"LET'S GET RID OF GROUP TEACHING!! by Don Weed

Updated: Jul 18, 2018


My name is Don Weed and the complete name of my paper is “Let’s Get Rid of ‘Group Teaching’!”: An Introduction to the Interactive Teaching Method. If you had intended to go to a different presentation, I will give you a few minutes to leave quietly.

When the partial title of my presentation was announced, there was quite a bit of reaction. Many people have expressed their concern. Some people were concerned that the title “Let’s Get Rid of ‘Group Teaching’’ might cause undue stress on the tenuous political atmosphere with regard to differing methodologies of teaching. A large number of my colleagues took me aside to assure themselves that my title was ironical or joking. Some people praised me for finally seeing the light and exposing the fraud of teaching in masses. There was even one individual who was concerned that my title indicated an assault on all teaching in ratios greater than one on one, and that I would advocate an end to schools of all kinds entirely.

Putting that intriguing notion aside for the moment, in writing this paper, it is my intention to speak to three specific groups.

Firstly, I wish to speak to those people who do not know a lot about working with groups. If one’s background is limited to a ‘one on one’ approach, then the concept of working with more than one student at a time must seem exotic, bizarre, and off-base. For many of these people, the only knowledge they have of these teaching processes comes from other individuals with similar backgrounds. For these individuals with a limited background in group work, I hope to present a reasonable introduction to a viable teaching approach.

A much larger group of people whom I wish to address are those people who know something about the processes of working in groups, but who are in strong opposition to it. For these people, the source of disagreement is no longer ignorance. Many of them have quite a bit of experience working with some form or other of group processes.

For example, every teacher training course in the world consists of some group teaching. Also, these people have challenged themselves by attending classes taught by one or more of the advocates of working in groups. While this can sometimes take the form of lurking in the background, outside of the group, and lobbying for a more familiar point of view during the breaks, it is my experience that most individuals who come to these classes make a determined effort to see the value of them.

What creates disagreement with group teaching processes for these people is that one or more of their basic ideas or models about the work comes into apparent or genuine conflict with the mechanics of a group class. For these individuals, I hope to present some of the concepts and values involved in this approach to teaching in such a way that the decision by anyone to follow these differing principles makes more sense.

The third group I wish to speak to are those people, like many of my students, who like working in groups, but don’t really understand the background, premises, rationale, or mechanics of the process. These people, students and teachers alike, often enjoy great success in these circumstances without this information. It has been my experience, however, that this success increases when these people have more information about the process itself.

This presentation, therefore, will focus on a particular model of what the Alexander Technique is, and present the rationale for a method of working with students based on this model which is independent of the number of students present for its operation.

What’s in a name? A Look at Common Perceptions about Group Work

When I say “Let’s Get Rid of ‘Group Teaching,’” I mean many things. But, before we go into all of these different ideas, let us quickly clear up an important point: whether there is a place for working in groups in the Alexander Technique, or whether teaching in groups is a new and off-base approach to teaching of which F. M. would never approve. Let me share with you a short passage from the memoir of a young man:

F. M… gave group lessons. It seems to me that both adults and children were in the group. The pupils were seated on chairs in a circle… F. M. would move from one pupil to another, often leaving one in an uncomfortable position and moving on to the next. I don’t remember specifically that he ever abandoned anyone when they were halfway out of a chair but he might have. While he moved around, he talked and entertained us… and he told jokes.

This, of course, is a passage from the ninth chapter of Frank Pierce Jones’ book, Body Awareness in Action. I quote it here because throughout my career as a teacher, individuals have told me that F. M. never taught in groups. Even putting aside the fact that nearly all teacher training is done, and has been done, in groups, here is textual proof that F. M. did, at least sometimes, teach in groups.

Further, there is much talk in America about teaching in a ‘traditional’ way. According to this passage, one of the ‘traditions’ of teaching in America, started by F. M., is to teach in groups moving from pupil to pupil while entertaining and telling jokes.

The issue of whether or not teaching in groups is in violation of some real or imagined taboo with regard to teaching is a false issue. If there really is some rule which demands that teaching only be done in private lessons (and there isn’t), then it is apparent that F. M. was one of the first breakers of this code.

Some people claim that their way of teaching is the right way to teach because F. M. taught in that way. If there is any validity in saying that any method of teaching is an appropriate way to teach because it was a way that F. M. taught (and there is not), then giving group lessons must be seen as a valid approach to teaching this work because that, too, is one of the ways in which F. M. taught.

In spite of these facts, there is still quite a bit of controversy with regard to Group Teaching. There is still quite a bit of conflict.

I have had prospective students ask me if I did Group Teaching as though it was a deadly, communicable disease. I have even had people refuse to take lessons after finding out that I did Group Teaching because their teachers had “warned (them) about people like me.”

