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.
Some people believe that the student’s getting the proper kinesthetic experience in order to make the feeling sense trustworthy again is the most important part of an experiential lesson. When they find out that in a ‘group’ class, a student may have only five or ten minutes of direct ‘experience’ with the teacher (and the actual experience time is often much less or zero), of course they are horrified, and believe that the students are not getting the ‘experience’ they need.
Similarly, some people believe that the “essence of an Alexander teacher‘s job” is “to help the student activate his primary control.” They say that:
The teacher’s method of accomplishing this is, in the beginning, to use his words and hands to give the student repeated experiences of using his primary control in activity. As time goes on, the student needs less and less help from the teacher; the experience no longer needs to be ‘given,’ and the student can activate his primary control on his own.
Clearly this kind of teaching is one which is very involved and personal. This model of what the work is and how teaching occurs requires, at least initially, close, sustained contact and direct attention between the student and teacher to effect the changes necessary in order to bring about the ‘activation’ of the student’s ‘primary control.’ If people who had this model and belief saw a classroom filled with thirty or forty students who got little direct attention and even less direct ‘experience,’ of course they would characterize this manner of teaching as inadequate.
Not because this manner of teaching was inadequate. Only because this manner of teaching was in conflict with their own models.
And what about the Transformationalists? At the first congress, Dr. Barlow described his mechanism for how learning occurred as:
Saying the directions repeatedly to oneself, like a mantra, while being given the correct experiences from the teacher until the lesson work is transformed into something else and the student is able to do the work on his own.
Once again, we are faced with a model which requires a large amount of direct interaction between student and teacher including the use of hands. In fact, one of the strongest prejudices present in the work today is about the importance of the use of hands in teaching. While there are some gradations, almost everyone who holds this prejudice believes that not only is the ‘proper’ use of hands important in the work, the direct giving of the proper experience with the proper use of hands is required to learn the work.
This is just not true.
As we all know, F. M. never had a lesson. A. R. boasted of never having had to have hands placed upon him to learn the work. If we accept that these two men were accomplished in the Technique (and, surprisingly, this is by no means a universally held position), then we must put aside once and for all the claim that the use of hands is required to learn this work.
Further (and once again this is a point of controversy), Edward Maisel’s research led him to conclude that both Alexanders taught without the use of hands in Australia and London. If this is true, and one was to make the claim that teaching could not be accomplished without a great deal of ‘hand-given’ experience, then one would be hard pressed to account for Alexander being in London. It was his success as a teacher in Australia—without the use of hands as Maisel claims—that led to his going to London.
Once we stipulate that one does not need the use of hands by a teacher to learn this work (and in view of these facts it would be difficult to come to any other conclusion), we then become involved in discussions of degrees and preferred methods of communication.
There is no question that if the models listed above are the only true and accurate models which have validity in the teaching of this work, then ‘group teaching’ is, indeed, inadequate and ‘not the Alexander Technique.’ If the learning of this work can only be accomplished through a transaction of a direct and intense experience of physical contact and individualized attention, then the learning of this work in groups would not be possible. But what if learning this work, the business of an Alexander lesson, was transacted in the training of the student’s mind to do the kind of reasoning, disciplining, and directing of thought that Alexander describes? What if it is the models which focus on physical experiences and not the method of working in a group which is wrong? What if it is the models which focus on physical experiences which are wrong, and not the method of working in a group? What if there is at least one other way to learn this work?
We know that there is at least one other way to learn this work. The man whom most of us believe knew the most about all the work never had an Alexander lesson. He certainly never had a properly given ‘experience’ when he was learning the work. Alexander learned this work without benefit of teachers or hands or societies or administrative standards. He followed some process to learn this work. He learned the work the best of all. Perhaps, rather than trying to perfect or preserve any particular way of working with hands or numbers of students, we should look more closely at the kinds of procedures of learning used by the man who knew the most.
While it is clear that Alexander developed an understanding of physical truths, he tells us in “The Evolution of a Technique” that, though valuable, this information was insufficient to meet his needs. He tells us that his efforts with regard to the discoveries and practice concerned with physical balance and its mechanisms was misdirected effort. The second half of Alexander’s story was not about ‘physical balance’ at all, but dealt with Alexander’s manner of direction of himself in activity. It is dealing with the manner, nature, and control of his direction of himself in activity which his story pursues, and not issues of physical balance and mechanism.
