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!