I believe that there are certain perceptions (and sometimes misperceptions) about working with more than one student at a time which lie at the center of this controversy. I believe that these perceptions, true and untrue, are in conflict with some people’s idea of what the Alexander Technique is. It is the conflict of their concepts and teaching models with their perceptions of what teaching in a group would be which is responsible for some of the discord which we have all felt and seen over this issue.

Further, I believe that part of these misperceptions and conflicts comes from the ideas created by the name ‘Group Teaching’ itself.

Historically, ‘Group Teaching’ is the name that was given to a particular approach to teaching the Alexander Technique developed in the early seventies, primarily by Marjorie Barstow.

In 1971, Marjorie was faced with the task of creating a method of teaching Mr. Alexander’s work within the context of a multi-disciplinary seminar. Her responsibility was to teach four one and a half hour classes of fifteen to twenty students each day, for five days a week, for eight weeks. Only by finding solutions to this problem of logistics could the Alexander Technique be included in this program. If she had not been able to solve these problems, then the Alexander Technique would not have been included in this program.

She told us from the first day of class that she had almost never taught in a class circumstance before and that she would be experimenting with us. Because Alexander’s work was based on principles of movement, however, she believed that working in groups would be possible. She then successfully took the teaching procedures that she knew and adapted them to a group circumstance.

The following year, she began her training of teachers in the summer. The nature and methods of instruction started with the same procedures with which she had been trained and with which she was familiar. We worked getting in and out of chairs. We placed hands on the back of chairs. We had direct instruction in the placement and usage of hands. We talked about and ‘practised’ inhibition. We even, occasionally, got down on the floor for lying down work.

The whole time, however, Marjorie continued to experiment with these methods by investigating the principles of the work and the best ways to communicate with students. When new ways of working were found to be more effective or more efficient than old ways, they were adopted. When old ways were proven less effective, they were dropped.

At each stage of this experimentation, Marjorie’s interaction with each student and the student’s ideas increased. By recruiting the student’s capacity to think in a constructive way from the beginning, the time required for the student to reach any given level of understanding decreased. Similarly, by placing the emphasis in lessons on thought and observation rather than feeling or the “giving of kinesthetic experiences,” the time spent while the teacher was working with other students became a resource of valuable information, rather than a loss of time with the teacher.

The success of these innovations is what made it possible to teach effectively with more than one student at a time. The name ‘Group Teaching,’ however, does not reflect these innovations.

‘Group Teaching’ describes an approach to working with students as though the number of students present at any given time is what is significantly different about the approach. That more than one student at a time can be taught effectively with this method is a characteristic of this process, but it is not truly descriptive of it.

Further, the name ‘Group Teaching’ evokes the idea that this process can only be used when working with more than one student at a time. On the contrary, when I give a private lesson, I use the exact same procedures with each private student as when I teach a group of students.

So, one of the things I mean when I say, “Let’s Get Rid of ‘Group Teaching,’” is let’s get rid of the name ‘Group Teaching.’ Let’s talk about this manner of working with students with a term which is more accurately descriptive of the process which takes place, and one which will be less likely to cause conflict. My recommendation for a new name to describe the process of teaching used in this kind of experiential lesson work is the ‘Interactive Teaching Method.’

Before some of my colleagues become too relieved to find that I haven’t thrown away altogether the concept of working with groups of students, I want to say that I mean to get rid of some other things as well.

There has been a tendency over the past five or ten years to change the character and nature of the teaching done in these group transactions. For instance, there is an increasing tendency to emphasize the ‘quality’ of movement and the ‘quality’ of thinking in a lesson rather than the substance of Alexander’s work. Some introductory workshops don’t even mention the relationship of the head with the body because it “tends to confuse new students.” ‘Delicacy’ in all things has become more important than mechanical efficiency or the training of conscious discipline. It is as though these teachers are teaching a mere description of the work, because they do not have a full command of its mechanics.

While gentleness, politeness, and the acceptance of the individuality of others are important aspects of interpersonal transactions, some teachers seem to be placing too high an emphasis on these aspects at the expense of other aspects which may cause a student discomfort or distress. If a student is going to change fundamentally, as they must in this work, discomfort and distress cannot be avoided. The difficult task of facing the challenge of change must never be sacrificed, even if it means placing one or more of these ‘delicate qualities’ temporarily aside.

Similarly, there has been a tendency by some of my colleagues to imply or claim that moving one’s head up and away from one’s body is all that needs to be done to acquire a certain standard of accomplishment in a rigorous second discipline like acting, singing, instrumental playing, martial arts, or various performance skills. This is a claim with which I cannot agree.

