Cecilia Bartoli – The Human Will as a Tool for More Effective Teaching

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The need to focus one’s attention on students rather than teachers has increasingly been felt in the past few years. However, it seems to me that thinking only in terms of “students” and “teachers” in a learning/teaching situation can be highly misleading, because the attention is still focused on the individual’s role rather than on his whole personality. Students are considered only in terms of their role in a classroom: their understanding of the subject matter, their participation, and their performance with respect to the amount of material they have absorbed.

Unless we clearly understand that both teachers and students alike are people first, we can easily make the mistake of considering questions which are reductive, misleading and beside the point. Discussions about curriculum, presentation of material, choice of texts, classroom organization and the like are all reductive ways of thinking. It is the learning process in terms of educators and their charges alike, which should be the main concern. When teachers stop learning during their work in the classroom, they are at an impasse and burn out.

In my own experience it has been a slow and difficult challenge to begin to act on the fact that I teach “people” and not “English”, and that I too am a person before being a teacher, and that my task is to continue growing and to become conscious of my own learning process. Day by day it involves many mistakes and illusory successes, but it has also given me a sense of moving forward and becoming more competent.

It is easy to grasp this concept intellectually, because it makes sense; but as I have discovered over the years, to apply it when relating to someone else is, indeed, a lifelong endeavor.

What has helped me most in becoming a “different” person and teacher is becoming aware of human functioning that is on-going but usually taken for granted, just because it is so familiar.

For classroom learning to be more effective, we must begin to observe, understand and learn from the experience of spontaneous learning: the informal learning involved in daily experience, the learning we easily ignore because it is taken for granted.

Yet, if we stop for a moment to consider what we learn “naturally” – as standing, walking, running, riding a bicycle and even more, speaking one’s mother tongue, – we soon discover that:

  • All these activities are extremely complex and their mastery requires precision, determination, selectivity, and intentionality. In short, they cannot be learned by chance.
  • They involve the acquisition and deliberate use of many mental powers that allow the individual to establish appropriate criteria at each step.
  • Mastering these activities demands no particular effort, even when they require large amounts of time. Consider the experience of realizing you know how to do something but not knowing how or when you learned it.

The beauty of studying spontaneous learning is this: since we all had the experience of learning spontaneously, we are all capable of studying it, provided we are willing to look inside ourselves and set aside our preconceptions concerning human learning.

The first discovery I made was that there are inner realities which govern our lives but are not necessarily apparent in our outward behavior.

To become aware of this “invisible” world of ours involves a process of self-knowledge that can only make life richer and more responsible. And if one extends the process to help others become aware of their invisible realities, it becomes clear that education will take on a new meaning.

It is in this frame of reference that I engaged in the study of “the will”. Until about ten years ago I had used this word often but automatically. I never asked myself what I meant by it.

I started questioning the word in a deeper way when I heard Gattegno remark that since the will is an attribute of the mind, it is more appropriate to say that we are a will rather than we have a will.

In this syntactical structure, the word “will” seemed very odd, and its meaning escaped me. But it was this very oddity that forced me to think about the word, and I began asking myself what I actually meant by it. I soon discovered that its meaning for me was intimately connected with that of such other words as “desire” and “wanting” and was practically a synonym for “will power”: “I wanted to say something rude, but I didn’t because I willed myself to refrain”, “I can’t stop smoking, because I don’t have the will”, or “I went to England against everybody’s advice; I truly willed this trip”, etc.

To put it another way, I was aware of my “will” only when some sort of effort or great expenditure of energy was involved. This led me to observe myself and others in this light and I realized that, much conflict had little to do with any apparent bone of contention, but was simply due to a clash of the “wills” of the people involved. This, in turn, made me far more sensitive to clashes that occur even when no conflict is visible on the surface.

I remember vividly a student who was unable to learn an Italian grammatical structure in spite of all my efforts. I tried everything to get out of the impasse. It finally dawned on me to shift my attention from the content of the lesson to my state of mind. My inner climate was one of “wanting” him to learn, and I realized that I had invested a great deal of energy in this wanting. With this insight, my understanding of the situation changed dramatically: it was clear that, in spite of the student’s “nice” cooperative behavior and his apparent “willingness”, he was actually resisting my “wanting”. His energy was so absorbed in defending the integrity of his will that his mind was not free to concentrate on the problem at hand.

To test my hypothesis, I withdrew my energy. When I stopped “wanting”, the energies coagulated in the conflict dissolved, and the solution was immediate. Although a cause-and-effect mechanism may seem too simplistic to describe the reality of the shift in the situation, the abrupt change made a deep impression on me.

