Learning to tie shoelaces: threats to a love of learning

Do you remember who taught you to tie your shoelaces? And when? I do, vividly, even though it was well over sixty years ago. I learned the art aged 5 during my first week at primary school. Noticing my loose attire a girl in the entry class asked politely if I knew how to tie my shoelaces. Her humility and easy demeanour permitted me to take a chance with the potential disgrace of being discovered ignorant in such worldly matters. She neither ridiculed nor demeaned me but demonstrated a simple bow knot and patiently repeated it until I could do it myself. Learners certainly need humility, but how vital also is humility on the teacher’s part.

I had a similar vital learning experience associated with a necktie. I use the same knot I have used since progressing from pre-tied neckties with elastic around the neck and press-studded bow ties and I wondered about the curious warm and secure feeling that I get when tying my tie. It was only then I remembered who taught me that knot – my brother, older than me by twelve years. Although we engaged in the routine same sex sibling animosity to be expected of brothers, there were times when he treated me with warmth and encouragement. In fact, on reflection, it was usually when I was at my most vulnerable. I believe we attacked each other more when we were both strong.

I was eleven years old going to my first formal dance and he taught me slowly and patiently how to form the knot until I had mastered the skill. It was a sophisticated knot in my book, a ‘Windsor’, so having acquired the skill I also assumed some of his maturity.  Each time I put on a tie I now think of my big brother’s care and attention. Good teachers need to be good role models.

Not all of my primary education was easy going. But from good teachers I learned much, from less good teachers I learned even more. My favourite teacher, Mrs Barratt, was warm, amiable, encouraging and wise. On one occasion while the class were quietly engaged in sets of individual tasks she called me to the front and gently whispered: “Don’t look down, just go out into the corridor and fasten your flies.” The temptation to doubly check was strong but I resisted – went out into the corridor and fastened up. But one of our only two male teachers in primary school made a series of errors that have stayed with me just as long. His first was to attempt to identify a transgressor of public decency. It appears that a member of our school had smeared faeces on the toilet walls. In pursuit of the offender he called the whole school together in assembly and engaged in a lengthy peroration about how the person who did this ‘had a problem’ and was ‘clearly in need of help’, but then he followed up with how the ‘criminal investigation’ would proceed and that, eventually, the offender would be ‘caught’ – hardly sensitive, helpful or productive. The interesting thing was that he persisted with the collective accusation for so long that I realised what it must be like to be intimidated into false confession. I along with probably most of the room was moved to wonder if I could have possibly done it and had lost all memory of it.

My own valued early learning experiences contrast with those of my wife, Carol. Although apparently confident and accomplished she doubts her abilities, is reluctant to speak in public, and keeps most of her good ideas to herself. She has acquired some worthwhile educational qualifications but counts her road to formal learning as a struggle.

Her learning blocks started after an incident of emotional abuse by a teacher when she had just started secondary school aged 11. Her class had been tasked with a homework essay about a summer’s day. Full of joy and wonder, she let herself go and wrote through the evening. When the teacher called her to the front of the class she genuinely thought it was to be praised for her creative writing. Instead she was reviled in front of the class with the teacher’s accusation that she could not possibly be the author of the piece. It suggested far too extensive a vocabulary for someone of her age. In the teacher’s view her parents must have written it since she could not have possibly have thought to use a word like ‘azure’.  She was reproved and publicly vilified on the strength of a dogmatic assumption that the teacher refused to allow challenged. The humiliation of that incident damaged her view of formal learning for the rest of her life.

The teacher’s prejudice was the more laughable given that Carol always had to correct the spelling of her parents’ sick notes to the school before they could be submitted. She was an avid reader of the few books in her household but does not know where she learned the word ‘azure’, and her parents would have been just as puzzled by her knowledge as the teacher was. In fact, her father once said to her in later life: “Carol, what is it about you…and books?” All she sought was encouragement, and I don’t think that she was an untypical young learner in that desire. In fact I doubt that such experiences are that uncommon with many people who only come to learning ‘again’, later in life, as Carol did. All too often poor learning experiences take years to overcome and the teacher’s role is crucial in mediating the lesson.

She never told her parents about the incident. Perhaps because, irrationally but understandably, she was ashamed – indeed she had been ‘shamed’. Perhaps also she felt they could do little about it or that they had enough problems of their own just managing economically that they would not treat it quite so seriously as she did. As a more ‘mature’ student things did not get much better for her. Quietly, and privately as a vulnerable learner, Carol had spent her leisure time drawing, instead of writing, for obvious reasons. Once again her creative talent flowered in my view. Any spare moment was taken up with pencil and paper. She produced some good and some bad work but, most importantly, she enjoyed the process, the feel of pencil on paper. Making the marks, steering towards recognition of an image. So I encouraged her to attend an evening art class. She lasted one session.

