John Pint - Standing on the Shoulders of Dr. G

Caleb Gattegno wrote a book called The Mind Teaches the Brain. The title is provocative, challenging established concepts. It also relates to a theme developed in Gattegno’s The Universe of Babies – that our mind is at work from the moment of our conception; that even before leaving the womb, we are equipped with astounding mental powers.

For much of his life, Gattegno studied the workings of the mind and managed to get many people to join him in this fascinating inner exploration.

He might have left things right there, in the realm of ideas, but he didn’t. Instead, he took the ideas and painstakingly applied them to mundane school subjects like the teaching of reading, mathematics and foreign languages. Once again, instead of expostulating theories at conventions, he walked into classrooms and showed us how it’s done.

Amazing things happened: primary school children were able to speak Italian with great fluency and precision after only one year of study; first graders were doing algebra with full understanding of the equations they were proving; so-called dyslexic children suddenly learned to read within days, sometimes within hours.

It was these verifiable results that grabbed the attention of teachers and brought them to Gattegno’s workshops. Thanks to these practical demonstrations, Cuisenaire Rods found their way into every classroom in the world and entire school systems adopted Words in Color and Gattegno Math.

So what went wrong? Why isn’t half the world using Gattegno’s approaches in their classrooms?

Those of us who worked with Gattegno as teachers of teachers know the answer: these approaches require teachers to change their behavior, to become more sensitive to what’s happening inside the students, and to look at the learning process in terms of awareness. This means that instead of filling students’ memories with data, a teacher must help students discover things by themselves, to move from awareness to awareness. This in turn requires what Gattegno called The Subordination of Teaching to Learning – the teacher constantly monitoring the students’ learning and changing tactics accordingly.

Instead of expostulating theories at conventions, he walked into classrooms and showed us how it’s done.

So here’s the rub. Good schools can’t program what is going to happen in the classroom hour by hour or day by day, as is now the custom. Instead, the teacher must learn to be sensitive to what is happening inside the students and to devise exercises and activities that make sense in the here and now. Teachers would no longer be able to walk into the classroom and teach out of a book.

Teaching teachers turned out to be a real challenge. How could you help them work on their own awareness and in particular to discover the awareness of awareness? Gattegno developed a unique way of conducting workshops, designed exactly to open teachers’ eyes. These workshops were conducted basically the same way, whether the members of the group were teachers gathering together after watching a demonstration class, or long-time practitioners of Gattegno’s approaches, investigating obscure questions like: What is time? What is love? Why do we sleep?

The members of the group would be seated in a big circle. If they had just seen a language-teaching demonstration, the group might be asked a question like: What did you see? Or, what is the most difficult language for a person to learn? Or, why do babies babble?

People could reply if and when they wanted to. If anyone in the group offered something like, “Chomsky says…” the moderator would cut him or her off and request that the members of the group speak from their own experiences and observations rather than quote an authority.

This restriction often produced the most wonderful results, leading the group into areas never before explored. Many observations would be thrown into the pool and eventually, as Gattegno said, the truth would rise to the top.

When I was conducting sessions of this kind with teachers unfamiliar with Gattegno’s approaches, I would eventually hear people in the group whispering to one another, “He’s doing with us exactly what he did with the students — instead of giving us answers, he’s making us find the answers for ourselves.”

Inevitably, at the end of such a study session, the question “What did you learn?” would be asked, and this time every individual in the group would be required to speak. Here it was often very evident that “the truth had risen to the top,” and the summaries presented were always enlightening in one way or another. This Gattegno approach to group study seemed to me the ultimate refinement of the Socratic Method.

This Gattegno approach to group study seemed to me the ultimate refinement of the Socratic Method.

It might seem amazing that Gattegno could again and again come up with such original and unique solutions to almost every problem that came his way, but he made no secret of how he did it: he examined each problem in terms of awareness. These words will mean nothing to people who are not aware of awareness and may not mean a whole lot more to people who are.

I can only speak for myself. Once I met Gattegno, I found myself often thinking about awareness, but I didn’t understand how he used awareness to find solutions to problems until the day he gave a task to a group of us who were studying to get a sort of “certificate of competency” as Silent-Way teachers.

“I want you to use awareness as a tool to study something about your own behavior,” he told us, “and then I want you to write about it.”

Well, this I found to be a real challenge. It forced me to look awareness square in the eye, so to speak. After much pondering, I decided to look at what I do when a complicated device comes into my hands, for example, upon taking a newly purchased camera out of the box.

To my surprise, I discovered there’s a whole routine I follow, inevitably starting with reading the instruction booklet from end to end before even touching the gadget. This study of my own habits was truly revealing; I had been following that routine for most of my life, but only now was I aware of it.

Perhaps, someday on this planet, using awareness as a tool will become commonplace. I could see the history of mankind being totally rewritten in terms of the different awarenesses that jumped up and bit people over the centuries.

Obviously, this way of studying behavior is not in vogue today, even though you’d think awareness would be the number-one topic of interest to academics in all fields, especially education. To me, this just means that Gattegno was a man ahead of his time — but the rest of the world will certainly catch up with him one day and there’s no telling what might spark the change.

Tomorrow, Gattegno’s writings may prove a godsend to those who will work to transform schools into places of real learning. Meanwhile, today, we who knew him and worked with him need to reassess his and our successes and failures in applying the Science of Education to the real world.

Extremely versatile tools have been developed and we have found myriad ways of using them. We have proven they can actually work in real classroom situations. One of our problems, it seems to me, is to find more efficient ways of teaching teachers to use these tools. We have been successful in transforming tiny percentages of them into truly impressive teachers, but how can this be done on a large scale?

Perhaps trying to fit Gattegno’s approaches into standard school systems is the wrong route. Perhaps our real challenge today — 100 years after Gattegno’s birth — is to examine the entire question with new eyes. Since the death of Dr. Gattegno, computers have made their way into every home and they will soon be in every pocket. The internet now links the world. One really good teacher can now reach thousands, perhaps millions. Gattegno worked out the technique for teaching unseen audiences via taped lessons. Instead of putting the camera on the teacher, he focused it on a group of students making and resolving mistakes, struggling and succeeding — and found that people watching these tapes could identify with the students on the screen and learn along with them.

Gattegno worked on this under great constraints and only scratched the surface of how to teach through video. Had he lived, he would surely have refined and improved the techniques he pioneered. He would probably have looked at today’s sophisticated video games and shouted, “Eureka!”

Caleb Gattegno told us teachers who worked with him that one day we would have to stand on his shoulders. It is time for us to look at the challenge of worldwide education through awareness with new eyes. It’s up to us to usher Gattegno’s legacy into the new millennium.

John Pint

Sima Gandhi