Pilgrims HomeContentsEditorialMarjor ArticleJokesShort ArticleIdeas from the CorporaLesson OutlinesStudent VoicesPublicationsAn Old ExercisePilgrims Course OutlineReaders LettersPrevious EditionsLindstromberg ColumnTeacher Resource Books Preview

Copyright Information

Would you like to receive publication updates from HLT? You can by joining the free mailing list today.


Humanising Language Teaching
Year 4; Issue 4; July 02

Major Article

Teaching- a Way of Relating

by Shakti Gattegno
Educational Solutions Inc, New York, USA

[ This article is republished with the kind permission of the author and of IATEFL. The piece first appeared in the IATEFL conference proceedings in 2000.]

You can read the article straight through or you can use the LINK MENU to hop about as you choose:

The sources and criteria for human relating
Learning and teaching
The human learning process
Gattegno's approach to teaching
The Silent Way
The essential aspects of a language

When Adrian Underhill invited me to be a plenary speaker, I told him I was more of a storyteller than a scholarly speaker. His response made it quite clear that he did not mind. So here I am.

The medium of storytelling allows one to narrate to others what one sees, as one sees it, without trying to convince anyone of anything. The medium allows listeners to pay attention to and pursue only those aspects which they find questionable, interesting, inspiring or worth further investigation.

With this understanding, I will proceed.

Teaching is an activity we deliberately direct towards others, our students. It is our primary means of relating with people who come to us to learn. But we do other things, too. Every time our students meet our expectations, we reward them with approval and praise. And strangely, we do the same when they fall short of our expectations; perhaps to convey that we are not disappointed in them. From our position of authority, we lead them to believe, or pretend, they have learned what we have taught them. We spoon-feed our students to get the desired results. Whether or not we personally engage in such practices, it is not an exaggeration to say that they are quite prevalent. I suggest we take heed of them and make them the reason for taking an inward journey to be re-acquainted with our inner resources of relating.

The sources and the criteria for human relating

Relating with others requires that one is guided by certain criteria. Without access to sufficiently developed criteria, non-relating or negative relating is more likely than relating. For instance, in a dialogue, a person who is unmindful of the other actually conducts a monologue. Or someone who needs to be known as a caring person may help everyone in sight, without stopping to find out if the help offered is appropriate. It is not hard to imagine why people on the receiving end find such ego-centred attempts offensive or boring, and not worth much attention.

We need go no farther than ourselves to look for actions which are guided by the criteria for relating, and those which are not. Both kinds of actions are part of our life experiences. And both – if we let them – can help us recognise a basic fact of human relating: the extent to which one is aware of the 'presence' and the 'place' of the other in one's life, and is willing to take that person into account as he or she is from one moment to the next, to that extent one's relation to the other is real and provides the basis to both for learning, growing and evolving – individually as well as together.

The criteria for relating depend on two kinds of human energy: awareness and will.
These two sources of relating work harmoniously together due to their affinity as aspects of the same energy active in one and the same human being. Any time the impact of another's presence stirs one's awareness, the energy of the will is stirred, too. And one acts – or does not act – guided by one's awareness of what there is to do and what one actually can or must not do. An action not taken in the light of awareness is as much an expression of the will as is an action taken.

Besides these two forms of energy, there is the energy of affectivity. With our affectivity active in us, we feel interested in, inspired by, responsive to, curious about, love for… the 'other', whether it is another person or a natural phenomenon; or again, we feel called upon to relate to, explore, develop, create, participate in certain concepts, activities, objectives, values. The feelings which draw us to be with that which is unknown to us are expressions of the energy of human affectivity. They give us the confidence to enter the mystery enveloping the unknown. The dynamics of affectivity in conjunction with the acts of the will guided by the energy of awareness relate us to the unknown and give us grounds to interact with it. In the process, we experience the unfolding of our own potential. We relate to it and work on knowing and realising ourselves, using the same inner resources.

