Mastering and Teaching content is the beginning of the teachers responsibilities but only the beginning. Afterwards comes the development of mastery in teaching. This paper will show how Daoist concepts and careful reading of the Tao Te Ching in particular, can guide one towards excellent teaching practices. This means moving beyond the traditional goal of classroom teaching. Education in the classroom is directed towards giving students knowledge and skills but it is not primarily concerned with developing a certain kind of personal character . . . . However, the way of the teacher in the Tao Te Ching is more focused on fostering the development in each student of his inherent character. I wish to note that in writing this paper I have found very few if any articles which address the topic of teaching and Daoism. So this paper is an initial foray into a relatively untouched field. As a result, the focus of this paper will be the Tao Te Ching. It would have been a much larger project than the scope of this paper allowed to include more texts from the Daoist Cannon.
Lets begin with one of the most famous lines from Chapter 25 of the Tao Te Ching; Dao Fa Ziran. There are many translations of this term but I will understand the term to mean doing something of itself. Another way to put it is that Dao follows inherent inclinations or tendencies. Its this translation I wish to focus on for the purposes of this article. Doing something of itself, is to undertake an action in accordance with, or in comformity to, what is called for by the subject and situation. Understanding the true essence of all things under the Heavens is the basis for any one who truly wants to follow Dao (For the remainder of this paper I will be using the generally accepted translation of this term, The Way) but it also has some very practical applications to the profession of teaching. After all, there are repeated references to the sage throughout the Tao Te Ching. Understanding the truth of this passage can inform the way teachers construct their classroom and relationships with students.
Dao follows inherent inclinations or tendencies means understanding the true reality of all things, however, the first step in this path is to understand ourselves. Once we perceive our own nature, then we can see the truth of the world. In particular, this concept can be of immense assistance to teachers. (Although I believe my thesis applies to the profession of teaching in general, I have only ever taught high school students so can only speak to the applicability of these concepts for ages 14-19.). Why is it so important for the teacher to understand his own nature? In chapter 16 of the Tao te Ching, it says,
Attain the climax of emptiness,
Preserve the utmost quiet;
As myriad things act in concert,
I thereby observe the return.
Then each returns to its root.
To see the true nature of oneself requires that the individual develop a stillness practice. Only then is the person able to see himself clearly and attain a balance or evenness. This point is illustrated by regarding a lake. Its quite hard to see our reflection clearly when the lakes surface is disturbed in some way. However, when the water is still, then we can at least see our external selves with total clarity. In returning to ones original nature we see the world unfettered with the baggage of our own perceptions. Its as if weve awoken from a dream and now can see the true reality of all things. This will have powerful effects on ones teaching. For example, the terms used by teachers to describe students: good, bad, bright, positive, disruptive, troublemaker, etc. are no longer used by the teacher because they obscure rather than reveal the nature of each student. They imply a fixed nature to students which then block a teachers ability to see their natural tendencies. For example, about five years ago, I began giving one oral chapter test to my history students towards the end of a year-long course. I had come to understand that the traditional written tests students always took in my class only assessed part of their abilities. I was limiting the ways my students could express their understanding of history and so created a flawed picture of their academic abilities. When I first announced at the beginning of the semester that they would be taking a test where the answers would be spoken, not written, something curious happened. Some of my best students, who were quite adept at multiple choice and essay tests, became anxious. Some of my weaker students were visibly happy. Yes, we dont have to write! one young man exuberantly stated. Over the years, Ive seen those types of reactions over and over again. I dont wish to say that all of my best students do poorly on this assessment and vice versa, but there are some examples every year where this is the case. What does this mean? It means that I was operating under an incomplete understanding of my students abilities. Some of my weakest students on written tests were actually very good at gathering, organizing and verbally expressing their thoughts in a pressured situation(potentially a very valuable skill in the workplace). And some of my strongest students on written tests struggled with the format of an oral test. In this way I gained an appreciation for the previously hidden abilities of some students and showed others that they had some skills to work on.
If the teacher has reached a certain calmness due to a stillness practice, then he can begin the next step, assisting students in the learning process. The teacher is better able to serve the needs of his students because . . .
. . . sages put themselves last,
and they were first;
they excluded themselves,
and they survived.
Was it not by their very selflessness
That they managed to fulfill themselves?
