HOW CALEB GATTEGNO INFLUENCED MY TEACHING
John J. Pint
“This man teaches languages without speaking,” went the buzz a few days before Dr. Caleb Gattegno was scheduled to hold a workshop at the School for International Training, where I was studying for a master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language.
Of course, I was interested and curious, as were all my fellow students. Like them, I was fully convinced that learning to teach meant you must be exposed to just about everything that had ever been thought, proposed or tested by past and present teachers of language, no matter how successful or unsuccessful they may have been. We had examined the manner in which Latin had been taught for centuries and had been exposed to the contemporary (1971) illuminati. “No method is perfect,” we were told, “you must be eclectic.”
So, we sat through a full week of Greek the Audio Visual way by an expert in the approach. For forty hours, the teacher shouted and shouted and we repeated and repeated, with hardly any idea of what we were saying. We were told, however, that mindlessness was a normal characteristic of the language learning process. If you are exposed to the language long enough and repeat loud enough, suddenly one day you will find yourself speaking the new tongue. It sounded like a wonder truly miraculous!
Forty hours apparently were not enough for the miracle to take place. After it was all over, it seemed to me I hadn’t learned a bit of Greek, but still I felt the experience had been worth it. I had added another piece of information to my global knowledge. I was becoming eclectic.
And now we would be exposed to the opposite. Instead of shouting, the teacher would keep silent. Frankly, both ideas sounded bizarre, but so did many of the other methods we had investigated. Whatever Gattegno had to offer, we would add it to our collection. With the eclectic approach, you simply can’t lose.
The moment of the workshop arrived. Caleb Gattegno appeared to be a European gentleman of the old school. He dressed formally and conservatively and, with a pronounced British accent, told us that most of what we were being taught was a waste of time. He challenged us to discount the word of authorities in the language field and to investigate what really counts in language learning by studying our own learning experiences, especially what we learned as babies. He proposed that we have a language learning experience together and then examine it together, using “awareness as a light.”
He led his wife, Shakti, to the front of the room in a gentle and cavalier manner that contrasted sharply with the caustic nature of his statements. For the next half hour, Gattegno taught us Hindi, but the entire time he spoke not a word. His wife served as a model, but she, too, used a Silent approach, uttering maybe fifteen words in all, and I don’t believe she ever repeated the same word twice. Gattegno was truly the one doing the teaching and we were the ones doing the talking. Everyone but me, that is. I wasn’t paying attention to the language part of the lesson at all. I was utterly fascinated by how this man was doing what he was doing. My companions actually understood the meaning of what they were saying the entire time and in less than an hour were also able to read – with understanding, I might add – phrases and sentences written in Hindi script on the blackboard.
Because I had chosen to be an observer rather than a participant, I could give my attention to everything, even to the Gattegnos’ two small children playing around and underneath a moveable blackboard on the side of the room. They were obviously having great fun but they were just as silent as their father and they were never disruptive. I watched them playing and suspected there must be another, gentler, side to this man whose sharp tongue alienated so many of my companions and supervisors.
LEARNING FROM LEARNING
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I paced the corridors for hours. If I understood him rightly, Gattegno was claiming that the teaching going on in the world’s classrooms was counterproductive because it was mostly affecting memory rather than awareness, “and,” he pointed out, “memory, in most of us, is weak.”
“Only awareness is educable in human beings,” he had gone on to say. This was one of his two key points. The other was that all teaching must be modified to fit the realities of learning. This cardinal principle he called “the subordination of teaching to learning.”
All of this was more than I could digest at once. If Gattegno’s claims were true, most every school on earth was doing a poor job, including the school I was presently attending.
I examined my own experiences as a student in the USA and Italy and saw that Gattegno’s claims coincided with my own evaluation of the classes I had attended. I had consistently received high marks all my life, yet I knew these were due greatly to memorization and cramming for exams. For example, I had studied geography in grade school and had promptly forgotten everything the day after the exam. I only began to learn geography when I became a radio amateur and found myself talking to people from far-off places like Germany and Brazil. Only then did I put up maps on the wall and interest myself in the location, customs, languages, etc. of these distant lands.
In later years, I had stuffed my head with the philosophies of Kant, Hegel and Descartes, but had retained nothing of it.
Was there really a way to learn things in a classroom by means of awareness instead of memorization? Is this what Gattegno had produced during the Hindi class or had he cleverly managed to hypnotize a whole roomful of people?
Gattengo said he had applied his Subordination of Teaching to Learning to mundane school subjects like math, reading and language teaching and I understood there were teachers in New York City using these approaches every day in various schools. I decided I had to see for myself. I had to find out whether this man was a hypnotist, a charlatan or the world’s greatest teacher.
The open-minded staff of my MA-TESL program at SIT readily agreed to let me spend a week in New York City observing classes where Gattegno’s techniques were at work. A few days later, I found myself sitting on a thick carpet chatting with several first graders who, their teacher told me, were studying Gattegno math and …algebra!
I turned to a little boy – Afro-American – and asked him to explain to me what he was learning from the colored wooden rods scattered around us on the floor.
“I can make a train,” he said.
“OK, show me.”
