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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.