Brief Thoughts On Teaching Approach

Posted by Stuart Herbert on January 10th, 2008 in Teaching.

I’m currently reading Psychology For Teachers, as part of the background for my ET01 Introduction to Teaching course that I’m taking to become a teacher qualified to teach adults in the community. A couple of points in the book resonated with me, and I wanted to briefly blog about them if only to remind myself to come back at a later date and learn more about them.

According to PFT, there is debate over whether children think differently to adults because their immature brains work fundamentally differently, or whether it is because they haven’t acquired the knowledge base that your average adult has. This means that, at the moment, the door is open to the possibility that learning processes originally optimised for children can be equally adapted and applied to adults. I don’t teach children, but I do teach adults, and the idea that the same fundamental teaching strategy can apply across both interests me greatly. Teaching strategies for children appear to be much more advanced than those for adults at this time.

The second point that PTF discussed that caught my eye is the notion that children first need to experience something in the physical sense before they can intellectualise about it. PFT presents this as a process linked to mental age and development, rather than a lifelong learning strategy. But this is incredibly close to a recurring behaviour I see all the time in adults where they need to feel something (sometimes physical, sometimes emotional) before they’re able to start gaining deeper understanding. It’s as if the adults are indeed reverting back to those childhood learning abilities time after time after time, and indeed PFT discusses that the idea of children reverting back to earlier learning needs is something that research currently hasn’t ruled out. How many adults do you know who, when subject to distress and fatigue (commonly described as stress in western society), revert back to their basic capabilities? From my own point of view, it seems to be most of them!

Combining these two points, and applying them to teaching Tai Chi, we come to the possibility that an optimal strategy to teach Tai Chi to adults is to focus first on the physical aspects of the training (safety, stances, stepping, shapes, and form) expressly because these are the tools that the students need so that they can experience for themselves the ten principles that ultimately underlie the art. Once students can play the form, they can then use the form to explore each principle, and in turn use the principles to improve their form. Without the form, how can the student study and explore the principles at all, except by trying to apply them to things other than Tai Chi? Is this not the same as the requirement for ET01 that we must be teaching regularly before we join the course?

I’ve long advocated – and practised – the strategy of teach the physical first and then use the physical to teach the principle, based on observation and experience in management and senior technical roles over the last nine years. It’s interesting to know that there may be good scientific reasons to adopt this strategy (we’re talking way-up-in-the-clouds strategy here), and that the information may be available to help further optimise matters.

The irony is that I’ve had PFT sat unread on a shelf in the house for at least five years now. (I am an avid hoarder of books. Fortunately, my wife is too 🙂 ) If I’d picked it up five years ago, before I started regularly teaching, would it actually have made any sense to me?

And, taking this beyond Tai Chi for a moment, what I can learn about those experiences (notably towards the end of my time with Gentoo) when I’ve been unsuccessful in winning certain people over to my ideas despite overwhelming intellectual evidence?

Wow – I’m always amazed at the way that studying Tai Chi can affect the rest of our lives 🙂