Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Tao of Teaching

    By Greta Nagel

    New York: Penguin Books, 1994. 234 pp. $10.95 (paper).

    In The Tao of Teaching, Greta Nagel applies Eastern philosophy to the classroom, joining the mini-glut of Tao-inspired writings to hit the publishing market in recent years. Taoist principles are difficult to summarize, given their esoteric and seemingly contradictory nature. The Tao, or "Way," has ostensibly evolved from the sixth century B.C. writings of Lao-tsu, as Nagel explains in the introduction. She doesn't delve into the complexities of Taoism, but gives enough background to make it comprehensible for the reader. Her mission is to combine a popular understanding of Taoism with classroom exemplars.

    Polarities are represented in Taoism as yin and yang. In her introduction, Nagel states that "truly good teaching [is] an interactive combination of evocative (leading out) and narrative (telling) practices, not just one or the other" (p. 2). Hence, the author demonstrates the influence Taoist reflections have on her educational philosophy. The book is laid out as follows: each of the very short 81 chapters of the Tao of Teaching begins with an excerpt from the Tao Te Ching, followed by a brief explanation and a segue into an explicit educational application. Nagel then gives the reader an example from one of three classrooms she chose as exemplary. The classrooms represent teachers at the primary, middle, and high school levels who have "conformed to the Tao" (p. 3). This structure not only makes this book accessible, it also allows the reader to pick and choose small portions to read as needed or desired. It is not necessary, or even advised, to read The Tao of Teaching cover to cover. Within the text there is no formula for what works, only inspiration by example.

    For example, chapter 35 starts with the excerpt "The Way has its own rhythm; use it" (p. 108). Nagel follows with a brief statement on the value of becoming lost in one's work. The classroom vignette that follows describes an elementary school teacher who encourages her students to become engaged in long-term projects, such as "writ[ing] a story that is six feet long and takes three days to write"(p. 109). The message here is that lessons do not need to last precisely forty-five minutes on one day. Students who sustain projects over extended periods of time are apt to perform better and learn more, according to the author.

    "Be gentle to gain authority" introduces chapter 72. Nagel comments, "Wise teachers realize that under light pressure . . . students will be less likely to weary of the burden of learning new ideas" (p. 205). Light pressure includes light homework loads, as the author implores teachers to be cognizant of students' busy after-school hours. The author returns to the same elementary teacher's classroom as in chapter 35, where students are motivated and autonomous, and they don't do homework. Since they don't have "hours and hours of homework" (p. 205), these students fill their after-school lives with writing, drawing, and visiting different places, which they share with their teacher and classmates. Other examples of thought-provoking quotes include, "Control input to the senses; avoid confusion and respond to inner depth" (p. 43), "Use few words" (p. 71), "Seek simplicity and honor what is known" (p. 113) and "Tranquility is more important than perfection" (p. 133).

    Each chapter offers teachers, administrators, and parents an opportunity for inspiration and an opportunity to reflect on one's work and mission in education. As with the Tao Te Ching itself, there is no recipe or step-by-step path to becoming a better teacher. Nagel implores us to embrace Taoism in the classroom, and in so doing, to "respect lofty virtue, deep sincerity, a love of stillness, devotion to a worthy teacher, and wide learning" (p. 6). C.W.
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