Saturday, July 19, 2008

5 explanations of a Zen proverb

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings to you all
5 interpretations of a Zen proverb

I had a Mathematics teacher who could not control the behaviour of her year 10 class. Sometimes she despaired and was close to the brink of tears as we were so inattentive, noisy and often quite rude.

One day when my form teacher sent me on an errand, I happened to visit her classroom. I was struck by the participation of her senior class during the lesson. Her students were respectful and behaved in a way conducive to learning. I’ve never forgotten the experience of witnessing this. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I understood more fully that learning, as a class, was necessarily complicitous.

When I was next in her class, I sat quietly and listened as best I could through the noise of my classmates. She had been there all along, but only when I was ready to recognise her as my teacher was I able to learn. Some teachers “appear ordinary in every way, yet can turn out to be great teachers.” - Jean-Claude Gerard Koven


Many years ago I had an accident when driving to work on my newly acquired motor-scooter. I was two lanes out on the main road into Edinburgh when a van pulled away from a standing start right into my path. Not being too skilled with the scooter, I attempted to brake but the bike simply skidded from under me. Of course, I didn't realise emergency stops don't work on two wheels.

There I was, travelling in mid-air at 55 km/hr. I knew instinctively what to do. I walked away from that accident without a scratch, and there were several reasons for this.

One was that I was very lucky. Another that I was wearing a hard helmet, which incidentally was ruined in the accident. I also had on several layers of clothing including two pairs of trousers and leggings and two woollen jerseys. I wore boots, thick leather gloves, an overcoat as well as a thick vinyl garment, known as a Wimpy jacket. I needed the layers simply because I'd have frozen travelling in the icy winter air.

But I’d also remembered something that I’d learnt some five or more years before
in the gymnasium at school. It was to do with balance and body position. I was no gymnast, but rolling myself into a ball was something I'd found I could do, and particularly well.

“It seems that we learn lessons when we least expect them but always when we need them the most, and, the true gift in these lessons always lies in the learning process itself.” - Cathy Lee Crosby


Not long after I began teaching in Wellington, part of my job was to assist Science teachers who had difficulty with the subject matter they were asked to teach. There was a shortage of Science teachers then. Teachers who were skilled in other fields had been recruited to teach Science. A common difficulty they had was in teaching students how to balance chemical equations - a tricky topic even for a trained Science teacher.

It didn’t take me long to find the main cause of their problem. Lessons were being given without recourse to suitable scaffolding. Students need knowledge about chemical symbols, of valency and a sound understanding of how to write correct chemical formulae before they have any chance of understanding how to balance a chemical equation. It is the last step in a traditional learning unit in Chemistry. Even bright students can’t cope with that step unless they have been introduced to and practiced preliminary steps that are fundamental scaffolding.

When they were ready, most students found that the last step was not so difficult and some could balance chemical equations better than their teachers! It confirmed that, "whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps." - Saul Bellow.


While I was an undergraduate, one of my student friends came to me in distress. George had just learnt he was supposed to have taken a language - study that was usually completed prior to the final year. But he had omitted to enroll and had to take a language course in his final year while coping with the study of his honours subjects. George was beginning to panic.

I suggested that he should
visit the new language laboratory and choose a language that he liked listening to. He took my advice, but was again in despair when, having listened to several languages, he found he didn't like any. He approached the tutor and asked what to do. “Have you tried Russian?” was the reply. George hadn't, but he didn't like the idea of learning Russian, which was why he hadn't heard it. The tutor persuaded him to listen and George was astonished.

“Are you sure this is Russian?” he asked. “It sounds like Polish!” The tutor explained that the Russian language was very similar to Polish. Lucky for George, his parents were both Polish and spoke the language at home. George could speak fluent Polish. The examination required a written translation from Russian script into English. Being a language with sounds that adhered strictly to its phonetic alphabet, all George had to do was learn the alphabet. He was then able to read a Russian script and translate the sounds into Polish, then directly into English.

He passed his end of year language examination with top marks. He’d also discovered serendipitously that in learning, “you cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.” - Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.


Every good teacher thinks well of the student who asks a question. The role of tutoring, so often claimed to be the action of the teacher, is owned by the student who enquires. Asking the question from within – curiosity - followed by attempting to find its answer, sets in motion mechanisms important to learning.

It all depends on how fierce the student’s desire is to want to know. “You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.” - Clay P. Bedford.

And the proverb . . .

When the student is ready, the master appears.

Ka kite anō - Catch ya later


Ken Stewart said...

Very interesting indeed. I would also submit that from my personal experience, I have had a tendency to think of myself as a "master" at some thing or another - only to find this was not only the case, but that I had so much else to learn.

Thus it is that I characterize myself a perpetual student of life. I constantly battle down my ego, and pray, to maintain senses tuned to learning

Anonymous said...

Great post, and so true.

Not only for the student, but the inverse is true as well. When you need it, your student appears. I have had a few of those times so far in my teaching career, and they are dear to me.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā korua!

@Ken - an adage you may have heard, "jack of all tades, master of none" describes for me what the life-long learner should be aiming at. There is so much to learn even within a narrow discipline. When the blinkers are on so the focus is narrow, learning can slow to a trickle.

@Tracy - I so agree with your inverse. Good teachers are quick to recognise the so-called 'teaching moment'. Born teachers do this without even thinking - and there are many.

It is truly wonderful to see this in a student and it so often happens in a collaborative environment. I have seen it with my own children - the collaboration between siblings. Special!

Ka kite