From then on, I tried to be more attentive to my own resistances and difficulties and discover the dynamics and mechanisms that governed them. Behind every one of them I recognized a strong defense or need to affirm my “will”, which I identified with the whole of myself. Every time I perceived pressure on me to act in a particular way, all my energies were mustered to free myself of the interference of this “other will”, hence my resistances and difficulties.
Although I was not aware of the real causes, my behavior showed a deep drive to preserve something I considered vital to my own integrity, to my very essence. This was true even when the “resistance” or “difficulties” could be shown objectively to be against my best interest.

I gradually realized that the strenuous “defense” of my will every time it was attacked or impinged upon could be explained only by the fact that it was an integral part of my self, indeed one of its attributes.

Calling the will an attribute of the mind suggests that no human being can exist without it, just the way an object cannot exist without a shape, a color, etc. So, it does make more sense to talk about “being a will” than “having a will”.

This simple change of syntax has helped me in locating the reality of the will far more precisely. To begin with, I realized that, since the will is all-pervasive, its functioning could be grasped at any moment of one’s life. And when I started looking for it, I found it everywhere. What makes me move the correct finger to press the right key on the keyboard while writing this article? How can I speak without mobilizing my will? How can I possibly stop any movement or thought without using it?

The “will”, then, is not connected only with large amounts of energies, as I had believed. Rather, it can be understood as the “releaser” of energy which is then objectified in various ways, including absence of objectification.

With this awareness, I tried to discover my will at work and to become more intimate with it in my everyday patterns of living. And it occurred to me that one reason why the “will” (as an attribute of the mind) is taken for granted and escapes notice, is that one of our main mechanisms for saving energy and freeing the mind for other tasks is to take what we have learned and make it automatic.

Automatic actions, however, are marked by two features: they become so familiar that they are taken for granted; and the energy involved in performance is so small that one easily fails to notice the exact moment in which it is released. Thus, one is not aware that behind each release there is a mobilizer (the will).

This is why I was in contact with my will only in cases when a great deal of energy was involved: conflicts or stopping an action or a thought.

As my reflections progressed and I became better acquainted with my will, I saw that identifying the whole of myself with my will was a reductive operation. I could actually remove it from the limbo of automatism and use it deliberately in many different occasions, thus acquiring more power and control over my life.

I learned how to withdraw energy in moments of tension, to distance myself from a situation, to have a clearer view of what was happening, to appreciate more fully an aesthetic experience and to bear a confusing or frustrating situation, etc.

I also realized that I could often be carried away by my desires, my efforts, my wanting, which absorbed a lot of energy and thus reduced instead of increasing my efficiency in the tasks I set myself. By regaining control of my will through awareness, I could redress the situation and do what was needed. I discovered that this was particularly true in a learning situation.

For example, when I studied German, I found that I learned far more effectively when no effort was involved. If I stopped “trying hard” and let my will mobilize very little energy, sounds and sentences came much more readily and fluently. Being in constant touch with one’s will in order to mobilize the correct amount of energy becomes an essential discipline in a learning situation.

To recapture one’s presence in the will means, above all, to remain in touch with the changing reality of living and to stress its fluidity and possibilities. How many times have we refrained from doing something only because we thought we could not do it? We related to an image of ourselves that we had created in the past, and automatically, we identified with it, not taking into account changed conditions. Similarly, we may label a person in a certain way, fixing his personality to a set of behaviors as if changes in him were not possible.

To stress the static qualities of a person, being this oneself or others, may make life very difficult because one deals with a reality that does not reflect the truth of the present.

And this is certainly useful in the classroom. I have applied it as a tool for teaching. The awareness that each person in front of me is a “will”, an attribute which is used all the time, helps me in two ways. One, I can act consciously on my own will to foster a climate of “low” energy consumption; and two, I can see when students are blocked because they relate to a static image of themselves or put too much energy into a task and don’t use their wills correctly. Many, like me, confuse effort, wanting, or will power with will. One of the strategies I now use in my teaching is to show students that they can regain control of this power of theirs and to educate them in the discipline of using the will as the mobilizer of the right amount of energy.

It is obvious that such an awareness does not come from words or explanations: it must be discovered through living experience. This way students, or anyone for that matter, can be stronger and more capable of developing their own strategies to work in more efficient ways.

I realize that this paper will serve no purpose, unless the reader is willing to turn his reflections to the observation laboratory of his own experiences. My hope is that it may stimulate introspective consideration of one’s own inner dynamics.

© Cecilia Bartoli
The Science of Education in Questions – N° 2 , Une Education pour Demain, France, February 1990

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“The Human Will as a Tool for More Effective Teaching” by Cecilia Bartoli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.