered to be a master. In this case, she was teaching Alexander Technique, but this relates to asking questions concerning any skill.

My teacher was in her late eighties here. Her name was Marj Barstow. She was almost five feet tall. Classes could be huge; sixty to eighty people in one room. The advantage was that the workshop lasted for weeks. The disadvantage was that people imagined it was too early in the workshop to dare to risk anything chancy in front of everyone else.

My teacher was too polite to be overt about what must have been some frustration beyond kidding the group, “What do I have to do to get some questions and thinking out of more of you people, do a jig?” Most often you’re laughing, but no daring questions. Humor does loosen up students to take more chances.

The experience of getting a new perceptual assumption is unsettling to many people. A master of an art can sometimes come across as personally threatening. In this case, the class was a bit awed and intimidated. This little old lady could shake people’s foundations; her work in dispelling postural movement assumptions could pull the carpet out from underneath their very sense of self. So the group treated her with “respect.” This turned out to be a kid-glove sort of childish unquestioning loyalty and lip-service agreement.

This little old lady hated that. She had a number of ways of dealing with it though. One was to invite different people to get up in front of the class for a “private” lesson with her, with everyone else watching. While working with someone she would ask, “So you see that little difference? Can someone describe what they see?” She wouldn’t go on until someone in the class described it, even if the “victim” was left mutely amazed.

We didn’t know it at the time, but what she was teaching all of us was to see very subtle indications of motion or a lack of movement. We were learning what subtle indications meant in each specific situation with each different person. Hopefully that observational ability was going to carry over to observing ourselves while doing something that was important to us.

She might ask the group to move in slow motion to illustrate a crucially pivotal point that influenced that entire outcome. She showed us how these special points were integrated with the whole, normally paced action again.

Hopefully for you, these examples of techniques to encourage questions are, (or should be) commonplace to any teacher.
If you’re interested in this teacher’s subject, here’s a short eight minute video about how she discovered her interest in what she taught and some of why she taught the way she did.

The tip I’ll tell you about next surprised me; I regarded it as being positively sneaky.

My teacher took me aside and told me that she appreciated having me and a few other people in the class. She said that it was because we’d pipe up with questions that nobody else would dare ask. She then told me a story about how she didn’t understand when another student accused her of putting them on the spot by singling them out, inviting their participation.

This is what made me realize that she was asking me permission to single me out in order to put her “on the spot” by bringing up what may be forbidden as defined by our class. This little old lady had some unusual ideas in her field about how her skill should be taught. People seemed to be avoiding asking her specifically about what made her ways different, and she wanted me to break the ice, so to speak.

Essentially, she encouraged me to plant myself for her as a sort of “sacrificial fool” in the forbidden questioning department. People would stare at me with open mouths and shocked looks on their faces when I’d fire off these questions that nobody else would dare say.

It pleased the two of us immensely. After those questions were in the air, class would get much more interesting. Other students would then start to ask the questions that were very important to them personally.

So if you are a teacher, don’t be above encouraging one of your students to act as a ‘secret planted bomb’ in the classroom!

Certainly – if you’ve got any comments or questions to ask me – please speak up now!

 

 

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Sense of “Right”

The alignment of intention to a result is symbolic of integrity. “Walking Your Talk” is impressive. It’s also the way to get mastery from practicing, whether it comes from gradual improvement or insight or a combination. To correct for what happens despite intentions can be measured by various standards and priorities, depending what those priorities about standards are.

But how regularly do we ask ourselves if our sense of “right” is accurate? Human ability to measure itself is at the basis of self-deception, self-justification and even arrogant self-righteousness.

These “evils’ aren’t purely to blame as a fault of character as often as you’d imagine. Instead they are innocently connected to the nature of how humans adapt to build skills.

Think for a minute about how habits are formed. Habits disappear so their routines can become innate so the building blocks of skills may be strung together, so the new part of the skill can be added. This is how humans create reliable behaviors such as complex motor skills. When an external signal of need is recognized by the mind, the habit goes off automatically as a practiced whole, even though it was trained as a sequenced string of responses.

Unfortunately, it is also true for operative nuisance habitual assumptions that can cascade out of control when habits are trained. “What fires together, wires together” is a brain science fact.

The disappearance of sensations when using a habit is another factor. As we’re sifting, measuring or matching what we notice in front of us now, our very real and useful skills that habitually worked previously for us in the past in other contexts will tend to make us miss a sense of our own involvement. For instance, if you spend lots of time with small children simplifying the way you talk, our adult friends might feel insulted!

It’s a commonly recognized phenomena that our emotional investment in our goals influence what we feel is happening. This is part of why people are suspicious or ignore anyone who rants or holds the conviction that they’re “right” from personal experience or belief. We feel we must discount their personal investment.

Our sensory felt sense of us “doing” something to respond (along with how we may skew noticing the results) is hidden from us by the routine we trained that was buried during the learning process. Strangely enough, our having learned a complex skill hid it from our sense of feeling. Hiding the “learned” part is how our habits work to simplify it for us as we’re turning the overwhelmingly complex strings of responses into an automated, whole action. Sensory dampening is the price of simplifying and convenience.

So – how do we get past this feature of having dulled perception because of learning or using skills? What can we do, given our tendency to skip over new occurrences because we tend to match what is expected or desired?

We may resume conscious control by taking back the reins from habitual routines by paying attention to what we would usually ignore. We can sharpen our own relative perceptual capacity too by learning how to “clear the slate” perceptually. Using any mindfulness technique helps with that – as simple as taking a momentary break.

Using something or someone outside of ourselves to cross-reference or measure can also help the ability to spot and verify factual results. Getting ‘truer’ results works more reliably if you cross-pollinate feedback from various sources: various people, shifting perceptions, various points of view, various tools – rather than merely to rely on duplicating the memory of your past ‘felts’ of the standard or priority you wanted to apply. Using other technological feedback sources is valuable too – such as mirrors, video or other recordings, or just using something as mundane as a tape measure.

All these can offer some degree of objectivity to judge the success or failure of our expectations and correcting for the disappearing act that’s the cost of using habits. The ability to confidently question ourselves is a useful part of the ongoing exercise of cultivating an open-minded attitude.

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