Aiming for Nothing

The Way - cannot be told.
The Name - cannot be named.
The nameless is the Way of Heaven and Earth.
The named is Matrix of the Myriad Creatures.
Eliminate desire to find the Way.
Embrace desire to know the Creature.
The two are identical,
But differ in name as they arise.
Identical they are called mysterious,
Mystery on mystery,
The gate of many secrets.

- The Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

Let me first start by saying that I will never –ever– use the phrase ‘The Tao of Teaching’. Having said that, I would definitely include the Tao Te Ching in the list of required reading for teacher training courses the world over. Had I read it during my training, I think I would have been much better prepared to deal with the despondency, panic attacks and near-meltdown I experienced during my second school phase.

To be fair to my university course, there was counseling available, and much talk of achieving a work-life balance, not burning out, managing time effectively, allowing for mistakes, not letting things (or kids, or headteachers) get to you. And yet that wasn’t enough; it wasn’t enough to ‘manage’ the expectations of the job, to limit the parameters of success or to change how you measured your own achievement. There was something that was forever nagging, no matter how rationally you looked at it, a tiny goblin that jumped out of the piles of clothes that needed washing, or the piles of notebooks that needed marking. It said, in a whisper full of malice: “You haven’t done enough.”

Of course, any kind of training course will involve a variety of learning curves, and learning to accept these kinds of feelings without falling apart or losing your nerve may very well be the sort of ‘baptism of fire’ any aspiring teacher must go through (I might be personalising in this blog, but there are scores of teachers and trainee teachers who know perfectly well what I’m talking about). Yet there is an issue with our fundamental assumptions about teaching which requires a fair amount of looking into. Which brings me back to Taoism.

I’d like to propose that the pressure exerted on teachers (and learners) as well as the feelings of inadequacy they experience both stem from a positivist philosophical premise which is anchored to the pursuit of progress. Progress is the goal. Progress is the unit of measurement. Progress is the key to parental happiness. Progress is what school leaders crave. Progress is the overarching aim of our teaching army. A to B. From here to there and never back again. History marches forward, and so must our children.

Must they? Where to? And what will they do once they get there?

Maoist Poster from the Cultural Revolution Era

This is the point where it is customary for anyone presenting a ‘radical’ argument to either temper it by moderately claiming that they’re ‘not saying we should do away with all progress’ or to describe with messianic fervour the promised land that lies ahead if only we banish progress (and its proponents) from our classrooms and societies. I’m going to do neither, and I’m going to do both. What’s that? Oh yes, Taoism.

One of the fundamental tenets of Taoism is Wu Wei (無為), perhaps best translated as ‘Action, Not-Action’ or ‘Doing, Non-Doing’. Alan Watts did a thoroughly good and entertaining job of explaining it in detail, and there are myriads of scholarly and/or fashionable books about it. The reason I mention it here is exactly because it can help immensely in reviewing the practice of teaching and learning and be used as a guiding principle for examining the very nature of schooling.

So, what if, instead of progress from A to B, school was all about learning to love the act of learning? To experience feeling good while learning, to want to learn more, to form groups of mutual interest and learn together? What if the actual aim of lessons was to enjoy them, even when they’re challenging, uncomfortable or perplexing? What if there were no learning objectives, goals or outcomes? No SMART targets, nothing other than enjoying the ride and having fun in the process?

Other people have already pointed out the flaws in learning objectives, but most critiques rarely seem to venture deep enough into the structure and foundations of the educational philosophy which gives birth to things like them. Looking at any sample lesson planning document, it is easy to see the kind of forward-motion, target-driven linear approach that is common in learning how to teach. And while I will admit that this is a useful exercise for teachers, perhaps as a step in structuring time in the classroom, it is ultimately limiting, like any closed system; and more often than not, it’s met with resistance, either from the little buggers themselves, or from random technological hiccups, earthquakes, thunderstorms, flying insects, paper-cuts, fist-fights, visits from the headteacher and all other totally unexpected yet normal parts of life.

I am aware that taking away the idea of aiming for learning might be too vague a notion to be seen as pragmatic, as a realisable teaching approach. One way of seeing it would be to understand that acknowledging the importance of setting an aim is not the same and should not be confused with the act of stating an aim. It is attempting to do without having to say (or prove) that we do; to focus our attention not on the purpose or aim of our lessons but on the delivering of them. To try to make our lessons just happen.

Incidentally, if Taoism is too zen for you and you are more wedded to the Western philosophical tradition, Process Metaphysics is another good place to develop your thinking about Heraclitus’s ‘τὰ πάντα ῥεῖ‘ or ‘everything flows‘. It is especially helpful in breaking down the illusion of separateness, the idea that anything can exist in and of itself. One of its basic principles is the nature of objects as interwoven processes and not as fixed individual entities. Think of a diligent student’s pencil case. Or an overworked teacher’s locker.

Barbara Hepworth (British, 1903-1975) – Forms in Movement (Circle), oil, gouache, watercolor and pencil on board

Thinking of everyone and everything involved in school life not as fixed entities but as constantly changing processes allows for flexibility. It allows for teachers to be fallible, for students to forget what they were taught a week ago, for war to break out or pandemics to occur. For lesson time to be experienced as real time, and for this time to not be wasted on zealously attempting to prove that something has been learnt.

In a future blog post, I will be writing more about teaching and time, thrift and our throw-away culture of waste and plenty. For the moment, I will stop here and try and put today’s post in a (squirrel’s) nutshell.

So, the idea that schooling is about teaching students to get from A to B is, I feel, a redundant premise that causes much pain and little gain. If we see teaching and learning from the start not as a never-ending quest to achieve targets and measurable outcomes but as a ceaseless process of exploration, questioning, discovery and yes, joy, schools might become happier places where both the big and little people working inside will not feel inadequate or lacking. There will be nothing that teachers or students will need to do, no mountain peak to reach, no precise knowledge that they have to memorise or transmit.

And from nothing, something interesting might happen.

3 thoughts on “Aiming for Nothing

  1. Nicely written.
    It’s the second time this I’ve come across Lao Tzu this morning. I’m not sure eliminating anything ever works. To eliminate desire is to desire elimination, when I think integration, and not elimination, is key

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Michael, and yes indeed! Right after ‘eliminating desire’, Lao Tzu advises us to ’embrace’ it – both things being one and the same and, to my mind, leading to different places that are both necessary and welcome, depending on the circumstances.

      Liked by 1 person

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