Monday, October 20, 2008

Unconscious teaching

It was a long exchange of emails with my dear friend Lou that started me thinking about unconscious teaching. She has a theory that some parents teach their children all the time, without realising it. I denied this at the time. Surely, as the mother of five determinedly autonomous learners, I only facilitate? Never teach. Teaching would imply manipulation of their fragile impetus to learn, their delicate budding curiosity about the world, which must be protected at all costs.

But she got me thinking, and watching myself. Recently I caught myself at it.

It was with the baby - I suddenly noticed that whenever I supplied any of her needs, I gave a little audible sigh of satisfaction. As soon as I caught myself doing this I started wondering why, and today I finally realised that it's because I am actually teaching her.

What am I teaching? It can only be one of the most important lessons of my own life that my innate mothering spirit is determined to pass on: be happy to have simple needs met. Appreciate what you've got, and so on. I am, there's no doubt, saturating her little mind with these repeated audio signals to reinforce the message.

I'm just starting to read Charlotte Iserbyte's The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America [opens pdf] which apparently spells out the mind-bending repertoire of subtle tricks employed by the world's governments to manipulate populations. You can watch her discussing it on You Tube. I did, and was simultaneously intrigued and disgusted.

Needless to say, it completely goes against my ethics to consciously try to externally form or sculpt a child's thinking. So I suppose, now that I know I'm doing it, I shall have to stop.


Blogger Allie said...

I think that I do that teaching thing too. But it's all bound up with learning. For example, when P was a baby, I have vivid memories of handing her objects a great deal. These were things like cups and spoons but also posting blocks and then jigsaw pieces. I was teaching her, no doubt, but also learning. "What will this baby do with this thing?" I was watching and wondering and trying to understand. It was reciprocal. It was how I like to spend time with a baby. If she didn't want the thing she didn't take it and if she threw it at my head in fury I learned that bit more about her!

I know I was taught things in similar ways by my mum. Cooking is a good example. As a little girl I would 'help ' with making pastry and then get given a lump to manipulate (eventually!) into a rather leaden, slightly grey, jam turnover. Now, pastry was her agenda but the turnover was mine. I reckon it's all about balance - genuine give and take. No compulsion. And respect.

9:30 am, October 20, 2008  
Blogger Allie said...

BTW, that woman makes my blood run cold, herself. Her agenda is in all those little comments about 'tolerance' and 'sex education' and 'athesism' and 'normal Americans'. Where does she think that 'normality' or 'mainstream' belief set comes from? God?

9:40 am, October 20, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Yes, I noticed the emphasis on those words in the YouTube clip, but I thought I'd suspend my judgment until I'd read the book. Have you read it? I'm crawling through it a page at a time - hate reading onscreen.

Give and take sort of teaching.. I'd just call that interacting I think. Offering something that might interest the child. Hmmm. My children help me a lot with jobs like baking, but it's because they wanted to - I don't suggest that they do.

I'm very interested in the matter of instigation and who's really driving events.

10:08 am, October 20, 2008  
Blogger Allie said...

Yes, I know just what you mean about who instigates things. I struggle with it. Once again, I think it is about balance - with the bottom line that no-one should be trying to force anyone else to do something. I know that manipulation is a grey area. But that's where respect should come in, I hope! It is complicated.

That said, I think I do want my children to appreciate the need to be reliable when they have made a commitment. They can say yes or no to anything but their choices affect other people and they need to be aware of that. I don't want them to think that they have more right to free choice than anyone else does. If you don't turn up for sonething you said you wanted to do then you've wasted someone's time, for example, and so removed their opportunity to do something else.

No, haven't read the book. Will try to get to it later.

10:38 am, October 20, 2008  
Blogger Allie said...

Skimming her book while I wait for some lunch to cook. This made me smile,
"I felt the schools should try to instill sound morals and values in the students."
She's not averse to brainwashing, just dangerous, leftie, humanist brainwashing...

11:42 am, October 20, 2008  
Blogger Sue said...

I'm thoroughly in favour of autonomous learning, and interaction, and child-led interests, and so on. But I think it's possible to get too caught up in worrying about what is 'teaching' and what might be 'manipulative' even when we're not intending anything remotely coercive.