He lined up an orange rod, a black rod and a green one. “This is a train.”
Then he put two yellow rods end to end. “This is another train.”
Next, he pushed the second train parallel to the first one. “Look! he exclaimed.” They were exactly the same length. “Do you want me to write it? asked the little boy, his eyes bright with enthusiasm…for what, I had no idea.
The toddler walked to the green board, picked up a piece of yellow chalk and slowly wrote:
2Y = B + G
I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was not only demonstrating addition, but had actually written an equation! “Can they do this for subtraction, too?” I asked the teacher.
“We cover up one train with another to express subtraction,” she said, placing only the green rod on top of the train of yellow rods.
No sooner did she do this, than the little boy at the board wrote:
2Y-G = ?
By now a couple other youngsters were watching what we were doing and offered various solutions to the problem. “You can put a yellow and a red one!” “A pink and a green!” “Seven white ones!” And the board was soon filled with equations:
2Y-G =Y + R
2Y-G = P + G
2Y-G = 7 W
…and, of course: 2Y-G = B
I could see with my own eyes that memorization played no role in what these children were expressing. Everything was visible, tangible and obvious. This was my first inkling of what Gattegno meant by education through awareness. A little later, I got an even better insight into what I had missed in my experience as a grade-schooler.
“Can these rods be used to teach multiplication too? I asked the first grade teacher. Well, in a minute, I saw how easy it is to build a tower of rods, each one a multiplier. And, of course, you could physically verify exactly what was the product of all these multipliers.
“OK,” I said, “and what about division?”
“Obviously, we divide simply by removing one of the rods from the tower,” said the teacher.
From the tower demonstrating that 2X4X5=40, the teacher pulled out the 5 and I could see that 2X4, or a red rod crossing a pink one, was left over. “Forty divided by 5…” said the teacher. “Eight,” said I, because I could see the result.
This was a whole new experience for me. I had always considered division a rather mysterious process, involving a set of rules that always produced a correct answer. These rods not only made the result unshakably obvious they also made it possible for me to see with crystal clarity, the relationship between multiplication and division, something that should have struck me as a child in school, but only hit me as an adult sitting on a carpet with first-graders.
The teacher had put something before my eyes which helped me to gain a new awareness. What is important here is that the teacher did not pass on a bit of her knowledge to me, which is what most people might say is the typical job of a teacher, but, instead, she got me to look at something that was undeniable and obvious and the result was that I –not the teacher -- experienced something called an awareness and because it was my own personal awareness, it hit me like a sledgehammer, so strongly that I can’t possibly forget that moment. Gattegno’s approach to teaching is exactly this: creating crystal-clear, obvious situations that make it easy for students to have awareness after awareness.
The fact that I can describe this moment of awareness demonstrates that I possess, to some degree, an awareness of awareness. In later years, when Gattegno would refer again and again to the awareness of awareness, I had only to go back to that moment with the tower of rods, to understand what he meant.
In 1971, Dr. Gattegno invited me to join his staff and to represent him in California. When I mentioned something about working for him, he stated, in typical Gattegno fashion, “I’m not asking you to work for me. Work for education!”
I soon discovered that I would be under contract as a “teacher of teachers,” a term Gattegno used rather than the traditional “teacher trainer.” Regarding this, Gattegno quipped, “Training is for pigeons.”
As a staff member of Educational Solutions, Inc., I had the opportunity to attend workshops free of charge and I went to all of them, no matter what the subject. I soon discovered that the system for conducting these workshops was in itself a primer on how research should be carried out for “human” studies. Observations on subjects like the role of imitation in language learning or the meaning of time, could be made by anyone in the room, but they could only speak from personal experience and could not quote books or authorities in the field.
In one of these workshops, part of a series required for getting a certificate of proficiency in teaching the Silent Way, Gattegno asked us to write an essay about our own behavior “using awareness as a tool.” This challenge led me in directions I had never gone before. I ended up writing a description of what I habitually do when I get my hands on a new “machine” (for example, a camera, a projector, a scanner, etc.). Some people I have seen immediately rip open the box and start pushing buttons. I knew I didn’t follow that approach to understanding complicated new toys, but, after dwelling on the subject, I discovered, to my surprise, that I followed a kind of ritual in so many stages that it took quite a long time to describe the whole procedure. The impact this had on me was the realization that any person can learn a great deal about himself or herself using this approach, which, once again, leads to an awareness of awareness.
In like measure, Gattegno’s books, for example, The Universe of Babies and The Mind Teaches the Brain, had a huge impact on my way of looking at energy, awareness, the world and myself – and in the end, of course, influenced my teaching.
Caleb Gattegno died in 1988, but he has never stopped influencing me as a teacher because from him I learned to focus on my students’ learning and to modify my teaching accordingly. I’ve taught well over a thousand students living in eight countries since I first heard the words “subordination of teaching to learning” and each one of these encounters has had an impact on me as a teacher, thanks to the direction Caleb Gattegno pointed me in, many years ago.
(Watch highlights of a 40-hour Spanish course to follow the progress of a student from zero to fluency.)
Text © 2019 by John & Susy Pint