Alexander did develop an understanding of physical truths, but the success of his methods was based upon finding and implementing a means for constructive self-direction. All of the tools that Alexander developed for constructive self-direction in the second half of his search, the more successful half of his search, deal with thoughts and how to think. As such, they are non-physical and abstract.
If these are the tools which Alexander required to learn this work, then, perhaps, these are the tools that we all need to learn the work. If Alexander needed to learn these procedures before he attained a level of constructive conscious control, then, perhaps, we need to learn these procedures before we can attain a level of constructive conscious control. If these are the procedures which we need to learn, then, perhaps, teaching should be directed away from training students to acquire any particular physical balance or kinesthetic retraining, and towards the acquisition of the ability to think in the same manner as Alexander.
Oh, I know that some of you are going to find this concept heretical. And that not a few of you are going to reach for your copies of Constructive Conscious Control to prove me wrong. But, as long as we have that book out, let’s turn to the chapter on “Incorrect Conception.” In it, Alexander writes, “I have no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.”
If the major portion of the student’s difficulties are caused by his fixed ideas and conceptions, and if, as teachers, we are there to help our students with their difficulties, then what portion of our teaching should be directed towards helping our students with their fixed ideas and conceptions? And if one argues that a lot of good can be done with regard to fixed ideas and perceptions indirectly through the use of the hands and the “psycho-physical unity” to effect constructive changes in a student’s ideas, then I ask how much more good could be done by talking to the student directly?
The intent of the Interactive Teaching Method is to involve students actively in a comparison of the ideas found in the work with their own ideas in order that they may acquire the same discipline, skills, and understanding that Alexander had.
Alexander did not have lessons, but he did have ideas, his own ideas. One of the ways to understand Alexander’s story is to see it as a developing conflict (and subsequent resolution) between his ideas and interpretation of the direction and use of himself in activity and the actual direction and use of himself in activity which he observed in himself when he moved. Alexander had to reconcile the differences between his beliefs and models about who he was and how he worked in activity and the conflicting conclusions that analysis of his observed movements demanded.
Alexander had ideas and directions which misled and betrayed him, and so do we. Alexander had to discipline himself to face up to and finally dominate these ideas in order to enjoy the success that he desired, and so must we.
Anyone who has conducted an interview with a prospective student knows that each new student has his own ideas. Each statement the student makes, in words and in movement, represents an idea that the student believes to be true. Further, each idea that a student has and demonstrates bears a direct relationship to one of the student’s underlying principles and beliefs.
Some of these ideas will be in accordance with the principles which Alexander articulated. If there is some value to Alexander’s principles, then the teacher serves the student by praising and validating those ideas which are in accordance. Some of these ideas, like Alexander’s own first ideas, will be at odds with these principles. The teacher does not serve his student by letting these ideas go, but rather serves him better by challenging those ideas which are not in accordance right away.
This serves two purposes.
Firstly, it avoids an unintended validation of the idea. Sometimes not challenging an idea will seem to the student to mean acceptance. A validated misconception takes on increased ‘inertia’ when the time comes finally to try to move it.
Secondly, if the intent of teaching is to involve the student actively in a pursuit of the ideas, there is no better way to engage a student fully than to threaten some precious, previously held belief. A student who cannot be motivated to any work on his own with promises of a thousand benefits and rewards will stay up all night trying to find a way to prove you wrong if you successfully threaten a pet belief.
One of the premises of the Interactive Teaching Method is that the Alexander Technique is about fundamental change in the organization and concept of thought with regard to the self and its use. These changes in organization and thought will, in turn, be translated into fundamental changes in behavior and movement. If the Alexander Technique is about change, then the Alexander classroom should be an arena for change.
Forcing ourselves to interact with and evaluate our experiences and the ideas which underlie them makes it easier for us to find out for ourselves, as Alexander did for himself, how little we know of ourselves and our sources of direction in activity. I believe that there is a direct relationship between how clearly a position is stated and the ease with which the difficulties created by that position can be relieved. By having the kind of direct encounters with ideas and behavior that are characteristic of classes which use the Interactive Teaching Method, there can be a more lively identification of problems and solutions.
In his keynote address, Frank Ottiwell talked about the need to be challenged in this work. If there really is a need to be challenged in this work, then why not create a teaching structure in which students can consistently encounter and challenge themselves and their ideas as they relate to the Alexander Technique, and thereby acquire an increased understanding of both in an individual manner?
For instance, let us take a look at certain kinds of ‘first impressions.’
