Taoism and Teaching: Reflections on Silence

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We’ve been studying ancient Chinese Religions in my Asian Religions course this fall, and we recently read Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. While reading it, I was reminded of two of my favorite chapters and their connections to teaching. (Both chapters are from the Feng/English translation, a favorite of a former colleague and blog reader who asked me about my preferred translation of this text in my initial interview at my current school.)

Chapter 11:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

I find this distinction between benefit and usefulness to be so helpful when thinking about my classes. We need to shape clay into bowls and cups, but those objects are useful because they also enclose space: they create openings into which other things can be put. And so it is with me as a teacher in the classroom: I need to shape words and ideas, yes, but I also need to step back and to create silence. Me pausing (and then pausing some more if necessary) opens up space for students to step into and speak. Part of my usefulness is an educator comes from what is not there: silence, space, an open invitation to participate.

I was reminded of this idea recently with one of my classes this fall. I’ve been writing short reflections after each day, in part as a practice to keep better track of what I’m doing, and in part to look for broader patterns and trends. A word kept emerging in my after-class reflections: oversteering. I felt as if I was too involved, and was doing too much work in class. More recently, I have decided to step back more during discussion, to allow for more silence, and to let students make some of the connections themselves. This means trusting my students more, and working on being more comfortable with silence and in uncertainty.

We had real success with this in class two days ago. We were discussing rescuers during the Holocaust, and I saw a connection to a previous reading we had done about a German bystander. In my enthusiasm, I almost made the remark, but I caught myself and waited. A student stepped into the silence, and then a few more spoke after her, building upon her ideas. Together they made the connection I wanted to make for them. They created something together, making connections to the material and to each other that they would not have been able to do if I had jumped in too soon.

This anecdote reminded me of Chapter 17 as well. Although the passage is written in the context of leaders and leadership, it has deep resonances with education as well.

The very highest is barely known.
Then comes that which people know and love.
Then that which is feared,
Then that which is despised.
Who does not trust enough will not be trusted.

When actions are performed
Without unnecessary speech,
People say, “We did it ourselves!”

Even better than being a teacher who is loved, Lao Tsu argues, is the one who is barely known. In this context, perhaps it’s preferring silence and the creation of space to an impassioned connection to another reading. If all goes well, this type of learning and classroom environment creates a space where students can talk to and learn from each other – where they can genuinely say, “We did it ourselves!”

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