While there is no question that improvements in performance can occur as if the performers acquired a heightened standard of accomplishment during (and as a result of) the lesson, the skills of the second discipline were learned elsewhere. All that happened in the lesson was that the improvements in coordination and use achieved allowed the previously acquired knowledge and ability of the performers to be expressed more efficiently and effectively, nearer to their limits of talent and training.

So when I say “Let’s Get Rid of Group Teaching,” I not only want to get rid of this confusing and divisive term, but I also want to remind my friends who do teach in groups of some of the original premises for group work, and, perhaps, in this way, inspire them to re-think their classroom procedures.

Fit the Action to the Word: The Connection Between Models & Procedures.

We all believe that our own ideas are universal ideas and truths when they are, in fact, personal ideas and particular truths shaped by our psycho-physical make-up. This can easily be seen with regard to opinions about teaching and teaching methods.

There are probably as many different concepts about teaching as there are about parenting. As with parenting, the questions involved with how to teach are difficult and complex. There is much evidence and many examples, pro and con, to support and deny every position. And, there is no universally accepted authority to which one can appeal.

Still, when we get together in congresses such as this, and we talk with one another about what we really do with our hands in a lesson, we find that there is really not a lot of difference in the actions which we all perform. No, the differences and the disagreements lie in the differences in our models of the work and the goals and methods which these models imply.

For our purposes in this discussion, by ‘model’ we will mean the representation of the work that the teacher believes to be true.

In the first place, in order to teach the work, the teacher must have some idea of what the work is. Secondly, the teacher must have some idea of how the Alexander Technique works. Thirdly, the teacher must create from these previous ideas other ideas about how the work should be taught. These ideas would include ideas of which system or systems the Alexander Technique uses, what mechanisms are involved in teaching, how information is transferred, what teaching is, etc. It is only after the issues involved in these ideas (and others) have been decided that a method for teaching can be constructed. All of these ideas must be based on the teacher’s reasoning and experience.

Every teacher has an idea of what the work is. Every model of what the Alexander Technique is includes ideas about how it works, through what systems and in what ways. Every teaching method is based on one of these models. Every disagreement between differing teaching methods is based on the conflict of these differing models and ideas.

For instance, in his Monday master class at this congress, Walter Carrington said, “It is of critical importance to look at the physical side of things.” Based on this statement, Walter’s model and definition of the work clearly has an emphasis on the physical aspects.

Walter seems to have an ideological companion in Yehuda Kuperman. In his tribute to the work of Patrick Macdonald, Yehuda made very clear the importance of the use of hands in teaching. He told us that the students were the instruments upon which Patrick Macdonald played music. Mr. Macdonald himself said at the first congress that he “really (didn’t) know very much about the Alexander Technique, but that he had picked up a few tricks over the years (with regard to the use of hands and to teaching) that had put (him) in pretty good stead.”

All three of these teachers have a model of the Technique which places a high importance on the use of hands in teaching.

Some trainers of teachers, who have models which emphasize the importance of hands in teaching, spend a tremendous amount of time and effort instructing their teacher candidates in the proper use and positioning of the hands during a lesson. Their models of what the Technique is and how it works, based on their reasoning and experience, dictates that they do this.

My own model, based on my reasoning and experience, suggests that the specific use of hands in teaching is relatively unimportant.

For instance, once when I was repeating an experience to make a point in this regard, I was standing behind a student using the inside portion of both elbows slightly above and in front of the seated student’s ears to ‘give a lesson.’ Imagine the surprise of the students who were watching—confirmed ‘specific use of the hands in teaching’ advocates—when the student in the chair, an ACAT-trained teacher, responded beautifully to my ‘touch.’ Imagine how much greater was their surprise when the student afterwards could not stop praising “how wonderful my hands were!” —even after having been informed that my hands weren’t used at all.

I know as I tell this story that some of you are saying, “Ah yes, he didn’t use his hands, but he did use his elbows in the same inhibitory way as one would ordinarily use the hands.” Or you are saying, “Ah yes, he didn’t use his hands, but he kept his own direction going so well that the direction within him was transferred through his light touch with his elbows in such a way he initiated the primary control in his student.” Or you are saying, “Ah no. How do we know that his student responded beautifully? We only have his word for it, and, because he did not use his hands in the proper way to give the proper experience, the student couldn’t have moved beautifully at all.” Or you are saying something else. Or not.

Whatever you are saying, however, is based solely on how this story matches or conflicts with your own models and beliefs.