The tutor had assigned the class a still life exercise – a wine bottle to draw. Steadily critiquing each student’s product, he came to Carol’s and just made a series of negative and (in his view) ‘witty’ remarks at her expense; concluding with the idea that her wine bottle looked more like a milk bottle. He offered no guidance as to what might have ‘gone wrong’ nor how to amend the errors – instead he turned to perform to the class for their laughter and admiration of his wit. He was an artist manqué and clearly appeared not to enjoy having to teach since artists rarely make money from their own art. So he relished his time on the podium. But he humiliated a novice to enhance his own neglected esteem.

For many institutionalised and self-promoting reasons, formal education has a nasty habit of stifling creativity in just these kinds of ways. I know there are enhanced concerns about plagiarism these days as a consequence of Internet access. But educators need to hold a mirror up to the learner’s imagination – whether child or more mature adult. The child naturally has energy, enthusiasm, creativity and spirit. Many adults can rediscover it on re-entering learning. It is the educator’s responsibility to make sure those qualities are rewarded, enhanced and encouraged. Sometimes we might have to take a chance that the ideas are not the learner’s own – but it is unlikely, especially for younger children, that they won’t be and it is worth taking the chance, given the lifelong damage that can be done to even one person with the emergent potential to lead a confident, creative life which might even add to the lives of others. The best modelling in learning has to include enthusiasm for the lesson and a lack of self-regarding that puts the learner first. Carol relives that humiliation every time she sees or hears the word ‘azure’ – fortunately not often used these days.

In the interests of justice I have to admit to one of my own flaws as an educator. In order to help develop the sports facilities at one college I taught at, I acquired a squash coaching certificate, set up classes and weekend workshops. I was running a coaching session one evening when some of my ‘academic’ students were quietly observing from the balcony. As I came off court one of them complimented me on my skills and then said something that subsequently informed my teaching for many years: “You know, when you are coaching you offer constant praise when your student is doing the right thing, and say nothing negative when they get it wrong. When you mark our essays you comment critically when we get things wrong, but never write anything when we are getting it right.” I was stunned. What he said was entirely accurate and, of course, it had grown from my own treatment at the hands of my supervisors since undergraduate days. I did get ‘ticks’ in the column for ‘acceptable’ phrases – but no comment. However if my tutors disagreed with any comment or analysis they added copious notes in red alongside my endeavours. I learned from then on to write things like: “Well expressed” “Good paragraph” and “Excellent summary” in the margins of my students’ work.

Ironically, it was some fifty years after my first ‘shoelace learning’ that I started to have a problem again. My PhD supervisor noticed that I continually interrupted conversations by the need to re-tie a shoelace. And he was aware my shoelaces were untied when I hadn’t noticed myself. I don’t believe that I had lost the skills learned at five years old, rather the materials used for laces had changed. He taught me an orienteering knot which prevented the laces from loosening, and which, not incidentally, was easy to release when necessary. He also reminded me of the special qualities of a teacher of shoelace-tying since he taught me with patience, humility and made no attempt to make fun of my apparent incompetence. It goes to show that even after teaching for over 35 years it was still possible to learn something new.

So I now have a few key questions to discover the abilities of educators and learners in future: How do you recognise someone who needs to learn, say, how to tie their shoelaces? Do you provide the ‘lesson’ without fuss… without drawing attention to their deficiency …without needing anything yourself in return? These are questions that could be asked about any learning task. My PhD was about effective learning. Learning can never be more effective than when delivered with care, concern and a genuine interest in the learner’s ‘added value’ from the lesson.

Educators need to remain mindful of the lessons learned when they were learning and of the demeanour and ‘gifts’ of their teachers. The gift in such a case is more than the educator’s knowledge or insight into the execution of a task; it is the value they place upon the learner and the learning process. Such valuing is what confers the humility. It puts the lesson and the learner above the educator’s ego.

So how should teachers behave to get the best from their students? Certainly they need less self-obsession, more consideration for where the student is in the process, to avoid negative comments as much as possible, and ensure positive remarks when helpful and deserved.

I doubt the little girl who showed me how to tie my shoelaces remembers teaching me. It was done innocently and incidentally – without personal gain and without the slightest suggestion of any deficiency in me for not possessing that vital skill. She would probably be astounded now that I have never forgotten what she taught me then. Anyway my shoelaces never untie themselves any more. I try to ensure that each new thing I teach is taught with a concern for how the learner can make use of this information and from the perspective of my own remembering what it was like not to know something – no matter how simple or trivial.

It is important for teachers to remember who taught them well, and how they did it – as well as who they did not learn from and why not – modelling on their best teachers. Teachers are in a privileged position of power. They can all too easily humiliate their learners if they choose to. But just because they can does not mean they should. I was fortunate to learn, all those years ago, the qualities of a both a good teacher and a good learner – humility and conscious focussed attention to the learner’s needs. Indeed I now wish I had been a better learner on the many occasions when I wasn’t quite such a good teacher.

You might like to try the activity IALAC on p34 of our book Values and Visions: Engaging Students, Refreshing Teachers or downloadable for $1 from https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Values-And-Visions

by Dr Ron Iphofen FAcSS

By Comments off February 27, 2022