26 August 2013

The long and winding road

"The most important task for a teacher is to make yourself superfluous."


Imagine that you're learning French, only with different teachers. During one of the lessons, teacher #1 talks about French pronunciation. You repeat words until the teacher is reasonably happy, then practice at home. Next lesson, teacher #2 is unhappy because the pronunciation you learnt from teacher #1 is wrong. He shows you the correct pronunciation, you repeat words until he's reasonably happy, then practice at home. Next lesson, teacher #3 is unhappy, too - but about something different altogether: the grammar you've learnt from the two previous teachers. Apparently, it's all wrong, so teacher #3 spends the lesson correcting your mistakes and showing you the correct grammar. You do some sentence exercises until he's reasonably happy… and then the summer holidays start. Come autumn, teacher #4 stops by to talk about essay writing in French, and teacher #1 is revisiting to check on your pronunciation, which is wrong.

This wouldn't go down well in an ordinary school, of course. But in tango, it happens all the time, especially if you live outside Buenos Aires. You might recognise something similar from your own tango life: We have dozens of different visiting teacher couples. Many of them visit only once. The time intervals between each visiting couple are irregular, often long. In between, we go to workshops with local teachers. No one talks about how to practice.

I spent my first years of tango learning like this. I took courses and classes and workshops and pr√°cticas and private lessons, teachers came and left and sometimes came back again, and most of them said that I should change something I had learnt from other teachers - at least that's how I understood it, because after all, I was a beginner. What did I know about tango? My only solution was to practice, because I had learnt in school that if you did your homework, everything would be fine. Only I hadn't actually been told how to practice my tango, and the teacher wasn't there anymore to check up on the homework I'd been doing. Then the next teacher came along, and history repeated itself - or so it seemed. And I was so very frustrated. Months passed, years passed, and I was still looking for the correct way of dancing.

"Aha!!!", you say, "Seems you misunderstood something. There isn't one correct way of dancing. Tango is not about correct or incorrect. It's about letting different teachers show you the different aspects of dancing, so you can choose what's right for you and find your own dance."


The point is that I was simply not used to learn like this. I had "learnt to learn" in shool, a traditional education system, from I was seven. If we compare this system to the way many of us learn to dance tango, we'll find that the differences can be fundamental. A traditional education system often looks like this: it's long-term, there's a pre-set curriculum, there's one teacher per subject. There are lessons at least once a week, there's organised homework in between, and the teacher checks on your homework. Everything is designed so the students can follow a continuum. Even my music education was built up like this.

So naturally, I wanted to learn the way I was used to. I wanted one teacher who worked with one technique and had a well-planned curriculum. I wanted continuum. I wanted a highway, not a bumpy country road with detours and dead-ends. I did get this from one teacher couple, but other couples kept coming along, steering me off my track and into a new direction.

Fast forward a few years, and I'm questioning the traditional education system (i.e. the school system). Not all of it, but one particular thing: the way it teaches us that the curriculum is sacred and that it has huge consequences for us if we reject or replace parts of it. Critical thinking isn't encouraged until you are on a very advanced level. Before this, you dance to the system's tune, the only correct way of dancing. This leaves the beginner missing some tools - tools that I believe to be important no matter how you learn to dance:

- how to put seemingly unconnected modules into a whole
- how to identify and reject the modules you don't need
- how to recognise which modules are missing

Acquiring these tools might demand a lot from us, of course. It demands from the teachers that they ask the right questions instead of just giving the right answers, and that they tolerate being questioned back. It demands from the teachers that they guide the students in how to learn and not just what to learn. It demands from the student that she acccepts not getting the answers served on a silver platter, and that she becomes an active researcher instead of a passive learner.

I'd love to hear if any of you have learned and/or taught tango this way. If so, what are your experiences?
And if you have learned tango in more traditional ways, what does your learning story look like? Did it work for you?