Similarly, there is a controversy in this work about the responsibility for movement in a lesson. Some people have models which dictate that they do the movement for the student, e.g. “I’m going to stand this lady up.” Their model says that the student can only have a faulty concept of how to stand, so they must be shown a more appropriate manner of standing. They may agree, to some degree or other, with Dewey when he writes in Human Nature and Conduct, that “Only when a man can already perform an act of standing straight does he know what it is like to have a right posture and only then can he summon the idea required for proper execution.” Or they may believe as Eleanor Rosenthal writes, “The more experience the student has with allowing his primary control to operate, the more it will do the job for him.”

Others argue that if we do everything for the student, then the chances of the student developing a dependence on the teacher or of developing the concepts of dependence is greatly increased. They argue that the lesson should be structured so that the student is responsible for all movements in the lesson.

So, who is to do the work? Are we to give proper experiences directly to the student, or are we to interact in ways which allow the student to develop the work for him- or herself? Or, are we to have some mixture of the two, and by what criteria shall we make the judgments on which approach to use at which times?

Whatever decisions we come to in this regard will be based solely on the models we have for what the Technique is, and how it works. And the differences in models and opinions can be even more basic.

At this last Congress, Walter Carrington said, “The whole work is first and foremost about finding physical balance.” This statement, once again, reiterates Walter’s position with regard to an emphasis on the physical.

Compare it, if you will, with a similar statement made by Sir George Trevelyan at the Second Congress: “The whole of (the Alexander Technique) is a mental achievement, not a physical thing at all.”

What are we to think when these two ‘experts’ disagree so profoundly? We are to think that both are speaking sincerely in a manner consistent with their models and beliefs.

And for those who are already complaining in their minds that Sir George’s statement should be discounted because he left the work so long ago, I am told that in recent lessons, Margaret Goldie has focused almost exclusively on inhibition and does very little ‘physical’ work at all. Why? Because, in her opinion, that is what F. M. was focusing on in his last lessons. In other words, it fits her models and beliefs.

Can there be any question that, when models and beliefs are so widely divergent, there will be conflicts between these beliefs?

I have written elsewhere that, while I think we all have our own ideas, I don’t believe anyone knows what the Alexander Technique is. I have also written that it doesn’t bother me that no one knows, because it doesn’t matter.

I believe that all of us are doing the best we know how within the confines of our beliefs and experiences, and that it is only those teachers who are actually unsure of themselves or their beliefs who fight so strenuously to stamp out and control ‘unqualified’ ideas and practices.

And this applies to those who, based on their models and beliefs, would limit the size of public and training classes. It applies to those teachers who do not have sufficient practice or skill to administer these larger classes effectively, and, hence, are in no position to judge the relative effectiveness of these classes for those teachers who do have the requisite skills. The limit to the size of classes should not be determined by how many (or how few) students someone who is neither appropriately trained or experienced can teach effectively, but the limit to the size of these classes should be determined by how many students someone who is appropriately trained and experienced can effectively teach.

So when Walter Carrington tells us, as he did yesterday, that “Of course, we have to work one on one,” he is not telling us any kind of ‘TRUTH’ or ultimate knowledge about the Alexander Technique. Nor is he setting down any universal standard by which the work should be taught. He is only telling us what he believes ‘must be true’ based on his own model of what the Technique is and how it works which, in turn, is only based on his own reasoning and experience.

It does not concern me that we have these differences in models and opinions. As a chiropractor, I am used to these differences in opinion among peers. I believe that both professions are actually stronger for the honest effort of investigation provided by these differences of opinion and the search for the compelling evidence to prove one’s point of view once and for all. I think the only problem comes when we succumb to the political pressure of any one argument or model, and try to limit or prevent the practice of the other, dissenting points of view.

Until we put aside the arbitrary and untested qualification of teachers on the basis of attendance and pedigree, and replace it with broad-based and reasoned substantive standards, with universal testing of all teacher candidates by a mixed board of examiners, we will run the risk of just such limitations of the freedom to practice.

Toil and Trouble: The Interactive Teaching Method

The Interactive Teaching Method is simply the classroom format derived by the application Alexander’s principles to the process of teaching students. In this way, I believe that it is as revolutionary in the advancement of how to teach this work as the introduction of the inhibitory controls while teaching was to the use of hands in a lesson. While the most obvious difference of this teaching approach is that it is not as limited as other approaches with regard to the number of students who can be taught at one time, the real difference lies elsewhere.

The real difference between the Interactive Teaching Method and more widely used forms of private and group teaching is not the number of students present, but the manner in which the business of a class is transacted. By shifting the main focus of lessons from considerations of physical balance and kinesthetic re-education to the retraining of the student’s manner of thinking and self-direction through the use of concept study, confrontation, group dynamics, and experiential lessons in activity, the Interactive Teaching Method provides a means whereby students can more quickly and efficiently elevate their general standard of self-use to a plane of constructive conscious control.