Those Who Can't

 

Image source: www.centi-weebly.com

 

In “The Centipede’s Dilemma,” by Katherine Craster, a toad asks a centipede which order she moves her legs.  The centipede not only can’t answer, but gets so discouraged trying to figure it out that she becomes unable to walk!  The poem has given its name to the “Centipede Effect” in which someone becomes unable to do something once they think too much about it.

 

A good teacher would never have been hung up by the toad.   The very best teachers seem to be able to break something up, no matter how difficult it may be, so that it can be sequenced for easy instruction.  I think teachers actually prefer to know how something is done to doing it themselves.

 

The saying goes, “Those who can’t do teach,” but I’m not sure that means teachers can’t do it, or even that they don’t have the opportunity to do it.  Maybe they don’t, but I suspect that if they did, it wouldn’t interest them as much as learning how.  Great teachers want to take the thing apart, show you how it’s built, empower you to build it yourself.

 

When I was a kid I got interested in magic.  As soon as I showed someone a trick, though, all I wanted to do was tell them how it was done, because that was what I found interesting.  The idea of magic being wonderous and entertaining and even frustrating was not for me, and that suggests some of my current predilictions for teaching music over making it.

 

Those great do-ers who are not great teachers may completely understand how they do what they do.  What they perhaps lack is the ability to express their understanding in any other way but doing.  Furthermore, many of them are not interested in explaining how something is done once they can do it, or even in learning it a different way (unless of course they reach a crisis where they can no longer do what they did before.)

 

I think of Charles Schulz, the visionary cartoonist who penned the Peanuts (Charlie Brown, etc.) cartoons.  A graphic novelist once wrote about a conversation he had with Schulz where he was explaining to the innovator all of the interesting philosophic and artistic things he was doing in Peanuts, and he asked Schulz if he understood.  Schulz sweaty-browed response, “I’m sure tryin’!” is endearing, and tends to make him look less intelligent than he was.

 

Schulz clearly understood how to make the kinds of innovations, the philosophic leaps, the profound, yet simple artistic and literary expressions that make Peanuts a watershed in comics and beyond.  But he may have understood them only in terms of action, not explanation.  He would not have been necessarily able to accurately lay out the different things he was doing for someone coming to study with him.

 

So why aren’t great teachers always better than great do-ers?  One of the reasons may be because they are constantly watching themselves do.  They are not only doing, but examining their doing, and this, if you’ll pardon me, can be their undoing.

 

I am slowly learning to become a do-er when I am doing, rather than a teacher.  This requires me to be able to understand at a very deep level what the differences are, so that I can communicate them to those of my students who are more self-conscious and less “ready to go.”   My journey to teach “doing” rather than simply teach is the focus of these blogs.

4 comments

  • Chris

    Chris

    I think we are hardwired to be doers of some things and teachers or observers of others. Some can do more than one well, but I suppose the trick for most of us is to find where your predilections are for a given area of interest and do it well.

    I think we are hardwired to be doers of some things and teachers or observers of others. Some can do more than one well, but I suppose the trick for most of us is to find where your predilections are for a given area of interest and do it well.

  • Darcy

    Darcy

    What a great post. I have never heard of the Centipede Effect and am going to steal that for my own teaching and practice! I have always described it as "paralysis by analysis" and used the riding a bike analogy (once you learn how, if you focus too much on which muscles you're using to ride a bike, you'll lose your balance). I've also described it as flipping a switch between work mode and active non-doing mode (stole that from the meditation guru Jon Kabat-Zinn). I also find your distinction between teaching and performing very interesting and spot on. There are people who are exquisite performers whose talent is so natural and effortless that they have no idea how to tell someone else how to do it...because they never had to think about it. I tend to love teaching the things that I've had to work very hard to achieve in my own playing (which is pretty much everything, hahaha). :) GREAT post!

    What a great post. I have never heard of the Centipede Effect and am going to steal that for my own teaching and practice! I have always described it as "paralysis by analysis" and used the riding a bike analogy (once you learn how, if you focus too much on which muscles you're using to ride a bike, you'll lose your balance). I've also described it as flipping a switch between work mode and active non-doing mode (stole that from the meditation guru Jon Kabat-Zinn).

    I also find your distinction between teaching and performing very interesting and spot on. There are people who are exquisite performers whose talent is so natural and effortless that they have no idea how to tell someone else how to do it...because they never had to think about it. I tend to love teaching the things that I've had to work very hard to achieve in my own playing (which is pretty much everything, hahaha). smile GREAT post!

  • Brian

    Brian

    The more innately or effortlessly one can do something, at least as a general rule, the less able one is to express how it's done. Which doesn't necessarily stop such a person from being sure they can teach it, but you ain't necessarily an "expert" about a certain discipline just 'cause you're fluent in the process. A nice broad example of this is language, because while certain folks surely have a particular talent for acquiring new languages — and understanding from a formal perspective how languages are structured — the language(s) into which we're born are learnt purely by immersion; the attempts at deriving rules from how one speaks with an aim towards instructing a nonnative speaker can be ruefully hilarious.

    The more innately or effortlessly one can do something, at least as a general rule, the less able one is to express how it's done. Which doesn't necessarily stop such a person from being sure they can teach it, but you ain't necessarily an "expert" about a certain discipline just 'cause you're fluent in the process. A nice broad example of this is language, because while certain folks surely have a particular talent for acquiring new languages — and understanding from a formal perspective how languages are structured — the language(s) into which we're born are learnt purely by immersion; the attempts at deriving rules from how one speaks with an aim towards instructing a nonnative speaker can be ruefully hilarious.

  • Brian

    Brian

    I may have asked this before, by the way, but... Why is your blog on Pacific time? (Newer comments appearing first is odd too. At least when it comes to any kind of conversation developing. I suspect you can easily change the former if not the latter.)

    I may have asked this before, by the way, but... Why is your blog on Pacific time? (Newer comments appearing first is odd too. At least when it comes to any kind of conversation developing. I suspect you can easily change the former if not the latter.)

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