Affectivity functions as an integrating energy, too. With it, we transform the experiences we have fully lived into the substance of our being. Rejuvenated, we find our life of relating more meaningful. Renewal of ourselves, however, takes place only to the extent that our attempts at relating are energised and guided by the energies of affectivity, awareness and will. To the extent that they are not, we act, but with ego-centred motivation. Such actions might produce results which satisfy the ego, but have little to do with our renewal as relating beings.

I have had a long-standing interest in exploring the energy resources from which our intentions and actions – as well as reactions – stem. In 1954 I met the work of an educator named Caleb Gattegno. He had studied human beings from the perspective of 'humans-as-energy'. According to Gattegno, the human energy of awareness, will and affectivity are the attributes of the 'self'. Every human being, by virtue of being human, is endowed with them. Their dynamics enable us from the start to relate and interact with ourselves and with the elements in our immediate environment. To some, 'from the start' might mean from the moment one is born; to others, it might mean from the moment of conception. Neither viewpoint detracts from the observation that we use our attributes in specific ways to relate to ourselves and to the world around us.

Were we to contemplate and reflect on, to experiment with and examine, to investigate and study the part played in human relating by affectivity, awareness and will, we might find that they are not only the human resources of relating, but can also serve as the instruments for realising one's potential as a relating being. For instance, our investigation might lead us to the awareness that preconceptions (both negative and positive) regarding others interfere with our attempts at relating to them. This awareness could serve as an instrument to educate us to see things as they are. Or our study might indicate that to take others into account requires, among other things, that we learn to function as keen observers, but with suspended judgement and an open mind. With this awareness, we could sharpen our sensitivity and learn to foresee future possibilities contained in present reality. An example that comes to mind of such a refined sensibility is that of a baby learning to walk and sensing in each wobbly step the presence of the 'somatic poise' which maintains the balance of the body in motion and at rest. Guided by our direct awareness of this complex balancing element at work in us, we not only learn to sit up, stand, walk, run, hop, jump, but can also become accomplished athletes and dancers if we so choose.

As one works to verify the validity and relevance of these awarenesses and insights, some of them become crystallised. One tests them further to determine whether they can serve as the criteria for relating. One owns them as one's 'inner criteria', having felt with some frequency and consistency the resonance of their validity in one's own sense of truth – one of the 'inner senses' humans are equipped with. We count on our sense of truth from the start: to distinguish appearance from reality; to know that which is authentic from that which is fake; to sift opinions from factual observations. Our sense of truth prompts us to look for and recognise the obvious as well as the hidden truth of the elements in our inner and outer environments. It tells us who we are, as distinct from whom we or others think we are. On the strength of our sense of truth, we assert, against all odds, our freedom to be ourselves. And with the same sense, we recognise the right of others to be themselves. We examine the awarenesses and insights that come our way in the light of our sense of truth, and convert them into our 'inner criteria'. We revise and refine our criteria by testing them time and again in actual situations. We do this because our sense of truth tells us to take nothing for granted.

Learning and teaching

Thus far I have talked of human relating in a somewhat broad sense. I have described the human attributes and the human sense of truth to be two of the basic components of our life as relating beings. With these factors in mind, I think we are better prepared to consider a matter of professional interest to us, namely, language teaching as a way relating to our students' learning. The shift from a general to a more specific issue might give the impression that we have narrowed down the scope of our investigation. The fact is that the task remains as complex and challenging as before. For our teaching to connect with the learning of our students, we must to a certain extent have prepared ourselves to use our sense of truth and our human attributes as sources, instruments and criteria for relating. And we must also have investigated and reached a more or less clear sense of what human learning is, so as to be able to relate to our students' learning in a manner which does not underestimate or short-change them.

At this point, I invite you to dwell upon the relationship of teaching to learning proposed by Dr Caleb Gattegno.

