Your Own Best Critic

Here’s something we did the other day in class. In this case it was a Tai Chi class, mostly advanced students with at least five years of training.

Critic2 First, I took a section of the Yang Long Form and had them all do it together. After letting them do it once I determined one critical point for each student. For instance, one person was leaning back when trying to balance on one leg, another person was having trouble remaining erect, a third  was starting the movements fast but then slowing down; these kinds of general problems.

As a teacher, I want to give the best and most essential advice. It does take a certain eye to see problems in order to best inform each student. So I told each of them a specific critical point. Then I had them practice the set again, concentrating on their own issues, ignoring everyone else.

We practiced that way for a while, repeating the same section a few times; each kept to the specific problem he or she was working on. This shows one advantage of forms: each of them knew the routine by heart so in most cases they could concentrate on the problem, not the memory (though there were a few lost moments here and there). The other effect of having a sequence and just concentrating on it is that if you have a problem standing on one leg, there’s most likely a little more to it than that; maybe also the shifting to the other leg is wobbly. ItCritic3 shows that just because you lose your balance it might not be that part of the movement which needs the attention.

For instance, in Robert’s case, he is built wiry and tends to be very fast. His startle response is extremely quick. So in essence he was startling then saying to himself, “Oh no, I’m doing Tai Chi.” As in Robert’s example, I saw that a lot of the attempt to fix things was really a case of re-framing them. This is very good. The student is no longer just saying, “I will stand taller so I won’t fall over.” Now the student has to say, “I guess I should keep my spine vertical through the whole process.” Now they become co-teacher, and that’s important.

Following this, I paired up the students and sent the pairs to separate areas. One of them was the “teacher” and one was the “student,” and the student repeated the section while the teacher watched. In this case the teacher doesn’t DO any thing, they don’t criticize; they just watch. Their job is just to watch and see if they detect what I had detected. Or even detect some other kind of struggle. Then they reverse roles.

Critic4All this has a secondary message. Besides trying to see if the student can “fix” the other person’s problem, they also are learning to watch This, particularly in American culture, is something people don’t do very much. They pose all the time. You would be shocked at how many mirrors there are in many studios. Everybody moves around posing, but not watching. Watching is something different. You are not attempting to do anything, you are not stuffing the ballot box. You are just watching.

Sometimes watching others is difficult because of politeness. Sometimes what’s in your head prevents you from watching. You may think, “Oh, the shoulders are up, but I don’t know what that means.” This, as opposed to “no one is asking you to know what it means, just watch.”

Good things happen. Once in a while one student might even steal from one another, which delights me. I don’t want them to talk about it, I just want them to steal. Once in a while their watching leads to new ways to deal with their own problem. For instance, I like to have students repeat a designated problem and then exaggerate it to the point of uneasiness; for this level, you generally need advanced students, but if someone is doing something odd and small we want to see it big. This usually causes them to—rather than show it off like that— immediately cure themselves of it.

The gist of this is that there are many ways to look at a school, and your class. One way that always comes to mind is from a book byCritic1 Lloyd C. Douglas, “Green Light.” It’s a book mentioned by Salinger, about someone who consoles others for free under the rule that all a patient has to do is go and greet the next patient and then escort them in. That’s it. I think of schools that way.  I think of them as the community that helps itself. The teacher may just be the framework. The teacher is the one with the clipboard who remembers how many spoons we are supposed to have. But if one student can turn and help the next student, there is always some gain. That’s why I am a big believer in student teachers. For one thing, they are still discovering things to transmit to the newer student. It’s the “I just figured that out last week,” sort of involvement on both their parts. This gives immediacy and compassion. As teachers they see people making the mistake they have overcome—makes them feel pretty good.

3 Responses to “Your Own Best Critic”

  1. Patrick says:

    Exactly why “No Child Left Behind” doesn’t work. =)

  2. Robert Kwan says:

    I think this essay has hit on something often overlooked in learning how to learn is that the best way to learn is to teach because you really learn the material if you have to teach it. I find that you often do not really “know” the material until you have to show someone how to do it. I found this true when I was teaching English abroad and was asked to teach a course in American literature, and felt afterwards that I really learned it after learning how to teach it. This is also why being in a study group may be an effective way to learn.

  3. Angelika says:

    Thank you for sharing the insights from that lesson! I find it very interesting to hear what a lesson looks like, it is something very rarely talked about!

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