It's impossible NOT to teach at some level, and IMO would be wrong to try and avoid it completely. Answering questions is a form of teaching, because we're giving our personal view of the answer, based on our own experiences and cultures. We can't forever flood our children with every possible answer (well it says this in English, but if we were in France it would be pronounced that way, and if we were German it would be said like this... ) so all we can do is share what we believe is the best current answer, and acknowledging in some cases that it may be wrong.

If my small child asks for an apple and I cut it up because his mouth isn't big enough to manage a whole apple, am I manipulating him, or making things too easy? Should I expect him to ask me to cut it? But then, if he's never seen a cut apple, how would he know?

And, having cut it, I might say, 'Here it is, in two halves'. Is that trying to push my agenda that he needs to know about fractions at some point, or is it simply introducing an aspect of life that is of interest to me, and which he can pick up on if he wishes, or not?

If we don't do it, that in itself passes on a message that mum doesn't care about these things.

I got myself tied in knots trying to figure some of this out, a few years back, and in the end I reckoned that so long as I wasn't being obviously pushy, and so long as the child was free to pick something up or not, and so long as I wasn't coercing them obviously into some mould they weren't ready for, then there's really nothing wrong with a bit of low-key teaching.

My husband is also very anti anything that smacks of 'teaching' because he was damaged by the school system, and thus associates teaching with 'being forced to learn stuff you don't want to know, in ways that are generally unpleasant'. To me, it's much more open than that. Teaching includes discussion, and answering questions, and demonstrating how to do something (such as baking cakes), and sharing from our experience of life.

So maybe it would help to define 'teaching' and see what exactly it is that you don't want to be caught doing.

11:55 am, October 20, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks Sue, that's thought-provoking. I do wonder how much my aversion to teaching is a result of my own childhood.

I'm not actually averse to teaching, as long as it's asked for. I'm extremely worried about over-teaching, in case I put the children off wanting to learn though.

This intrinsic motivation to learn is the most important element in education IMO. But as you say, there often isn't a clear cut delineation between the child leading and the parent leading. Something that gets overlooked is the mimicry instinct - I remember reading a list post of yours years ago which described how you just sat down to do crafts etc, and the children would just join in - this was very reassuring to me, who was worried at the time that they might never do anything if I stopped teaching them.

They're having a debate about religion ATM, having seen 'Yom Kippur' on the calendar and looked it up on Wikipedia. Now they're arguing about the importance of structured spiritual processes and the possible benefits and drawbacks of organised 'forgiveness and repentance' sessions. Brilliant to listen to.

This is at 16, 18 and 19 years old. It never stops, does it? :-)

12:27 pm, October 20, 2008  
Blogger mamacrow said...

oh, was thinking about this just the other day... a (nice ish actually) teacher from eldest child's school (that he left last summer) met us at karate the other day (his son does the same class) and he asked me how the teaching was going.

I was quick to point out that I'm NOT a teacher, I'm a facilitator.

because all my career I've trained, facilitated, supported research etc...

but is this just because of the negative associations with teaching? or rather, dare I say it, with 'bad' teaching?

we're not so much automative as person/child led/centred in this house, so really anything goes as to method/techiniques, so long as, as Sue says, it's not forced, it's reponsive, reactive - really a dialogue.

take sports - would you object to teaching, or other's teaching your kids sports? or does that come under a different word - coaching?

2:04 pm, October 23, 2008  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Mamacrow,

"take sports - would you object to teaching, or other's teaching your kids sports? or does that come under a different word - coaching?"

No, I wouldn't object to anyone teaching anyone anything (including me, come to think of it!) - as long as the learner had asked for the teaching and was free to stop it at any time.

The 4th I Ching hexagram - Youthful Folly - explains my thinking about it very well. It's basically saying that the student needs to find the teacher, not the other way around, and that the relationship between the two should be a very special one, subject to careful observation and consideration on both sides.

Our Ali managed it well when he wanted to learn Japanese a few years ago. He got as much as he could from books and CDs, but then wanted to find a teacher to help him learn a bit more. I helped him find one, and he asked for just 6 lessons, and explained exactly what he wanted from them. The teacher was wise enough to give him just what he asked for, and he was happy with that.

I think, with our compulsory state schooling and National Curriculum, and SATs and tests and 'standards', we've definitely lost sight of that special, sacred, mutual contract along the way: a tragedy really.

8:24 am, October 25, 2008  

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