Teaching to let go

(3 min read)

“…the delicate relationship between teaching, giving knowledge, and learning knowledge”

This comes from Chapter 4 of We make the road by walking, a book of conversations between the educators Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. Paulo goes on to elaborate this quote, talking about going beyond the knowledge that the people bring to a situation. (p.151) I am struck by this book, how much it resonates with me and I sincerely wish I had been able to meet these people in person. It’s my holiday read, part of a book club, and I suppose this is my post about Chapter 4. It is a short one, not because there is less that inspired me, but because there was one paragraph that leapt out for me. Paulo speaks about this balance between teaching, knowledge, and learning and adds the authority of the teacher.

“The other mistake is to crush freedom and to exacerbate the authority of the teacher. Then you no longer have freedom but now you have authoritarianism, and then the teacher is the one who teaches. The teacher is the one who knows. The teacher is the one who guides. The teacher is the one who does everything. And the students, precisely because the students must be shaped, just expose their bodies and their souls to the hands of the teacher, as if the students were clay for the artist, to be molded.

The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to be­ come themselves. And in doing that, he or she lives the experience of relating democratically as authority with the freedom of the students.” -Paulo, p.181

This is so true, and a difficult one to learn. As a teacher it is a huge apocalyptic epiphany to know, not intellectually, but to really understand that you (or I or anyone) cannot change another. There is, of course a sort of halo effect with learning, where it is possible to bring students with you temporarily, or students can be taken through an experience so they have ‘done’ it, but that alone doesn’t necessitate learning.

I demonstrate this in a workshop yesterday, using music –The principle is that if I give you a cello or violin, I can instruct you so that you can play a song, but because of the newness of the task, and it’s inherent complexity, with multiple layers of physical coordination, cognitive understanding, listening, and visual cues, you may well be so caught up in managing complexities that you can miss the overall result. I was teaching colleagues in a workshop as part of their Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching course and I took two people from the group and walked them through a task.

Halfway through one person’s face lit up. The other remained a combination of confused and concentrating. I asked the confused student what he had just done? Did he know? nope. I assured him that was ok. We were discussing learning and teaching principles, and I had hoped that exact thing would happen. I asked the other person, a gal who did know what she did, not to tell just yet. I then turned to the rest of the participants, who were listening and asked them what had just happened? What had these two people just accomplished? A reply came instantly – they just played Twinkle Twinkle on the cello.

BUT – only one of them had fully learned that task. The other person was well on the way, but having gone through the motions once was not enough.

It is possible to walk students through something so they actually accomplish it, in any discipline, but not until they have personal ownership of those experiences will they learn. It is a dangerous mistake to think that pure box-ticking equals learning. There needs to be that freedom, as Paulo says, to allow students to think and as I told people yesterday with the instruments, that they could time for their own explorament with concepts. Time to consider, apply, change, and even challenge concepts, skills, and their understanding as they apply them to the task. That is when learning takes place, and as a teacher, it takes a certain level of humility to let go. It is so much easier just to tell people what to do. Wouldn’t it be great if we could create great students? Be directly responsible for their achievements? …not really, I don’t think so. Actually that sounds like a nightmare dictatorship. I would much rather have the reward of my students surpassing me.

In these last few days before the new semester begins, I’m thinking and planning for how I can make more space for learning.

Featured image CC BY-SA by Hartwig HKD


  1. Bryan Alexander

    Welcome to the book club, Todd!

    Laura, thank you for a very moving and poignant post. You pinned down a crucial passage. And your own experience is powerful.
    (Not just because I used to play the cello)

    1. Post

      Thank you Bryan. I love that so many people either do or have played cello. I think the music never leaves for those who stop, expression always finds a way. I have very much enjoyed reading this book and it might be the first book I’ve indulged in not just reading, but really savouring, in a while.

    1. Post

      Todd, thank you for the book suggestion and for reading what I wrote. I do not know Herndon’s book, but it is now on a list of ‘to read’ and sounds very much up my street. I highly comment We Make the Road to you – I have really enjoyed reading it, and for me reading takes time, so is a real commitment. I look forward to some of your reflections!

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