Roslyn Young – The Subordination of Teaching to Learning

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Roslyn Young

Roslyn Young


The workshop took place in a quite extraordinary and very pleasant room -a former dance studio with a beautiful view. There were ten participants for the whole four days and three who were only able to be present for one or two days. All were more particularly interested in language teaching.

It was the first time that I had ever run a workshop in which the common language between some of the participants and myself was so tenuous. I have only the merest smattering of Japanese, whilst, of the ten people participating full time, one was a native English speaker, four spoke good or at least halting English, and the other five could only understand partially what was being said, and certainly not the subtle nuances required by a workshop of this nature. Nevertheless it was decided that the workshop would not be translated in full, and very quickly a satisfactory way of operating was found in which I would launch an idea or a concept and the participants would discuss it until they were satisfied they had understood, checking back with me from time to time on points they reached or questions they had in order to have my reaction. This mode of functioning proved to be quite successful, especially because one or two of the participants had already had a lot of exposure to Dr Gattegno’s way of thinking and could lead the discussion as well in Japanese as I could in English. However, it was an interesting experience for me as it allowed me to work intensively for four days on my intuition.

It seemed to me that, in order to study the subordination of teaching to learning, the easiest entry would be through a detailed examination of learning, so the workshop began with two days devoted to the four stages of learning: stage one, the basic awareness that there is a field to be explored; stage two, the exploration of the field; stage three, practice and stage four, mastery. These four stages were explored in detail, many, many examples being furnished by myself and then by the participants from our everyday lives until everybody seemed at home with this description of learning. Then the stages were re-examined from the point of view of what the learner does with his presence during each stage. During stage one, which may last just a few seconds, he is present to the discovery of the new field to be investigated. Stage two is also characterized by the presence of the learner as he explores this new field. During stage three, the learner becomes less and less present as he makes more and more progress, and we know we have reached mastery when we no longer need to be present at all while performing the action. Examples were produced in which only stage one is present and in which only stage one and stage two can be found -human relations are of this nature, since we don’t want to automatize our relationships with people. Similarly, some learning requires only an initial awareness and mastery is immediate, since the process itself is already known.

Once the notions of presence and awareness had become more than just empty ideas for the participants, once they showed they had a feel for moments in their lives in which presence and awareness are manifested, it was possible to expand the notion of presence to include the stage presence of a great musician or actor who can galvanize his audience the moment he comes onto the stage. This is a good example of induction and most people have had this experience at least once in their lives. It helped the participants grasp what induction is.

We then had enough tools at our disposition to allow us to begin a study of the self at the helm. The third day was given over to this study. Since the self can be studied most easily during a learning activity, the participants were provided with tennis balls and given a simple task to learn -how to throw a ball from one hand to the other, the difficulty being that the throwing had to be done from behind the back, over the shoulder and into the waiting hand. The participants were asked to learn to throw the ball and catch it, but also to examine the content of their awareness during the learning process in order to catch themselves functioning. This activity took a good hour and was very fruitful. The learners could see themselves being selectively present in different aspects of the act of throwing, using their awareness in order to learn. In our beautiful dance studio classroom, the students were surrounded by mirrors. Some tried to use the mirrors to study their throwing, but they soon understood that they could not study the throw from the outside, looking in the mirror, because this created a split in their presence to themselves, and that they had to concentrate on feeling how to act rather than watching themselves acting. They also became aware of how they know they are making progress.

After a time, when everyone had made some progress in learning to throw, the group was divided in two and each sub-group had the opportunity of observing the other half of the group learning. The observers were asked to watch the learners not as fellow-learners but as teachers. However this exercise proved to be too difficult for most of the participants. With only one exception, they described the progress being made by the learners compared to their own learning, rather than thinking about the type of advice they could give each learner in order to speed him in his task of learning. They were not yet in a position to be able to think technically about the act of learning to throw.