The human learning process

Gattegno studied human learning from the perspective of 'humans-as-energy'. In this context, it is possible to see human learning as the aspect of one's energy which one transforms into a process to meet the unknown. In other words, when faced with that which is unknown to us, we transform our potential for learning into our actual learning process, and through it we relate to and interact with what confronts us. The unknown becomes known to us as we live through the process. At the same time, some of the other aspects of our potential self also become our objectified reality. Babies and young children involved in learning to function in the language of their environment illustrate rather strikingly this phenomenon of 'energy transformation'.

Gattegno observed babies and young children involved in learning to make sense of the world around them. At our youngest age, he noted, we are keen observers, exploring our world with the energy of our human attributes present in our senses and in our mental dynamics. Moreover, we relate to that which challenges us by making ourselves vulnerable to it, i.e. by letting it affect us. Gattegno found babies and young children in different cultural settings to be competent learners. He hypothesised that this was so not only because at that age all of us are vulnerable to the unknown, and the energy of our attributes was present in our learning process, but also because at that age we had the best teacher – our 'self' – who knew what to do and what not to do to let us learn. Further research confirmed that there existed a direct link between the autonomy learners enjoyed and the efficiency and effortlessness with which they learned.

Gattegno's approach to teaching

Inspired by what he had found to be true of the self-taught learners which all pre-schoolers are, Gattegno worked on developing an approach to teaching which would let learners at any age be their own teachers, and thus continue to find learning to be a subjectively significant experience which, by its very nature, leads to further learning. Gattegno called his approach the subordination of teaching to learning. The term suggests that the 'right' relationship of teaching to learning consists of teaching being guided by learners' potential for learning and by the actual learning process of individual learners. Objective evidence has steadily accumulated to confirm that by subordinating one's teaching to the learning of one's students, one serves the integrity of their learning process. And thus one humanises teaching.

The question of humanising teaching is related to a more comprehensive question, which Gattegno studied all his adult life, namely, 'What does it mean to be human?' He pursued this question not as a physicist, an anthropologist, a sociologist or a psychologist, but as an educator, someone with a responsibility to relate to human potential and who therefore develops the sensitivity and skills to do so. Gattegno approached the question in terms of 'humans-as-energy'. From this perspective, we are (not have) our potential, that is, potentially we are what we actually can be. We are also the potential we have already actualised and objectified, that is, already given form to through our actions, such as a theory, a poem, a cathedral, a smile. But also we are the energy that with its own dynamics creates the processes such as the learning process, which transform the virtual into the actual. Moreover, from this perspective, we are the energy which evolves while it operates upon itself, that is, upon its potential as well as its manifest forms and functionings, using its process of learning as its mode of operating.

Over the years, Gattegno reached a point where he could see that human learning – a complex, versatile and autonomous process – was directly related to human evolution. This observation was amply supported by the evidence from the study of babies and young children. Gattegno could see an unending potential for human beings to learn and to evolve. The challenge he faced was: 'How must a teacher – an outside agent – teach, so that individual learners may continue to evolve through autonomous learning?' The Subordination of Teaching to Learning was his response to the challenge. Part of this approach are the teaching techniques and materials he developed for mathematics, mother-tongue literacy and foreign languages.

The Silent Way

The approach to teaching languages which subordinates teaching to learning is called The Silent Way. Silence on the part of the teacher, Gattegno used to say, is a pedagogical device. It means the teacher does not take the place of the learners by telling them or giving away anything they either know or can figure out on their own. To illustrate its impact on learners, I would like to share with you some of the feedback from people I have worked with, mainly at intensive weekend workshops:

  • As one comes to terms with the fact that the teacher would neither tell nor repeat herself, would neither praise nor condemn, the anxiety level gradually drops and one begins to feel comfortable with being left to one's own resources.
  • With the teacher not looming large, it was possible to relate directly to the task in hand.
  • I felt the teacher was there, but also not there, and it felt good.
  • I had the time not only to learn, but also to reflect and to observe others learning.
  • You begin to listen to your peers instead of shutting them out and feeling isolated; you begin to cooperate with your classmates instead of competing against them and feeling alienated.
  • The teacher would not give the kind of help I wanted. I felt utterly ignored. In anger, I decided to ignore her, too. My decision helped me to keep my negative feelings under control. At the end of the second day, I found I was learning without needing the teacher to depend on.
  • I could see that my learning originated with me. I felt responsible for what I did.
  • To my great surprise, for once I was not being a perfectionist and was enjoying learning, mistakes included!
  • Your responses to us were warm but not condescending. I could be my own man in this class.

