onsdag 29. september 2021

Online teaching

This article is written for Alexander Technique teachers. 

Teaching Alexander Technique in groups was not an accepted method of teaching some years back. It was said that it was 'not possible' to learn the Alexander Technique in a group setting. Things have moved on from that time. Today there is more openness to the use of different methods of teaching.*

Now we have even gone a step further. Due to the restriction during the Covid-19 pandemic many Alexander Technique teachers have tried out online teaching. This is met with a lot of skepticism from teachers who are inclined to a more traditional approach.

The misconception
The critique against group teaching used to come from the teachers not very well acquainted with this way of teaching. This is as expected, of course. Ironically, this tended to be the same people who would argue that you have to experience an Alexander Technique lesson to understand what the technique is about. This is a misconception. It is perfectly possible to explain in words what the Alexander Technique is. All you need is common sense. What you can't explain is what the consequences of learning the Alexander Technique will be for you personally, and in particular the effect you will experience in a hands-on Alexander lesson.

One reason for the misconception is that the Alexander Technique is equated with using the hands as a teaching method. There is good reason, and tradition, for this as Alexander himself did not make any distinction between the technique and the method of teaching it. It was all his 'work'. I think, however, that we as a profession should make a distinction between the Technique and the methods of teaching it.

The Alexander Technique is what the teacher is thinking, and the way the pupil ultimately is learning to think, not what the teacher is doing with his/her hands, and it is not the feeling experienced by the pupil. The experience from hands-on teaching, despite being valuable, and even invaluable to some degree, does not guarantee the ability to apply the Alexander Technique on your own.

It is somewhat of a paradox that the Alexander Technique, which basically is a mental process, came to be dependent upon a method of teaching based on feeling.

The Technique and the methods of teaching it
If we take as our reference Alexander's story in the chapter 'The evolution of a technique' in The Use of the Self it is clear that the Alexander Technique is about inhibition, direction and making choices. That is what the stutterer and the golfer are to learn in later chapters of the book. Alexander also gives a general description of his method of teaching.
However, as long as the pupil learn to inhibit and direct, it should be irrelevant what method is used to achieve this. You do what is needed according to the person(s) in front of you and their situation, their interests and problems. You use whatever means you deem appropriate, or whichever means that are available to you, and make the best out of it.

Pros and cons
Every method of teaching has its advantages and its limitations. Alexander Technique teaching is no exception. Many Alexander teachers have commented on online teaching during the last year and a half. I'm not going to go into details here, but my general impression is that many of the teachers who have tried online teaching have found it more useful than maybe expected. Many have also of course written about the limitations of the online approach.
What is missing in my opinion in the professional debate about the pros and cons of online teaching is a balanced appraisal from its proponents. After all they are the ones with the most experience and knowledge about teaching online. But they seem to belong to a church were the belief the in the method is without reservations. I don't know if they actually don't reflect on their teaching, or if they are just naive. I don't think it is dishonesty.

Online teaching is here to stay, whether we like it or not, and to ensure the development of the best possible use of this teaching possibility, we, as a profession need to build on facts, not beliefs. Then we need informed input from the teachers with most experience.

Ultimately research is needed on the teaching method, but as not much research exist on traditional teaching either it will take time to build up research based knowledge.

Teacher training
The different teaching methods should be addressed in the training of Alexander Technique teachers. The most important element will always be the use of hands, because that is a skill that you can't learn anywhere else, and not something you really can learn on your own.
Any trained teacher can dabble in online teaching, or in the teaching of groups, without specific training. But why leave it to chance? Why not build on the expertise that has already been built up in the profession?

I had myself a very traditional teacher training. I'm satisfied with the training I had. It was high quality and gave me a good foundation to build on. But during the twenty years or so after finishing, I have several times met with situations where I felt the traditional Alexander Technique training had not given me adequate preparation. I'm thinking in particular about situations where the appropriateness or possibility to use touch is limited, as for instance when teaching children or teaching performers in activity. We did get some relevant experience, so I shouldn't blame my ineptitude solely on my training, but I wish we had more.

I can see several arguments in favour of covering online teaching in the training of teachers. First, it gives experience in applying the technique in relation to being online. An important aspect of training is to apply the technique in our own lives, being online should not be exempt. This also give us the necessary experience to better help our pupils.
Second, it includes training in taking care of oneself in the teaching situation. I don't have much experience from teaching online. But it was really striking to what degree I was forced to attend to my own use. In hands-on teaching, inhibiting and directing is to some degree an automatic process after years of training and teaching. Not so with online teaching where I felt I had to be even more conscious of myself.
Third, it will hone skills that come in useful needed when touch is not possible or not appropriate -  observing the pupil visually, and communicating verbally. This will probably also improve normal hands-on lessons.
Fourth, it gives added opportunity for contact and interaction with our pupils when a normal lesson is not possible. You never know, there could be another pandemic.

Professional debate
I trained to be an Alexander Technique teacher primarily to be able to communicate with my hands, very much as I once trained to be a violinist to be able to communicate through music. Teaching without touching is for me like teaching music without playing. Something is missing.
I would probably never had many lessons, let alone decided to train, if the lessons had been online, or in a group for that matter. Still, I think online lessons have their place.

I'm lucky to be an Alexander Technique teacher living in Norway. Except from a month's time in March-April 2020 we have been able to teach more or less as normal. Of course, there has been less activity, and far between new pupils. I did give some lessons online during lockdown. I had some experience already from teaching one person who lived far away, but this was only a few lessons. I felt it did work OK, and I'm willing to teach online if the situation requires it, but it is not something I'm going to do a lot. I think I'm a much better teacher 'hands-on.'

That I'm not particularly good at it, or that I'm not particularly keen on it, does not, I hope, influence my ability to see both the pros and cons of online teaching. I expect the same from colleagues who do it better than me. That's what is needed if we are going to have a useful professional debate on the issue of online Alexander Technique teaching.

*The May issue of STATnews in 2017 was to a large extent dedicated to material on working with groups.

Related blog articles

Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 1985. The Use of the Self. Victor Gollancz.

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