Doing Half of the Work: A Meditation

In having a conversation with some teachers around teaching history and the religions that have shaped the cultures of the world, we came to a point where the Tao Te Ching was mentioned.  I have read it three or four times at various points in my life, and at each reading found myself feeling a little more at peace with my situation at that time.  I found myself paraphrasing a line from #11 aloud in that conversation, before I realized I was doing it.  I said, "The empty part of the bowl is the one that gives the bowl purpose."  I have never read the Tao in its native tongue, so I have no idea how close I am to the original, but went to look up a translation.  Here is a link.  After speaking this, one of the other teachers in the room was grinning and said, "You think differently from me."  It amused me to hear this.

But here I am thinking about this a week later, and wondering about how this applies to our work in education.  It was prompted by my drive back home after the holiday visit to my in-laws' house.  I passed a car with bumper stickers all over the back.  One read, "Question the Answers."  I'd seen and heard this before, and I'd said it before to students.  But I toyed with the command and when I came up with "Answer the questions." It sounded like a teacher delivering instructions for a task... or a police interrogation.  So then I thought about the two together, as if they were mirror images talking to the other's reverse--a sort of doppelganger through the looking glass.  Answer the questions, and question the answers.

I had tweeted a question a few weeks ago asking if anyone ever used koans in their teaching.  I had a reply from an educator who said that often he found poetry would embrace the paradoxes within life, and he hoped that when students encountered those moments, perhaps they would grow.  I then recalled a riddle my uncle once told me when I was hiking with him.  I was in high school at the time, and had laid to rest his question about one hand clapping, by clapping with one hand.  I was pretty proud of my smart-alec self.  Then he dropped this one on me.  "What does a one-ended stick look like?  But before you answer, remember every stick is one-ended."  I had a few answers, but he merely told me that I had to decide if they were good enough.  He said, he'd never come to an answer he was satisfied with.

I have placed this riddle before my high schoolers, and the first thing they would do is try to google it (which can lead to some interesting interpretations).  But, in the end (no pun intended) it is up to them to determine why their answer is the best one--a process that often requires some prodding.  I have come to an answer that I can question and like even more.  The process of considering this riddle and arriving at answers only to discard them soon after took me several years of sporadic thinking informed by the business of life, which as John Lennon knew, was "what happens to you when you're busy making other plans."

The thing is, that this type of thinking is creative thinking, it is the kind that solves problems, or anticipates problems that could arise.  It also can be very time-consuming, which is a luxury for anyone these days, let alone teachers and students.  This is scientific thinking.  But for any of it to occur there must be space, or emptiness for it to occur within.  And hopefully the questions posed will not only yield answers, but compel us to dwell on the question further, and try to figure out why an answer, any answer is the one that belongs where it is, and how it is.