Cecilia Bartoli – Forging Mental Tools: An Example

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Although I continue to take every opportunity to be involved in the world of education, my challenges during the last few years have not been directly connected with classroom teaching. Activities such as preparation of teaching material or study sessions with other teachers allow me to continue the introspective search I started under

Gattegno’s guidance in order to understand better the inner world that inhabits every human being.

When I was teaching foreign languages I was so close to the everyday challenges demanded by my profession that only intellectually did I understand that the classroom situation was not too different from any other situation in life. Now that I do other things, I realize that all the experiences I gathered during the time I taught with the Silent Way are profoundly relevant to what I do, and what I am now. The Silent Way gives many opportunities to become more aware and allows those who choose it to be more responsible for the way they evolve.

The most important thing I have learned working with the subordination of teaching to learning is a method for forging mental tools. Thus, for instance, the notion that I have no other teacher outside myself has become a tangible reality I cannot escape from. But, if teaching means primarily teaching myself, then, my job when I am with others, whether in the role of “teacher” or simply as a member of a team working on some project, is to be alert to the learning opportunities offered by the situation.

As a Silent Way teacher, I learned many powerful techniques Gattegno had invented, and which I used quite successfully in my classes. They worked even when I failed to fully understand how deeply rooted they were in the knowing of the human mind. I internalized this process, which Gattegno called continuous feedback, without any form of rationalization or verbalization-so much so that I never connected it with the feedback sessions which, it was suggested, were useful at the end of actual language classes.

I always felt uneasy during feedback sessions. Not fully understanding their purpose, I failed to turn them into a tool for my learning with the result that I often experienced them as a way of surreptitiously convincing my students to accept my way of teaching. Many a time I felt feedback sessions were a way of manipulating a situation to my advantage. After a while, I abandoned them in my language classes.

Only now do I appreciate the fact that abandoning them meant missing opportunities for growth. I didn’t recognize that feedback was in fact a tool I used all the time-not only in teaching my language classes, but in every moment of my life – – to assess a phenomenon, whatever it might be, in order to make the necessary changes in myself to cope with it or to understand it better. How could anyone eat, walk, or cross a street if s/he were not guided by feedback as a tool to know whether s/he was doing the right thing?

What I didn’t notice was that I charged feedback sessions with emotional energy, giving them a value that didn’t belong to them. Charging these sessions with negative connotations made me experience them as inappropriate, and therefore unworthy of continuation. It is obvious to me now that in giving up this technique, I denied myself ways to gather precious information that I could have used in doing a better job with my students.

This is the gift that Dr. Gattegno left me. Through him I learned a useful way to be introspective-a way that leads me to feel more powerful and more at peace with myself. In other words, I learned a way to forge tools (material or mental) that help me study a problem and find criteria that allow me to recognize if they are adequate to accomplish the task I set for myself.

For the first time the meaning of the notion of awareness of awareness has acquired a reality and is no longer only an idea with vague connotations yet powerful appeal. To continue with the same example, I can say now that if I have always been aware of the tool of feedback in that I have always used it when it was necessary, now I am aware that I am aware of it in that I can recognize it for what it is and separate it, if I wish, from the numerous intertwined components of a phenomenon or situation. I can isolate this notion because I have reached a certain awareness of awareness of its existence.

Perhaps having reached this possibility is not too dissimilar from the discovery biologists make when they say that they are now able to isolate such and such a microbe or virus. But perhaps the analogy is only valid to the extent that in a living situation microbes and viruses are integral part of larger phenomena until they are isolated.

I’ll also mention two criteria, for recognizing whether or not a notion can become a tool, which have helped me greatly. The first consists of asking myself questions such as the following. “Do I use it because I know it to be true or because some else says so?” “If the latter is the case, do I know the person as someone who has been working seriously on this problem, do I therefore trust him/her, and am I grateful for his/her having done the work on my behalf, or do I want to trust him/her because I am lazy?” “If I accept this notion, will it help me study the problem? In what ways?”…

Similarly, if I find in myself anxiety, a strong desire to arrive at a solution, or frustration, surely these feelings will warp my study and thwart my efforts.

Neutrality (thought of in terms of very little energy) is the condition sine qua non for me to recognize the adequacy of a mental tool that will help me study a problem, accept a challenge, etc. and then learn from it. The notion of neutrality gives me another bit of evidence that in the process of learning and growth, no one can do it for me. Who, outside myself, could take away the amount of energy I place on a word, a gesture, a situation? But what if I can’t at the moment? If I am not ready for it?

I believe that becoming aware of one’s awarenesses is nothing but a learning process that takes the time it takes, and that only the individual can do for him/herself. This process is perhaps the meaning of evolution and it is liberating to know that each of us can take his/her evolution in his/her own hands and become responsible for it.

© Cecilia Bartoli
September, 1992

The Science of Education in Questions – N° 8 – Une Education Pour Demain, France. January 1993,

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“Forging Mental Tools: An Example ” by Cecilia Bartoli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.