This selection from chapter 7 of the Tao Te Ching contains an idea very helpful for any teacher. There has been abundant research to show that students learn best when they are in charge of their own learning. In her 1993 article, From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side, Alison King argued that the role of a teacher was not to dispense large quantities of information to students so they can subsequently download this into their memory banks, but to, facilitate students interaction with the material and with each other in their knowledge producing endeavor. This is an important idea for the teacher who aspires to mastery. Once the teacher develops an evenness, then he no longer need to always be the center of attention. This is supported by recent research including the work of Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in their book, Better Learning Through Structured Teaching. In it, the authors postulate that teachers need to work through several steps in an effort to make students self-directed learners. They believe, The ultimate goal of instruction is that students be able to independently apply information, ideas, content, skills and strategies in unique situations. We want to create learners who arent dependent on others for information or ideas The only way that students can work towards the goal of self-directed learning is if they understand themselves and their preferred learning style. This directly relates back to the notion of following inherent inclinations. However, this can only happen when the teacher creates a classroom which fosters students willingness to engage in self discovery. This is the beginning of understanding nature as mentioned in the Tao Te Ching.
Once the teacher understands his own nature, then he can develop insight into the nature of their students. Why is that? Because its hard for teachers to see what students really need. Our own ideas of whats necessary or needed are too often based on our perceptions, not what the situation actually calls for. For example, its taken me many years to realize a simple truth: that entertaining students is not the centerpiece of good teaching. In years past I often made myself the focus of class. What I came to realize over the years was that if I was in the spotlight, then I couldnt really see my audience very clearly. Its taken me two decades to get out of my own way and understand how to make the classroom a more student-centered space.
One of the first things I did to see the inclinations or tendencies of students was to let go of my own political views. As a high school history teacher, this might seem antithetical to the profession but it was an essential step in the process of becoming a better teacher. For the first two decades of my teaching career, I used to believe that my opinions never leaked through in political discussions. This was a dream, like Zhuangzis story of the dreamer and the butterfly. I was deluding only myself as most of my students, knew what my opinions and agenda were. The dynamic created was at odds with any educational goals I hoped to achieve. My ego was front and center for the students to see. Some students agreed with my views, some didnt, but all were affected when I made apparent my own political views. Like a boulder in a river, my opinions were forcing students to alter their course and take a path that I shaped, not them. Upon realizing this, I understood that to become a better teacher it was necessary to let go of any personal interest in a particular outcome. Chapter 64 of the Dao De Jing speaks specifically about this problem,
Those who act on it will ruin it.
Those who hold on to it will ruin it.
The sage does not act upon things,
Therefore he does not ruin them.
This is not to say that a teacher following Daoist ideas should disengage from being a presence in the classroom. I still encourage political discussion amongst my students, however, for the most part, I refrain from participating. Some students ask for my opinion but I decline and leave responsibility for continuing the discussion in their hands. So this is a chance for students to discuss politics with their peers. By taking myself out of the discussion, students can more clearly develop their own beliefs without the teachers input. What Im attempting to create is a place where students can see their reflection clearly in the water. And its done when the teacher does less! Chapter 59 also speaks to this point,
When ruling the world and serving Heaven,
the sage uses simplicity in everything he does.
Simplicity comes from letting go of what you want.
This is one of the keys to teachers improving their classroom skills. If the teacher uses simplicity then he is acting without reaching; living in balance and so can more naturally discern what is best for each student. The teacher conducts himself in a dispassionate manner Without acting the teacher fosters the natural development of each student. In the interest of possibly clarifying my argument, I will provide an example from my own teaching, however, I do so reluctantly, fearing the particulars will distract people from my larger point and shift their attention to specific details, which are of lesser importance. One of the most important lessons I teach students is understanding the optimal time for them to work on large projects such as research papers. First I help students break down their week to see where time is available to devote to a much larger, long term assignment . Second, we talk about listing their: academic commitments, commitments outside of school, organizational and study skills. It is most helpful to guide students into recognizing what they realistically can and cannot do. If students are realistic about how much time they actually can devote to a paper, then they dont set goals that cant be fulfilled leading to feelings of guilt or disappointment. So, instead students learn to develop a long-term schedule which works best given their pre-existing time commitments and preferred way to work. One thing students often discover is that Saturday mornings before noon can be a very good time to accomplish long term projects. This is true for several reasons: most of their friends arent up yet, their parents dont expect them to be up yet and this is a low pressure time as opposed to Sunday evening-a time when most students feel guilty or harried to complete work assigned from the previous week. I offer suggestions and help students see a bit more clearly into their own selves. Then they decide how best to organize themselves and their time.