After all of the study I have made in chiropractic school and elsewhere, there is nothing which I have ever learned about the body which is true that is anything like what I thought was true. In other words, all of my ‘first impressions’ about what the body was and how it worked were wrong.
This was also the case with my ‘first impressions’ about the work. All of my ‘first impressions’ about the Alexander Technique have subsequently been proven wrong. But, this should not be surprising to anyone because Alexander told us that in every case, the pupil’s first impressions “…will be in accordance with his (the pupil’s) psycho-physical make-up.”
If this is the case, then shouldn’t we structure the ways in which we teach to address this issue? Rather than creating an almost artificial realm in which the student, the ideas, the experiences, and the student’s impressions all float together in the hopes that they will coalesce in some meaningful way, I believe that it would be better to engage the students actively and constructively, from the beginning, in publicly constructing their own understandings.
You can’t stop students from creating their own wrong impressions of what the Technique is and how it works. Alexander tells us that students will construct their initial understandings of whatever you teach them from parts of their own psycho-physical history. Why not organize classes in such a way as to help them construct these impressions openly and in a supervised manner? Since we can’t stop these wrong impressions from forming, perhaps our efforts as teachers should be directed toward the management of these impressions.
Alexander tells us that a student hears only what he wants to hear. As Alexander teachers, one of our most important tasks is to help the student hear what he has to hear. To this end, the purpose of a class is to create an arena in which everyone, including the teacher, can actively examine their own points of view.
In an Interactive classroom, material for study is presented. This can take the form of information about the work or it could be the performance of some activity where the teacher works directly with a student. The presentation of material or interaction with the student continues until some objection or question arises. Then, all of the energies of the class and its members are directed toward the discussion and solution of these questions. One of the great strengths of the Interactive Teaching Method is its ability to be responsive to the changing reactions and needs of the students.
While the teacher in this format acquires the additional responsibility of making judgments about which of many different paths to follow in a class, the consistent and progressive pursuit of Alexander’s ideas, principles, and procedures in a manner of practical experience with analytical and synthetic discussion of the experience and the principles involved serves to clarify the student’s concepts regarding the work greatly. I have found that the clearer the student’s concepts, the greater the student’s capacity to do the work independently. Since as a teacher my job is to put myself out of business, any procedure which enhances the independence of the student from the need for further interaction with me is a positive procedure, and one which I will willingly use.
You see, I believe that there is a difference between teaching and training. According to the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English, teaching means “to give instruction to, to cause to know or be able to do something.” On the other hand, training means to “give teaching and practice to (somebody) in order to bring (them) to a desired standard of behavior, efficiency, or physical condition.”
I do not believe that we should restrict training in this work to teacher candidates. I believe that every student should be trained from the first day of class. If the goal is for the student to do this work for himself, let us teach the procedures for reaching this goal rather then ‘giving’ the goal from the start. This is one of the reasons why there was no distinction between classes for teacher candidates and classes for the general public at The Performance School in Seattle. We must give teaching and practice to all of our students in order that they may reach a desired standard of efficiency so that they may go off on their own and get on with their lives.
In the field of success education, there is a story that many educators tell. They say that if, one day, you give somebody a fish, that person will be back the next day for another fish. On the other hand, if you don’t give anybody a fish, but instead teach people how to fish, they will always be able to get fish for themselves.
The main focus in my classes is not to ‘give’ students experiences. The main focus in my classes is training students how to use the tools which have proven to be the most effective in my own study and change. I do not teach my students what I have learned. I teach them how to do the processes and procedures which I used to learn. I don’t teach them what I know. I teach them what I did, so that they can do it, too.
Make no mistake about it. These ideas and this teaching model lead to a great deal of turmoil in the classroom, but I don’t mind. All the turmoil serves to do is make more clear the different points of view, and what work remains to be done.
Why do people get so angry sometimes? As I point out often in class, all that we are trying to do is confront the most basic and cherished ideas in each individual to see if the idea, on balance, is helping them or hurting them. The fact that an idea is popular or beloved doesn’t necessarily make it valuable.
Now this kind of open interaction is contrary to the teaching models of some people. Walter Carrington took great care to assure us yesterday that he doesn’t “talk to (his) students in (the) way” that he was talking to us in his master classes. Because of the influence of his model and his belief structure, he said, “Heaven forbid I should talk to my pupil as in a public meeting.” Because of the influence of my model and belief structure, I say, “Heaven forbid I should talk to my students in any other way.”
