HUMANIZING TEACHING - [from The Gattegno Effect]

It was obvious to those who got to know Dr. Gattegno that he had an exceptionally well cultivated mind. Those who came to know him personally found that he was a perpetual learner. He had varied intellectual interests and he pursued most of them seriously. In the process, he equipped himself with a broad ranging philosophical, as well as scientific background, which he used as a springboard for his original creative thinking.

Almost from the start of his career as a teacher, he worked on developing "the Science of Education," and, it became his life-long project. Gattegno's science of education is supported by his philosophy of education as much as his philoshophy of education is substantiated by his science of education. The theoretical and the practical aspects of his contribution to education share the criteria he developed for knowing what it means to be human. Because of the shared criteria, Gattegno's theory and practice of education go hand in hand and complement each other. Insights into his philosophy of education help one become a more precise and refined practitioner of his approach. One gains a better grasp of his philosophy by trying out his techniques and materials and reflecting on their usefulness.

With the advent of adolescence, Caleb Gattegno came face to face with questions regarding his spiritual nature as a human being. With the intensity on an adolescent, he read about and reflected on issues, such as; "What is the nature of man?," "What is human destiny?." "What is the importance of being oneself?," etc. No amount of reading quenched his thirst for more. Time passed. Now a young man, Gattegno continued his pursuit with the rigor of the intellect also at his disposal.

His passionate quest took him to the philosophers and thinkers of modern and ancient times, as well as of different cultures. From time to time, his thinking would be transformed, and his outlook altered, in contact with the musings of a Tibetan Buddhist monk or the insights of a Hindu philosopher, which were expressed ages ago. At times he would find his original thinking in harmony with the intuitions of a Hasidic or a Zen Master, a Christian or a Sufi mystic. Instead of looking for answers that would satisfy his curiosity, Gattegno sought to grow in his understanding of the questions he found challenging. His studies led him to several answers, but also to many more questions. Thus he remained a learner all his life. Patience characterized his perseverance as he continued his search. He would test and retest the validity of his hypotheses and findings, and would make changes as required by the newly found facts. While Gattegno interpreted his research data, he watched and studied himself to know:

a) in what ways and to what extent he himself was changing / evolving due to the impact of the research, and

b) how that, in turn, affected the way he conducted the research. In this sense he, the researcher, was part of the research he conducted. As a result, his research was more realistic and he himself continued to be a better disciplined researcher. Also, this way of working made him keenly aware of his awareness-at-work. This enabled him to be creative in his field of study.

Gattegno did some private tutoring while he was a high school student. In his early twenties he got a job teaching in a school. He loved the subjects (science and math) he taught. He prepared his lessons well and taught with a lot of enthusiasm. He believed and expected that his enthusiasm could ignite a 'love for learning' in his students. Before long, he faced the disturbing, grim reality. Most of his students had not learned much at all. He suspected that, somehow, he had short-changed them. He reflected on his teaching, as well as examined the other factors that could have prevented his students from learning. He asked himself what he could have done, and could do, differently to enhance the chances of his students learning better than they did. He let himself be guided by his gut feeling:

-that his students could do better, and

-that it was his - the teacher's - responsibility to create the conditions for them to improve and enhance their learning.

He decided to do whatever he could.

A modest resolve of this inexperienced young teacher to give his students a chance to function better as learners became the cornerstone of the work ahead of him as an educator. Gattegno started to build from scratch his theory of education and his teaching practices under his own disciplined supervision. His ongoing study in areas, such as 'the spiritual nature of man,' 'What does it mean to be human?', 'humans as energy,' 'human evolution,' etc., provided him with his philosophy of education. Being a student of the sciences prepared him to suspend judgment while dealing with facts to establish the validity of each fact, empirically. His fact-oriented attitude protected him from being carried away or weighed down by the so-called 'bright ideas,' his own or of others. He looked for facts to guide him and was not in the least impressed by the lofty sounding opinions.

Gattegno approached and studied the problems in the field of education from the vantage point of a visionary. He looked for solutions and developed them with the accuracy and precision of a scientist. The outcome has been a revolutionary approach to teaching. In Gattegno's approach:

- teaching is guided by learning instead of learning by teaching;

- the subject-matter is the vehicle for learning instead of being the 'target;'

- the learning process, and not the end product, is the focus of attention, with the understanding that only a well attended process yields good results;

- the mastery of the subject-matter is acknowledged to be the by-product of the learning process, and not the result of teaching;

- mistakes are treated as an integral part of learning and are used as tools for developing the criteria for correctness and for self-correcting by the students;

- teachers relate to the learners' 'strengths' and let the learners take care of their so-called weaknesses;

- teachers are learners, too, learning all along to pose the 'right' challenges and to respond adequately to the learning process of individual learners.

The beginnings of the practical aspect of Gattegno's approach can be traced back to the initial stages of his teaching career. He had found that his students had failed to learn. At that time, it had occurred to him that, perhaps, he was too keen to teach and less interested in letting his students learn. He learned to create challenging situations and let the students deal with them the best they could, individually and / or with one another's help. He noticed that with the responsibility of learning left to them, they got more interested in learning.

Gradually, Gattegno became a skilled non-teaching teacher. He offered well thought out, rich challenges, and did not give away anything the learners could figure out on their own, individually and / or together. The rule he and his students followed as co-workers was: 'to cooperate with one another without taking the place of another.' Together but individually, they learned to follow this rule by following it.

Gattegno became more and more skilled at creating the climate in which it could be fun for everyone involved to be figuring things out instead of depending on him, the teacher. And soon he noticed that the students who relied on themselves for learning did not care to receive 'approval,' 'encouragement,' and 'reinforcement' from him. He found that, in fact, they treated his encouraging remarks to be his way of satisfying his own need to be 'nice' to them, which had nothing to do with them as learners. Such observations urged Gattegno to learn to recognize the 'strengths' of the so-called weaker students. He would involve them in activities they could handle relying on themselves. Guided by their actual learning, he would make the activities more and more challenging, that is, requiring more and more of 'figuring out' by them. The more these students experienced themselves counting on their own inner resources for learning, the less they needed him to 'encourage' them to learn. Gattegno learned to make himself disposable by learning to bring the learners in touch with themselves. He continued to develop and refine his teaching techniques and materials, keeping in mind: the autonomy of the learner and the responsibility of the teacher.

Gattegno's approach has a touch of common sense or folk wisdom about it. For example:

- with our words of praise, we convey that we underestimate the learners;

- it makes sense to create a climate in which learners are in charge of their own learning since, in any case, people learn, not because they are taught, but when they mobilize themselves to learn;

- patience is not a virtue but a necessity in teaching;

- language teachers would be more realistic if they recognized the fact that those who come to learn a second language are experienced language learners;

- languages are for self-expression; any time communication takes place, it's a miracle;

- anyone who has learned to speak his / her mother tongue is equipped to learn to encode and decode it, since the spoken language and its written form are isomorphic systems;

- one's teaching is subordinated to learning to the extent one grants the learners everything ( in the awareness of their potential for learning) and takes nothing for granted (in deference to each learner's actual learning process).

Sima Gandhi