The advantage of self-discovery

My student J. L., perhaps more than anyone else I’ve even known, is a master of meta-thinking.  That is, he thinks very cleverly about his thinking.  When he recognizes something in his thinking that is creating a conflict in his life, he figures out how to rewire his brain to more effectively process information.  I am lucky that he shares a lot of his insights with me during his lessons.  Lately, he apprised me of his system of “themes”: he assigns himself daily, weekly, and longer-term themes to organize his thinking and shape his experience.

Inspired by J., I’m assigning myself for the remainder of 2010 the yearly theme of self-discovery.  I mean by this term that I will be paying attention to how a certain kind of communication in teaching and other situations fosters a process of self-discovery without recourse to identifying for people what is right and wrong in their behavior.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been analyzing my lifetime of experiences of learning and my own teaching practices and attempting to get my feelings and ideas down on paper.  This intellectual process started a few weeks ago after a disturbing exchange with a fellow Alexander colleague.  This other teacher, whom I’ll call G., and I were exchanging work at a recent meeting of an Alexander Technique organization we belong to.  During our trade, I noticed that G. kept showing signs of nervousness and anxiety about how I was responding to the guidance of her (very skillful) hands.

When I began to think about this situation, I realized that I, too, and many other teachers shared G.’s trepidation when working with colleagues.  What had instilled in all of us such unnecessary fear?  Why didn’t our confidence match our skill level?  I am beginning to realize that much of our fear stems from the kind of feedback we had received in training as AT teachers and in our lives in general.  In short, other people had told us when we were wrong.

It feels terrible when someone tells me they have noticed a shortcoming in my performance.  This is true whether they flat-out tell me that I screwed up royally or whether they couch their observation in the gentlest, most compassionate phrases.  There is just something in my make-up that causes me to freeze up, to go into a startle response whenever an outside entity recognizes my faults.  I suspect that this trait is more or less universal.

On the other hand, when I notice for myself that I am reacting in an unproductive way, I get intrigued, not fearful.  After all, it’s my business to notice what is going on with my behavior.  I am likely to welcome this awareness and to work with it in a useful way.

Some examples might help to clarify what I mean.  In many Alexander lessons, I have been told by certain teachers that I stiffened my wrists when putting hands on them.  Now, anytime I put my hands on these teachers (and, by extension, all teachers, or all people), I worry about stiffening my wrists.  Ironically, this worry causes me to stiffen more!   In contrast, when taking a recent lesson with a different teacher, I noticed in myself how I made my spine rigid when moving my arms.  I was so delighted to make this observation that I giggled, and went on to “play around” with noticing how I did this unnecessary rigidifying in all kinds of situations.  I’ve continued to have fun applying this observation in my teaching, at the gym, in my voice lessons, and everywhere else I can.  Whenever I “catch” myself stiffening, I happily take a moment to unstiffen before continuing my activity with more freedom.

Two learning situations.  From one, I developed the tendency to worry about stiffening my wrists.  From the other, I developed a useful way of working to overcome my habit of rigidifying my spine.

The difference is simple: in one instance, the teacher pointed out (in the kindest way possible) that I had erred.  In the other instance, the teacher set up an environment in which I could discover my own error.  It seems absurd that I could respond so differently depending on how I became aware of something, but I am beginning to believe that this crucial difference bespeaks something inherent in the human condition.

In light of my 2010 theme of self-discovery, I am setting out to eliminate from my teaching the habit of identifying for my students when they are wrong.   It then follows that I will also not be identifying when they are right, for if I continue to tell my students when I notice they are right, they would then be able to infer from my silence that I had detected a mistake!

In all honesty, I do not find the right/wrong paradigm to be a very interesting filter through which to observe my students (or myself). . .or very conducive to effecting change.  I have noticed that the most profound and lasting change happens when I am able to set up conditions for students to notice things for themselves.  Also, they seem to feel pride in making the same observations that would provoke embarrassment or anxiety if they came from me.

If you have been studying with me all along, you might notice a change in the way I will be approaching teaching now.  You might notice me giving fewer indications of what I notice. . .and asking more questions about what you notice.  I am shifting the responsibility for discovering what needs to change to you.  My responsibility will be to create conditions to make your self-discoveries not only possible, but likely.  This is not a straightforward challenge, and I am sure to slip frequently into the comfortable and easier habit of telling you when you are right and wrong.  After all, that fear-inducing approach has been modeled for me—for all of us—in virtually every learning situation we’ve ever encountered.

I am looking forward to seeing how my theme of self-discovery helps me to grow as a teacher; I am also eager to see how this change in my approach affects you, my students.

Happy New Year!


  1. Jeff Hall says:

    I love your self-effacing honesty Michael!

    I too am at a similar crossroads in my own teaching. One of my most well-worn expressions with my pupils is "don't beat yourself up about it". I say that when I see them react to something I've shown them which they don't like. I always do my best to make light of the "you're wrong" scenario but, despite their smiles, I can see that, deep down, their sense of self is bruised.

    It's a connundrum! We are agents of change. Our job is to bring about changes in the very thing that makes a person unique: their unique set of habits! Change is never easy, even for us who are in the business of change.

    Alexander himself told pupils [sic] "I cannot show you how to be right; only where you are going wrong"

    I will watch with anticipation to see how your experiment goes. Happy new you!

  2. Winston Smith says:

    Hello Michael,

    thanks for sharing the way you dealt with obstacles on your path. I think we experience similar things in the process of reclaiming psycho-physical unity, and I whole-heartedly agree that the right/wrong paradigm is quite useless for our work.

    I like the quality of your writing, and depending on the 'competition' for the Blog of the week, that's another candidate…

    Happy new you to you as well,

  3. Michael Hanko says:

    @ Winston: Thanks for considering me for another BOTW award. I am currently writing an article for the AT teaching community about the right/wrong paradigm in teaching. I may post it on my blog as well.

  4. Michael Hanko says:

    @ Jeff: Thanks for bringing the FMA quote back into my awareness; it's perfect for this topic. Perhaps we have too enthusiastically taken on F.M.'s mantle of identifier of wrongness! Remember that he discovered his "faults" on his own. (Other than at the very beginning of his scientific life when his friends informed him that he was gasping on stage. He was horrified to find out that people had noticed the very habit he prided himself wrongly on avoiding. . .and of course, his first and ultimately useless response was to try to stop the gasping.)

    It seems from his writings that F.M. had no qualms about telling people how wrong they were; the mischievous guy even seems to have taken great pleasure in it! Perhaps his approach shifted towards the end of his life, if it ever occurred to him that internal and external awareness are received differently by people.

    In any case, I am looking forward to exploring my hypothesis and reporting back to you throughout the year!

  5. nyontime says:

    Mmmm, I should have read this before our class today. Just kidding. From my student perspective it's great that you're doing this. I wouldn't have had the self-discovery insights I had today if you had told me that I was right or wrong. I'm very grateful to have you as my teacher. Best, Jorge

  6. Michael Hanko says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Jorge, and for being one of my first guinea pigs! During your lesson, as you got more and more confident with your ability to notice the breathing movements in your upper chest, you were able to access the full expressive power of your voice to a greater and greater extent. In this case, at least, identifying what you were doing "right" and "wrong" was not necessary, and might not have evoked such a dynamic and joyous response as did your focus on self-observation.

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