These comments remind us that the purpose of minimising teaching is to let learners use their time: to relate to the challenges at hand; to mobilise their inner resources; to feel responsible for their own learning process. In fact, this is what they did, rather efficiently, when they learned to function in their first language, with themselves as their teacher. To be aware of this is to know – not as an idea but for a fact – that our students are not only well equipped to learn languages but are also experienced in mobilising themselves to do it. This awareness prepares Silent Way teachers to become learners themselves: while their students learn the language, teachers learn how each student learns, and learn how to respond to the learning process of each without interfering with their autonomy as learners. The question to ask in different ways, and to reflect on, is: 'Do my words, gestures, the materials I use, the ways in which I use them, take into account the fact that my students are experienced language learners?' In other words, one learns and can go on learning to be an effective teacher by relating to the strengths of one's students. For instance, one could be looking for the workings of their human attributes in their actual learning process. Also, one could keep in mind the fact that students of a second language bring to their learning their imagination, intuitive powers, intelligence and other tried and tested mental dynamics of learning, such as their ability to:

  • be attentive and responsive to the challenges accessible to them;
  • perceive and create connections among seemingly unrelated elements, and make sense of them;
  • emphasise certain aspects and ignore others in order to be able to continue to respond to the challenge at hand;
  • apply the process of elimination to reach educated conclusions;
  • recognise that which they have met before;
  • retain that which they have registered and have had a chance to practise;
  • recall and articulate, at will, that which they have retained;
  • transfer that which works in one situation to a similar new situation and decide whether or not it belongs there;
  • use mistakes as tools for building criteria for correctness and using them for self- correcting.

Our students mobilised their mental dynamics for learning to function in their first language. These are their 'strengths'.

It is easier to create the climate that is 'right' for autonomous learning if one is guided in one's teaching by the strengths of one's students, instead of being focused on their so-called weaknesses and needs. Being aware of their strengths also helps in determining which aspects of the language present to them as the platform for further autonomous learning.

The essential aspects of a language

Gattegno's proposal regarding this issue is direct and to the point. He says, in effect, that it is impossible – and unnecesssary – to teach the whole of a language to anyone. It is necessary to sift and identify the essentials of the language, that is, those aspects in which the 'essence' or the 'spirit' of the language resides. A Silent Way teacher presents the following four aspects in the form of challenges, using the Silent Way materials:

1 The melody of the language. This consists of sounds, sound-patterns, intonation, pauses, phrasing, cadence etc. One learns the melody of a language not by memorising, but by becoming aware of the distribution of one's somatic energy on one's vocal apparatus, as required by the reality of the language one is learning. My responsibility is to involve my students in a variety of activities which require that they learn to place in their breathing and in the muscle tone of their lips, tongue, vocal cords etc. the amount of energy which is just 'right' for the utterance being attempted. Learners build their own criteria for correctness as their awareness of what the language requires coincides with their awareness of their own attempts at meeting those requirements.

2 The behaviour of the language. This pertains to the structure of the language and to the consistency or inconsistency with which structural changes occur corresponding to changes in situations, regarding number, gender, tense, mood etc.; or due to a shift from an affirmative to a negative or a conditional statement; or from a statement to a question or a command etc. It also includes spelling – a distinct feature of the written form – and other idiosyncrasies which belong to the language for historical and other reasons.