You see, I believe that an Alexander class should provide four things for students.
First of all, it should provide students with a structure in which to discover the basic ideas of the work. Secondly, a class should give students the chance to interact with a teacher to discover the depth of their understanding and the power of their own preconceived and fixed ideas. A class should give students a place to articulate what they believe, a place to argue for and against ideas, and a place to grow as they choose when they find reasons to change. And a class should provide students with the opportunity to retrain their thinking.
The Interactive Teaching Method provides all of these opportunities.
People whose models of teaching are restricted to small or private lessons all believe, and perhaps rightly so, that their structures provide these opportunities as well. What the small or private lesson does not always provide is the introduction of the power of group dynamics.
When the Alexander world looks back on the contributions made by Marjorie Barstow, I think one of the greatest contributions will turn out to be solving the problems in methodology which allowed classes to be taught in groups so that students could benefit from the power of group dynamics. Three of these benefits seem particularly important.
First of all, a class structure provides a greater opportunity for observation of others. If one’s orientation to classes is to learn only during the time the teacher works with you, I will agree that it is a long time between turns. Being in a class, however, gives each student a chance to test and see the Technique at work repeatedly. Most people find that it is usually easier to see a problem and a solution more quickly and more easily in others first. For these people the problem in a group class isn’t boredom or lost time, but exhaustion from too much to do.
Secondly, being in a group allows for a greater diversity and depth of articulation of particular problems and points. This happens in two ways. Firstly, with so many different points of view present at one time, each question, even the familiar ones, is asked in many different ways. Secondly, the teacher, in trying to answer another student, may hit upon a story or a concept which works for the first student, but which the teacher might never have thought of using with the first student. And this touches upon the third great benefit of group dynamics: the wealth of one another.
All of us in this work have the same questions, the same problems, and the same solutions. As one of my best teachers said, “The essence of education is saying the same thing again, only louder.” Having such a wealth of similarities builds in a valuable process of repetition without becoming oppressive. At the same time, the wealth of differences of experience, understanding, and point of view provides a healthy variety of experience and outlook which cannot be duplicated in a private lesson.
There is no question that there is more immediate direct contact in a typical private lesson. But this would be an advantage of private lessons over group work only if the way in which the greatest learning actually occured was through personal contact. I am clearly of the opinion that the greatest learning occurs when the students are given reasons to change their thinking. In my experience, the most fertile environment in which these reasons can develop is in a group class taught with the Interactive Teaching Method.
To repeat, the difference in teaching methods simply reflects the difference in models and values.
If I were to speak at length about the specific use of my hands in a lesson, many of you would recognize what I do with my hands. What we did with our hands would be largely the same. What is important, and what makes me able to work in groups of all sizes when you might not be, is that I recognize that the skills of manipulation, although necessary, are merely one of the tools available for the teacher to use to give reasons to students to change their ideas. It is the way in which the class is organized, the ability to make use of group dynamics, the use of reading material, the working with students in observed activity, and the attendant skills and principles of group teaching in conjunction with the use of hands that gives the Interactive Teaching Method the capacity to work in groups larger than one.
For instance, I teach my apprentices always to have a lesson plan. I want them to know exactly what points they are going to cover in a class, and how they are going to cover them, before the class begins. This plan may talk about a reading assignment or elaborate on prior questions or points from previous classes. It should include some common activity or problem for the class to solve in an experiential manner which illustrates one or more of the points from the planned discussion. The needs of any given class may prevent the entire lesson plan from being presented, but it should be there nonetheless to give structure to the proceedings.
My current general lesson plan, which I follow in any new group, is to start with the material in my standard introductory lesson. (This information can be found in chapters 4-6 of my book What You Think Is What You Get.) Then, when that material is covered, I will usually proceed to the information which I call the ‘Four Cornerstones’ which covers the heart of the procedures which Alexander discovered for constructive self-direction (Chapters 11-14). When appropriate, I will include some of the information about anatomy, physiology, and mechanics as they seem relevant (Chapters 7-9). Or we may decide as a group to read and discuss a particular part of one of Alexander’s books.
It isn’t necessary for someone’s lesson plan to be as complex as this. What the lesson plan is is not so important as having a lesson plan. Just as an individual has to have a goal in mind to do the Alexander Technique, the teacher has to have immediate, short term, and long term goals in mind for each student and each class. I think that, without a lesson plan, there is a danger of any class with too little infrastructure getting bogged down in taking turns and making corrections or getting excited about how some delicate experience feels.
