Teaching without teaching: the indirect method of education

November 5, 2016 — 3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I went to a lecture that attracted me through the name that the teacher gave it, he called the lecture “Developing Common Sense.” In this lecture, the teacher – Rik Vermuyten – compared intellect with intelligence. We went over the elements that make up more intellectual thinking and intelligent thinking. We talked about what was the oldest, more developed and more recent way of thinking.

Intuition and instinct were talked of as parts of intelligence or common sense – they work more expansive (‘more Yin’)- while ratio is part of intellectual thinking, and works more restrictive (‘more Yang’).


At most schools the predominant way of education is developing intellect – or what the teacher called uncommon sense – which from being more restrictive, leads to a decline in creativity, growth and development of the student. If the student doesn’t complement his traditional school education with other things.


Freehand drawing exercise, as reproduced in New Methods in Education (1899), through Stephen Ellcock’s excellent facebook page


The teacher used the imagery of intelligence thinking as seeing the unity in reality, while intellectual thinking is about dividing reality – putting it boxes. Both have their uses of course, and without the latter we would not have a scientific method. But he emphasized that if you do not return to seeing the unity – the whole – in things, you give value to the differences (the boxes) – and you take these differences seriously. And that is where it becomes dangerous.

In line of the above, a recent practical read on Gurdjieff’s exercises to develop self-observation and self-remembering compared knowing something with understanding something:

Understanding is defined as the resultant of knowledge ánd being.

When we begin to understand what we did not understand before, there is the chance of change precisely through the understanding.

Man is a self-developing organism which means that man cannot develop under compulsion but only through internal freedom, which is one’s understanding (knowledge + being) that a man can evolve.

And it is this internal freedom element that I feel is what is missing in most teaching. This teaching without telling, that attracted me towards certain people and has intuitively told me to keep away from others.

With this lecture in mind and the experiences I’ve had with my own teachers I started to ask myself a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now: which one of the teachers I’ve met had this ‘common sense?’ And subsequently,

What is a good teacher?

At the moment, I feel writer Henry Miller comes closest to defining the type of teacher who teaches (without realizing he is) teaching when describing an old friend his as a “Living Book”:

Without being in the least aware of it, I was receiving from this man my first real schooling. It was the indirect method of education. As with the ancients, his technique consisted in indicating that “it” was not this, not that. Whatever “it” was, and of course it was the all, he taught me never to approach it head on, never to name or define. The oblique method of art. First and last things. But no first and no last. Always from the center outward. Always the spiral motion: never the straight line, never sharp angles, never the impasse or cul-de-sac.
Yes, Lou Jabobs possesses a wisdom I am only beginning to acquire. He had the faculty of looking upon everything as an open book. He had ceased reading to discover the secrets of life: he read for sheer enjoyment. The essence of all he read had permeated his entire being, had become one with his total experience of life.”There are not more than a dozen basic themes in literature,” he once said to me. But then he quickly added that each man had his own story to tell, and that is was unique. I suspected that he, too, had once endeavored to write. Certainly no one could express himself better or more clearly.
His wisdom, however, was the sort that is not concerned with the imparting of it. Though he knew how to hold his tongue, no man enjoyed conversation more than he. Moreover, he had a way of never closing a subject. He was content to skirmish and reconnoiter, to throw out feelers, to dangle clues, to give hints, to suggest rather than inform. Whether one wished it or not, he compelled his listener to think for himself. I can’t recall ever once receiving advice or instruction from him, yet everything which issued from his mouth constituted advice and instruction … if one knew how to take it!
– Henry Miller, Chapter Living Books in The Books In My Life

What, in your experience, are the qualities of a good teacher?

3 responses to Teaching without teaching: the indirect method of education


    Another great post, thank you! It’s a very interesting question and it is something that I’m thinking about a lot. For now I would say that it depends… on the situation and the purpose of the teaching. Have you read about Tone Saugstads? I was recently introduced to her work and she have some interesting thoughts about this.
    I have certain qualities that I appreciate of a good teacher:
    – that you can get a sense of the personality of the teacher so that they a being themselves – so like a personal “style”
    – that the teacher have the professional material in the bones (not sure that it has the same mening as in Danish) but it basically means that they themselves have worked and studied the material = experience
    – a desire and joy to develop
    – humnanity
    – empathy
    – social and didactic insight
    For now this is what I can think of but I’m sure I will add other qualities at some point..


      Thank you for your comment here Pernille, I have not heard about Tone Saugstads – so I will definitely look at his work. Hope you are good! “In the bones” I like a lot, that resonates well!!! Greets to you and Kasper, Olivier


    Olivier, great article and good question.

    For me, a good teacher (if using the word teacher) is someone who is present in a specific environment for furthering the growth of the student (if using the word student) without setting rules or constraints, but by giving hints and ideas. This teacher knows himself very well and also knows his student very well. Therefore he picks him up where he is and becomes his company, like a travel companion. When the journey ends, the student upgraded to his own teacher. And now, I discard both concepts (teacher and student) and replace them with human beings.

    I found it interesting that you mention Henry Miller. Miller as Bukowski give a brutally honest testimony of life with all its harsh ramifications. Thanks for the book advice. Got it on my list now.

    Best to you

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