One learns how a language behaves, again not by memorising rules, but by paying attention to the complexity involved and becoming aware of nuances. And one makes it part of one's own behaviour by working on one's own functioning. My responsibility is to have my students participate in a number of linguistic situations which highlight the changes, as well as pointing to the elements which stay more or less the same. Learners build their own criteria as they go through exercises designed to heighten their awareness of how the language behaves. Often they take the initiative to create new situations to try out what they are learning and practise what they have learned. Practice is essential for the newly acquired ways of functioning to become second nature. The element of variation on the same theme keeps practice from deteriorating into a drill.

3 Vocabulary. Gattegno deals with this aspect by presenting a set of words he calls 'the functional vocabulary'. This consists of 'the items that generate the grammar of the language'. With this set of words it is possible to generate 'a lot of language with a little vocabulary'. The functional vocabulary itself provides clues as to how to do 'more with less'. Additional words are introduced and expansion of vocabulary takes place, prompted by the interests and imagination of the learners. Learners invest the required amounts of energy to register and retain the words and phrases. Their enhanced sensitivity for the melody and the behaviour of the language helps them retain the words. Meanings, if they are already there, or as they are introduced, help in retaining as well as recalling the words one has registered.

4 Meanings. Understanding that meanings are in situations and not in words per se, a Silent Way teacher introduces meanings by presenting linguistic situations. Learners use their perceptive powers to look for meanings directly in situations. It is they who give meanings to the words and phrases which they have already met while working on the melody and the structure of the language. There are specific techniques a Silent Way teacher uses to make meanings perceptible.

It is important to take into account the degree of acquaintance students have with the language, and to involve them in linguistic activities which challenge them to work on themselves to meet the reality of the language they are learning. Their own learning experiences, as well as the experience of observing one another engaged in learning, enable them to build the inner criteria. Often teacher and students improvise activities and exercises which bring them closer to the 'spirit' of the language when, while using the restricted language at their disposal, they can express themselves:

a) spontaneously, i.e. without going through translation, and with a degree of fluency that corresponds to their intent; and

b) adequately, i.e. guided by the inner criteria, and with the ease indicative of having reached a level of competence.

Every time my students have the experience of being spontaneous and adequate users of the language, they feel 'charged' to go on learning – with or without me being there and in the classroom or outside. The process of learning continues at a deeper level while they are involved in other activities, such as washing the dishes or driving; and they learn 'in their sleep'. To see one's students feeling charged is the most compelling reason I know of to want to continue to learn to subordinate my teaching to the learning of my students.

In conclusion, I will try briefly to convey what this way of working asks of teachers – and what it offers them.

  • In this empirical approach there are no 'perfect' teachers and no 'model' lessons to imitate. Both more and less experienced teachers enter their classrooms prepared to pay attention to how their students learn and prepared to be guided by the learning process as it unfolds. Both can benefit by observing their colleagues teach and by exchanging ideas.
  • Gattegno used to say, 'I work on every lesson after the lesson', implying that to reflect on one's teaching before, during and after the lesson is an integral part of the approach. The Silent Way is for teachers who examine what they do and who think about what takes place in their classrooms.
  • Those who choose to use this approach learn to treat mistakes (their own and those of their students) as part of the learning process. They look for creative ways of using mistakes as tools for building the criteria and for self-correcting.
  • Silent Way teachers don't have to be preoccupied with producing results. They are attentive all along to the process, and know that yields 'good' results.
  • Neither teacher nor students are concerned with perfection. They understand that by doing one's best at every step, one only gets better.
  • This way of teaching is for teachers who plan their lessons with the reality of the language and the strengths of the students in mind, and who are prepared to alter their plans any time the reality of the teaching-learning situation demands it.
  • The Silent Way is for teachers who are willing to face the unknown every day and learn on the spot how to respond to it. It is for teachers who are charged to learn while they teach.

Gattegno was convinced that anyone willing to devote the time and energy could learn to subordinate teaching to learning and thereby create for one's students as well as for oneself the climate and conditions conducive to self-education.

Back to the top