The best classes with Marjorie Barstow often started with the sentence, “I was reading in Mr. Alexander’s chapter on the ‘Evolution of a Technique’ last night and he said…” The best classes with her were always the ones in which she was tough and confronted our ideas and our reasons and did not let us get away with anything.
In the Interactive Teaching structure, the teacher asks for questions. If there are any, the teacher answers the questions and demonstrates or experiments with activities where appropriate. In the absence of questions, the teacher follows the lesson plan until there are questions.
I teach my apprentices to understand the big picture. At chiropractic school, one of the teachers we disliked the most kept talking about the importance of seeing the big picture in order to make a diagnosis and create a treatment plan. As much as we complained about this guy, by the time we all graduated we all were carefully explaining to our patients the importance of seeing the big picture in order to make a diagnosis and create a treatment plan.
In terms of the Alexander Technique, the big picture has to do with seeing the whole of Alexander’s narrative, understanding the universality of his experience, and being able to translate each student’s questions and needs into the appropriate part of the narrative in order to create a structure which will facilitate the student’s progression to the next part of the narrative. With the big picture in mind, it is easy to fit specific examples which come up in class into a proper context through which an appropriate evaluation and response can be made.
In learning command of the Interactive Teaching Method, teacher candidates learn about other aspects of this procedure. They learn not to focus on the student, but to focus on the student’s issues. They learn how to make judgments about whether or not an issue has a general value for a particular class. They learn about the use of joking and Constructive Dissonance. They learn about the importance of the introduction of success education principles into their classes. They learn about the difference in teaching Like-Minded and Non-Like-Minded students. They learn about the difference between public and private experiences. They learn how to be responsive to reactions using both Chutes and Ladders and Time Bombs. They learn about the difference between confrontation and enabling. They learn to use the No Exit Theory. They learn the value and importance of storytelling. They learn the applications of the principle that you can’t have it both ways. They learn about the Wink and Nudge Society. And in time, they come to understand the Comfort of Confrontation.
All of these different concepts, tools, and techniques are part of the Principles and Techniques of Teaching which are used in the Interactive Teaching Method. Marjorie Barstow said that, in order to become good teachers, we must learn the work so well that we can speak directly to each student’s interests and needs. She said that it was the job of the teacher to talk the other person’s language.
Because of the judicious use of all of the tools and techniques available to the teacher in the context of a teaching model which takes advantage of advancements in teaching and group dynamics while remaining based on Alexander’s principles, the Interactive Teaching Method is a means of teaching the Alexander Technique which is not only valid and effective, but which also is not bound by limitations in class size.
By this point, it should be clear that one can’t object to the Interactive Teaching Method, as is often done, on a basis of lack of rigor. As I suspect this brief introduction has demonstrated, the reasoned basis to this way of teaching is at least as rigorous and sound as any other approach.
One could only object to the Interactive Teaching Method on the grounds that it is in conflict with one’s own model of the work and how the work should be taught. That’s fine. That is everyone’s right, and prerogative.
But no one, including me, has the right, final, and ultimate answer about what the work is and how it should be taught. And, any assertions that anyone does have such an ultimate answer based on claims of reason, insight, physiology, tradition, pedigree, or rights of succession is just so much hot air which cannot stand up to a reasoned and careful examination of history and facts.
I don’t mind when someone tells me they disagree with my position. I don’t mind when they tell me I am wrong, if they can prove it. I do object, however, when someone trys to tell me that I am wrong because I am doing something different which they don’t understand, and that, because their way is right (or, at least, seemingly older), they will take actions to limit my ability to put forward my beliefs while teaching.
In these days of intercommunication, only a bigot could hold that his point of view was the one, true, and only point of view in the work and stand firm without change against all others. As difficult and painful and time consuming as the task may prove to be, for the good of ourselves and our profession, we must continue to put aside our strong feelings based on the conflict of our models, and seek to create a set of substantive standards which incorporates and affirms all reasoned, substantiated, and effective means of teaching this work.
Yet it Will Come: The Importance of the Critical Moment
Another major reason for using the Interactive Teaching Method in Alexander lessons is its treatment of the critical moment.
Much has been written about the critical moment as though it were some mysterious key to understanding the technique. While it is clearly a key, there is nothing subtle or occult about it. According to Alexander, the critical moment is the moment when one “(attempts) to gain (one’s) end by means which (are) contrary to those associated with (one’s) old habits of use.”