The afternoon of the third day was given over to a study of feedback. The student tests his environment -this is what led people such as Dewey to state that learning takes place through trial and error- and reads what the environment sends back to him as a response, thus creating a feedback loop. Each loop allows the learner to make a new trial which is more adequate then the previous one because he is already aware of the response of the environment to the previous trials and can thus adjust his trials one after the other. This feedback loop is used in learning anything which requires trial and error, from windsurfing to throwing balls to French. However, in the language classroom, the teacher is the environment. Thus, the teacher watches the student testing the environment and provides the feedback selectively, adjusting what he does in function of the trials the student makes. Thus, the teacher and the student are linked in a double feedback loop. The teacher watches the student make his test and furnishes the feedback necessary for the student’s next test on a moment-by-moment basis.

By the end of the third day, the participants had a feel for most of the notions that I felt should be worked on during the seminar. It only remained to tie them together into an understanding of some of the processes involved in the subordination of teaching to learning. This was the activity of the fourth day.

To begin day four, we returned to a notion already in circulation since the first few minutes of the workshop -a quote from Dr Gattegno on teaching: “Teaching is making the students independent, autonomous and responsible. I do not free students all at once, but moment by moment and step by step.” Having spent three days studying learning, we now spent an hour working on teaching in preparation for watching a French lesson.

Since four of the participants in this course had also studied French in the previous workshop the week before, circumstances were such that we could do a more advanced French course, rather than a first lesson. The aim of the course was to furnish the participants, both those learning French and the observers, with the opportunity of studying subordination of teaching to learning actually functioning in a class.

The French lesson was at the same time a complete success and a total failure! I had hoped -I had expected- that it would allow observation of the students’ presence but also moments of absence, moments when a student’s self was at the helm but also moments when the psyche took over and slowed down his learning, moments when the whole class was present but also moments when no one’s self was at the helm. However, the class was unusually successful as a French class in that the students were completely present all the time. Even when pressed into activities which could be socially difficult for them or could lead to embarrassment, each student remained completely focussed on the lesson. Only at one moment did the class, including the teacher, become aware of the observers and become self-conscious. We all laughed.

Unfortunately, this incident took less than a second to come and go and was only noticed by one of the observers who captured the change in energies in the class, but did not understand what had happened to the point where he was in doubt as to whether he had actually felt something or not. It was so quick that he did not really have time to grasp what had taken place. The participants, when asked later if they had felt it, were aware that it had taken place, but had immediately been swept back up into the lesson and had thought no more about it. Thus this most subtle level of subordination of teaching to learning was not clearly demonstrated during the lesson.

However the presence of the students was obvious to all the participants, and many individual awarenesses were pinpointed very easily, so that this second level of subordination of teaching to learning was obvious to all. The third level dealt with in this workshop, the use by the teacher of the double feedback loop, was also obvious for all the participants.

The last afternoon was given over to some remarks about memory and retention and about the difference between practice and repetition, since the participants had questions concerning energies which could only be answered by entering this field.

At the end of the workshop, it seemed that the participants had gained an entry into the notion of subordination of teaching to learning and why Silent Way can be considered an example of it. Obviously much more needs to be done, but the groundwork was laid for an understanding of the subtle transactions involved in Dr Gattegno’s proposition.

© Roslyn Young
Besançon, 1993

The Science of Education in Questions – N° 9, Une Education Pour Demain, France. June 1993.


Roslyn Young was born in Australia and after obtaining a BA, Dip Ed. she taught English literature in Australian schools for a few years.

She moved to France in 1967 and worked at the University of Franche-Comté in the Applied Linguistics Centre, teaching English and sometimes French in intensive courses, from 1968 until she retired, She met Caleb Gattegno for the first time in 1971 in Geneva where she saw him teach a Chinese lesson. This was the most intense experience she had ever had in a classroom and she knew immediately that she wanted to be able to teach like that.

Roslyn did her doctoral thesis on Gattegno, his model and its relevance to his work in language teaching. She has published articles on teaching and the Silent Way.

Roslyn worked for Une Education Pour Demain from the beginning of the 80’s until 2015 doing teacher training. (Teacher training can be anything between a two day course on a specific subject and a five year programme designed to produce a new generation of teacher-trainers.)

With Piers Messum, she presented Gattegno: Visible and Tangible Learning at the ATM 2011 Conference.

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