A Pedagogy of Richness and Depth

Is the Alexander Technique something the teacher ‘gives’ to the pupil or is the teacher there to set the pupil free to discover it for themselves? This is a discussion which has been around in one form or another for decades, and I’ve recently been feeling curious about the strength of feeling that can still be found in the AT community in relation to these two positions. So I thought I’d reflect a little about each — and also about the middle ground where, I imagine, a majority of teachers live quite happily and productively most of the time.

To begin with, think of a teacher at one extreme whose entire focus is on giving an experience of ‘good use’ through hands-on work. In a sense this is a didactic approach, but in the kinaesthetic realm. Such a teacher is essentially showing/telling the pupil things, and the pupil need only submit. There may be the most delicate and exquisite experiences of release and integration in the lessons, but the reaction of some (though by no means all) pupils to this kind of work is that they may be left feeling disempowered, and not sure how to effectively apply what happens in the lessons to their everyday lives. As a result they may end up in a cycle of endlessly returning for more hands on work to ‘top up’. This can develop into an unhealthy dependency on receiving (and perhaps later, on giving) hands-on work in order to feel OK, and is a trap people can get caught in for many years.

That’s one extreme. At the other end of the continuum lie various no-hands approaches, in which the student is encouraged to ‘find out’, and given tools to explore and experiment for themselves (albeit within a container that is given and held by the teacher). It’s important to note that the pupil isn’t actually experimenting freely in the way F.M. claims he did in the AT foundation myth. They are not discovering their own principles from scratch, they are being encouraged to explore within a very specific frame or ‘regime of truth’. The teacher is, naturally, bringing their own pre-conceptions to the situation, though in a way that may be less obvious, and feel less intrusive to the pupil than in more didactic ways of teaching

The teacher may entertain the notion that they are setting the pupil free to explore, but in reality the power dynamics in such situations are not quite so simple. As a teacher we can’t really leave ourselves and our preconceptions outside the room. It is not free exploration that is offered, but rather structured exploration based on the teacher’s, beliefs, experiences, preferences, and ways of seeing the world and the work. Questions may be asked or experiments suggested, rather than instructions given, but it would be naive to think that these questions are not leading ones. 

“What do you observe when …?”. 

As the teacher we chose specific questions and experiments to give a specific experience, and to teach specific lessons, and if we don’t get the response we are expecting then generally the situation or question will be subtly reframed until we do. The pupil, in other words, is being gently ‘lead’, with the best of intentions, and in a sense just as much as the pupil in our earlier example of the hands-on teacher.

Of course we all have frames of reference however we teach, and hopefully as a teacher our frame in our field of expertise is richer, closer to reality, and more useful than the one currently inhabited by the pupil. But because life is so unfathomable and complex, any such structured way of understanding it, or living it, is partial, inconsistent and incomplete. One pitfall of experimental approaches is that, because they are experienced as exploratory and open, they can blind pupils to the underlying system’s limitations, and to assumptions which may be taken for granted or lurk unarticulated behind the practice and frame.

It’s interesting to look at the assumptions which underlie both of the extremes above. Beneath our doggedly hands-on, didactic AT teacher’s world view is probably some variation of the notion that “the pupil can’t be trusted to work things out for themselves, so needs to be told”. This mindset is to be found with the didactic approach in any field, but as AT teachers we may feel that faulty sensory appreciation gives us a particularly strong justification for working this way. Under this view the pupils is so ‘messed up’ kinaesthetically speaking that it is dangerous to expect them to exercise much responsibility for themselves. At the other extreme, the experimental teacher also has assumptions — that it is essential to find out for ourselves, to be independent, and that the pupil can, and should be, in charge of their own learning.

It seems to me (and I’m sure to many others) that the obvious response to either of these views is that both positions hold essential nuggets of truth. Unless the pupil is to end up dependant on a teacher or the wider AT community, then they need to be taking responsibility for exploring, learning and finding out for themselves. It can’t all be given. At the same time, the teacher does, hopefully, have a rich well of practical experience about what it means to act with freedom and poise. Often it’s enormously helpful, and saves the pupil a great deal of time and unnecessary experimentation to share this directly and straightforwardly — to show the pupil “like this”. Such a teacher may also gently nudge us past unconscious blocks and blind spots which, by definition we are not aware of and may be resistant to seeing. For a teacher to intentionally withhold their practical knowledge and experience out of a dogmatic insistence that the pupil should find out everything for themselves, would be as indefensible as working in such a didactic way as to make the pupil dependant on the hands of the teacher.

The strangeness about the ongoing argument between these two extremes is that the didactic and experimental approaches are not actually incompatible. Showing someone something directly does not necessarily mean they will become unthinking, dependant automatons. Encouraging them to experiment does not necessarily mean they will become lost in a web of their own kinaesthetic confusions. To leave out either is to sell the pupil short of the breadth of richness to be found in this work, which has been developed by so many intelligent and thoughtful people over so many years. To me it seems obvious that we can, and ideally should, be doing both, with attention to the limitations and dangers of each. What is effective for one person or client group will not necessarily be so effective for another, or as applicable in a different situation, or for the same person at a different time or place. There will always people for whom one approach or the other is not effective at any given moment, resulting in deadness and conformity rather than growth. 

I suggest that the best teaching is both didactic and experimental, is rich and complex, acknowledges paradox, and embraces and harnesses the creative tension between different ways of working. I propose an integrated Pedagogy of Richness and Depth for the Alexander Technique in the 21st century. I suspect that this this is probably the way a majority of teachers work now anyway without making too much fuss about it one way or the other. I wonder if this is an argument we will ever, as a community, be able to leave behind?