In other words, the critical moment is the moment of going from consent into activity, the moment when the planning and ‘thinking’ which precedes and accompanies an activity is taken into movement.
Alexander tells us, halfway through his narrative, that his efforts with regard to physical and postural balance were misdirected efforts. He tells us that “all went well (with his experiments) as long as he did not attempt to carry (his new) directions out for the purpose of speaking.” He tells us that after practising “the new means-whereby (divorced from activity) long enough” and employing “them for the purpose of speaking,” he “failed far more often than he succeeded.” He writes that “in spite of all of (his) preliminary work, (his) instinctive (mis)direction...still dominated (his) conscious reasoning direction.” He found that “at the critical moment when persistence in giving the new directions would have brought success, (he) reverted instead to the misdirection associated with (his) old, wrong, habitual use.” And when he finally succeeded, he points out that “under (his) new plan, the change in procedure came at the critical moment.”
It has been my experience as a teacher that students often have the same problems as Alexander. If a successful solution to the problem of the critical moment was important to Alexander’s learning this work, it seems likely that it would be important to all of us.
There seem to be four possible responses to the critical moment in the structure of a lesson. One can ignore the critical moment. There are many teachers who never bring it up in lessons. One can take the student out of meaningful activity, by lying them down or popping them in and out of chairs, long enough to put the ‘new use’ into place in a kind of conditioning process even though Alexander writes that practice was not the crucial issue. One can even try to project the directions so forcefully that one can ‘slip a desire’ past the critical moment—a process not unlike slipping a sunrise past a rooster. Or, one can address the critical moment from the beginning by teaching in activity, thereby teaching students the knowledge and skills required to lead themselves up to and through the critical moment at will.
All of these approaches have their proponents. All are practised daily. All proceed logically from the models which underlie them. Only one makes sense in light of Alexander’s experience.
The Interactive Teaching Method is conducted in activity because of the importance of mastering the critical moment.
Do Look at the Man Behind the Curtain: Workshop Time with Descriptions and Discussions
The last part of my presentations was always a workshop. I wanted to be able to demonstrate the points which I made initially in these lectures, and the workshop period gave me the means.
Obviously, not all of the above material could be talked about in the time alotted. Nor did I expect that it would be. What the material written above represents, however, was the extent of my preparation and my lesson plan for the presentation class. I knew that all of these points could not be covered in class time, but I wanted to be able to respond to any and all of these points if they did come up in the workshop. I also knew that all of the material could be written down later.
I also wanted the workshop to give me a chance to describe the mechanics of an Interactive class while they were happening. The Wizard of Oz instructed the four adventurers not to look at the man behind the curtain. He was afraid that they would learn how the ‘magic’ was done. I wanted the workshop participants to look behind the curtain. I had hoped to show not only an example of Interactive Teaching, but to be able to answer any questions which they might have about what I was doing, why I was doing it, and how I made decisions about what to do next. Just as there was no ‘magic’ in Oz, I wanted the workshop participants to see that there is no ‘magic’ in group classes which depends upon deception, style, or force of personality.
I think that the workshop was fairly successful in this regard. I think that participants were given a good introduction to the Interactive Teaching Method and, perhaps, some reasons to change their ideas about the nature and effectiveness of teaching in groups.
I hope that this paper has done the same for the reader as well.
Don Weed started his study of the Alexander Technique in 1971 when he had the privilege of being in the first extended group classes taught by Marjorie Barstow. In the summer of 1972, he began his apprenticeship training with Marjorie. His training included private lessons, many workshops in Lincoln and around the country, extended and numerous phone discussions, and residence experience with Marjorie in her home in Nebraska. In addition to this primary source of training, he worked with Frank Pierce Jones in 1972 and then again in 1974-75.
In December of 1974, he asked Marjorie if he would be qualified for a teaching certificate from her if she gave them, and she said that he would be qualified at that time. He has always considered this to be the end of his formal apprenticeship.
He began supervised teaching of classes in 1973, and began teaching professionally in January of 1975. Unsatisfied with his knowledge of the body and its mechanics, he went to chiropractic school and graduated in 1982. From 1986-1991, he was on the faculty of The Performance School in Seattle Washington, which he co-founded.
He is currently living in Zurich, Switzerland, where he teaches classes in the Alexander Technique and related subjects, and works as a neuromuscular re-education specialist.