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February 01, 2005

Books That Have Influenced Me

What are you doing?! What are you saying?!

Chris Hunt

There's one story in Zen Flesh ­ Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps, Charles E. Tuttle, 1957) that I keep coming back to. I have yet to fully grasp the meaning, or perhaps I should say, to be content with the meaning that I have grasped.

The story is about the Zen master Mu-nan and his only successor Shoju. According to my interpretation of the story, in ancient times Zen did not suffer from problems of professionalism. No teacher would advertise their teaching or claim to be the heir of a former great. To do so would be to prove that one had no true mastery at all. The true master remained discrete and would only impart knowledge should an opportunity present itself. As death approached Mu-nan so Mu-nan approached Shoju and offered him a book. The book had been passed down from master to master for seven generations.

Shoju was not pleased…

“In my experience books are a feeble excuse for experience. Words on the page are but words unless they enter the imagination.”

This month's Think Tank theme (What ELT books influenced you most as a teacher?) is one that both fascinates me and troubles me. I feel to limit my selection to ELT books is meaningless. The influence of ELT books on me are but grains of sand in a vast ocean. It's true that a grain of sand can cause an oyster to produce a pearl. I am no oyster. However, I can mention the four books that I brought with me when I first came to Japan something over a decade ago.

Before coming to Japan I spent an afternoon in a bookshop in Leeds. I knew very little about teaching English (and how much more I know now is a matter of speculation). What I did know was that I didn't want any books about theory but instead something practical. I was looking for tools. In part I was after a bag of tricks but it was more than this. In my experience books are a feeble excuse for experience. Words on the page are but words unless they enter the imagination. I figured theoretical books would be of little value in helping me make sense of the experience I thought I was letting myself in for. I intended to be in Japan for no more than a year. I wanted to travel light.

The four books I chose were, Games For Language Learning (Andrew Wright, David Betteridge and Michael Buckby, Cambride University Press, 1983), Five-Minute Activities (Penny Ur and Andrew Wright, Cambridge University Press, 1992), Drama Techniques in Language Learning (Alan Maley and Alan Duff, Cambridge University Press, 1982) and Music and Song (Tim Murphey, Oxford University Press, 1992).

I still think that all four are excellent. They've been gathering dust on my shelves for years. I can't remember the last time I referred to any of them.

Did these books influence me? Do they influence me now? Since I can count the number of times I've used a textbook on the fingers of one thumb I guess they surely must have influenced me more than any textbook, but then, I chose the books out of the ones the bookshop had. If I had thought them bad I wouldn't have bought them. So did they influence me or reinforce viewpoints I already had? How does one define what influence really means? Does an individual current in the sea shape the sea or is the current created by the shape of the sea itself?

Perhaps if one reads a book that one would not have read unless it was recommended, lent or given, and acts on it then that book can be called influential. Two books that fulfil these conditions, but broader in scope than ELT, are No Contest, The Case Against Competition (Alfie Kohn, Houghton Mifflin, 1992) and Cooperative Learning (Spencer Kagan, Kagan 1994). The first was given and the second recommended. It was after reading the Alfie Kohn book that I really began to question and remove competition from my practise. The Spencer Kagan book gave me some of the tools to do so, but it also brought me intense frustration.

The friend who first introduced me to the book referred to it as the bible of co-operative learning. I took him at his word. Part of the book includes the following formula:

Structure + Content = Activity

I came besotted with this. I still think the idea is sound ­ in moderation. Spencer Kagan claims that by learning structures teachers become able to create their own activities. A structure is a process without content that can be universally applied. These can be useful but accepting this framework can also be very stifling. For several years I threw away game ideas I had because they were too specific ­ the content was integral to the structure. The ideas are gone now. What a waste.

It's certainly true that if the content can be changed, this gives more flexibility, but it is not essential. I've grown to think that activities that are content specific in general offer richer and deeper experiences and can be more rewarding than the shell-like approach that Spencer Kagan suggests. I now think a mixed approach is best. Influence is not always positive. I think Cooperative Learning is pretty much essential reading for anyone who would like to call themselves a teacher in the modern sense of the word. But don't do as I did and take it as gospel.

Mu-nan told Shoju how valuable the book was ­ a collection of wisdom without price. Shoju replied that he had learnt his craft from Mu-nan without any book and had no need of it. Mu-nan extolled Shoju to take the book, it even contained Mu-nan's own scribbled notes written in the margins. Shoju remained unmoved, save his anger grew.

Can and should the books that have influenced me really be of interest to you? Is not the meaning found in a truly influential book intensely personal? Who has walked a mile in my shoes while wearing my glasses?

The book that has undoubtedly influenced me the most is one by my father. Hopes For Great Happenings: Alternatives In Education and Theatre (Methuen, 1976). As a teenager I attended the launch party in London and read it sitting alone on the train home. I guess it was the first non-fiction book I ever read straight through without stopping. The book resonated with me and still does. My quests to integrate choice and democracy into learning spring from this book. The book is out of print but not impossible to find. But could it influence you if you did? Would you want it to?

I found the recommendations of my fellow panelists inspiring. I think I will add the Eisner book Curtis mentioned to a wish-list right behind the Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto (the whole book is online: here is a link). I may well add Teaching As A Subversive Experience and On Becoming A Person to the front. But to read these books, I guess I will be opening myself up to little that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable. I'll be clearing silt and driftwood from existing channels and making the existing current stronger rather than digging out new channels and creating uncharted waters.

I feel that influence is an ongoing process. Ideas that influence do so only to the extent that we keep recreating them. With this in mind, to know which books are influencing a person, sit at their desk and find out which are within arm's reach. Hopes For Great Happenings is there (or would be if I hadn't lent it to a Christmas visitor). Zen Flesh ­ Zen Bones is never far away (especially after I lent my first copy to someone and never got it back). Adrian Mitchell's Greatest Hits (Bloodaxe 1991) and Bertolt Brecht Poems 1913-1956 (Methuen, 1976) are close by. How Children Fail (John Holt, Penguin 1990) and Summerhill (A.S. Neill, Pelican 1985) are not a stretch. The only ELT book I have that close is Language Hungry by Tim Murphey (Macmillan, 1998). Here's a quote from the preface:

"When you really want to understand, after you read, DO IT. Actions speak louder than words…and are far better teachers."

Mu-nun pushed the book into Shuju's unwanting hands. Shuju accepted the book and immediately cast it into the fire. "What are you doing?!" screamed Mu-nun. "What are you saying?!" screamed Shuju back.

The book was so much ash.

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