Even though the reference to chapter 64 in the previous paragraph seems to say that teachers should do less, theres something more complex and subtle involved here. The Daoist concept best applied to this situation is wuwei. The closest literal translation means, without action. My students often ask me if this means one should just sit on the couch without any movement but this is a mistaken understanding of the term. What wuwei really points to is acting in the right way at the right moment. The term emphasizes an economy of motion and the belief that a follower of Dao recognizes both what is the right thing to say or do, and when to say or do it. Practicing wuwei is how the teacher can begin to follow the Dao in his profession. This concept appears in the commonly used phrase, the teachable moment. How does this relate to wuwei? This is the moment when a teacher recognizes a students readiness to learn and understands the correct lesson to teach him. There are many examples I could provide here, and will do so in the question and answer period, but I have found that examples of using wuwei are quite specific and can seem insignificant when regarded in hindsight. Chapter 63 from the Tao Te Ching refers directly to this point,
The most difficult things in the world
must be done while they are easy,
the greatest thing in the world
must be done while they are small.
A large part of the teacher using non-doing is in the small lessons. Examples from my own teaching include; noticing when a student had begun to participate more in class discussion and steering additional questions their way, or asking a student to take on a new role in a debate because they need some gentle encouragement. So Im not suggesting that teachers neglect their classroom responsibilities, but that the path to excellent teaching lies in discerning the art of doing and saying less, yet giving to each student the guidance he needs.
The sage says little and does not tie the people down;
And the people stay happy believing that what happens,
This gets to the essence of Dao follows inherent inclinations or tendencies. The less a teacher does in the classroom, the more the student is able to explore his own educational path or way. Then students will come to understand that they are in charge of their own education. As teachers, the less we do, the more we are able to see what each students natural inclinations are, and facilitate their development.
One of the techniques a teacher following nature can use to free students up to become better learners is teach them what it means to make mistakes. I teach in a college preparatory private school where every student plans to attend college or university. As a result, students often feel pressure to earn the highest grades. When students are told, or come to believe, that earning As is the only worthwhile grade, then real learning declines. This is in part because students become afraid. Learning can happen under these circumstances, but in spite of the environment, not because of it. Again, the role of the teacher can be key in changing the pressured classroom environment. Chapter 13 of the Tao Te Ching speaks to the problem of grade focused students,
Favor and Disgrace seem alarming; . . .
What are favor and disgrace?
Favor is the lower: get it and youre surprised,
Lose it and youre startled. . . .
Why does high status greatly afflict your person?
The reason we have trouble is that we have selves.
If we had no selves, what troubles would we have
The problem for many of our achievement-oriented students is that they equate a high grade with success and any other grade with failure. However, Chapter 13 shows students that we subjectively create ideas of success and failure, they are not objective constructs but are bound to a particular person and time in their life. The solution is to let go of our selves. The emphasis here is on forgetting about self. The master teacher has to reveal this truth to students and guide them into letting go of their own expectations. Once students have done this, then the teacher can help them to accept mistakes which in turn help them, figure out how to get better at what we are doing. They help us understand our thinking. Understanding our own thinking is just another way to understand our inherent inclinations. So if the teacher can help students realize their own tendencies, then mistakes wont be evidence of failure, but merely a chance to see themselves more clearly. It will clear the way for students to do something of itself. This will be done without thoughts of expected or hoped for outcomes.
Contemporary research has borne this out with strong support coming from Stanford professor, Carol Dweck and her theory about differing mindsets. Dr. Dweck laid out her argument in a 2006 book entitled, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which argued that students adopted one of two mindsets to learning.
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their
intelligence, their talents are just fixed traits. They have a certain
amount and thats that, and then their goal becomes to look smart
all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students
understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through
effort, good teaching and persistence. They dont necessarily think everyones the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe
everyone can get smarter if they work on it.
There are clear correlations between the growth mindset that Dweck refers to and the selection above from Chapter 13. If we as teachers can encourage students to develop a growth mindset, then success and failure will no longer have the same meaning and fear of failure will no longer loom large in their minds. Because students with growth mindsets havent directly connected their identity with classroom grades, their minds will become much more even/in balance. The more teachers can foster this mindset, the more well see students naturally develop as learners.
Some of the ideas Ive discussed here run counter to the educational pedagogy prevalent in American schools today. In an era when teaching to the test is something teachers have to either embrace or consciously react against, the strategies Im advocating run against the grain. They do so because Dao Fa Ziran, if understood properly by a teacher, involves training a person, not just teaching to a specific task. I would argue that this type of teaching is person oriented versus task oriented. It is this type of idea that helps one reach a transcendent level of teaching. One where students are able to develop their own abilities because the teacher has understood the truth of each student and allowed them to naturally develop their own inclinations/tendencies. That is the importance of Dao Fa Ziran.