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The Unteachables

Alexander Technique in Scotland

It is said that when the pupil is ready, the master will appear. That may well be true.

But just because someone appears before you for lessons, that does not make them, in that moment, a ready pupil (any more than it makes you, in that moment, the right teacher).

There is a world of difference between simply ‘being there’ and ‘being ready to learn’. The pupil may easily conflate the two. It becomes the teacher’s role to distinguish between them and, in doing so, perhaps to save all concerned from a considerable waste of effort. My own understanding of this has been greatly influenced by the writing of Carl Rogers. This is, in part, through his distinguishing ‘significant learning’ (“learning which makes a difference”) as being “more than an accumulation of facts”[1]. This matters because facts can (in most circumstances) be taught. ‘Significant learning’ can only be learned. It cannot be taught, but it can be greatly aided through the facilitation of someone in the teaching role.[2] This is something more than how ‘teaching’ is traditionally viewed. It is something more transformational and something less transactional. Being relational, its success requires something more from the pupil than mere presence. A willingness to learn, certainly, but what else?

This essay looks across FM Alexander’s sixty-year teaching career to gather the five criteria he used to judge whether a pupil was truly ready to learn.

1. Not serious enough

FM Alexander’s technique concerned the changing of habits which is an endeavour that requires serious application by the pupil.

As Mark Twain put it, “Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time”.[3] It was as well to know from the outset whether the prospective pupil had the stomach for such careful coaxing. FM therefore required that one of his books was digested before starting lessons. For many, who find his Victorian writing style practically impenetrable, that would now represent a formidable obstacle!

“At his initial interview with a pupil he'd say "I don't want to waste my time, and I don't want to waste your time and money. Read this book. If there is something there that interests you, give me a ring and make an appointment and come and see me again...

if he didn't think the pupil was serious then he wouldn't bother. You see, his time was so precious and he was so busy that he didn't want to waste his energy."[4]

2. Too serious!

Prolonged endeavour requires a certain amount of seriousness. But the outcome can be undermined by taking the process too seriously.

As Patrick Mc Donald put it much more succinctly: “This is all too serious to be taken seriously”[5]

I believe this to be because a critical element of learning, and potentially the most difficult component for adult learning, is play. Play that of itself allows for an openness of outcome rather than sticking with known processes and relying on strictly quantitative measurements.

“FM used to come into the room where we were all waiting for the class, look around at our heavy, serious faces and say ‘Go on, go away. You’re no use to me’. He would make us walk around the square. So, although this work is the most serious thing you can do, you mustn’t take it seriously or heavily”[6]

3. ‘Fish to fry’

Regardless of a person’s demeanour, learning requires a change in thinking. And change is not possible for those who believe they already have the truth.

As FM put it, “If people will go on believing that they “know”, it is impossible to eradicate anything: it makes it impossible to teach them”[7]

What’s more, he expected them to be happy about it: “Don’t come to me unless, when I tell you you are wrong, you make up your mind to smile and be pleased” 5

This requires an openness on the part of the pupil: the absence of an agenda that would interfere with accepting something new. FM again: “People that havn’t any fish to fry[8], they see it all right” 5.

4. ‘Jumpy’ people

While all these criteria can be reflective of the whole self – mind and body – none is more so than the initial calmness that is a prerequisite of the use of reason. As FM put it: “It is absurd to try to teach a person who is in a more or less agitated or even anxious condition. We must have that calm condition which is characteristic of a person whose reasoning processes are operative”.[9] Yet this does not mean that being ‘jumpy’ is without its uses. There is a quote from Elisabeth Walker that “FM said nervous types make the world go round”.[10]

5. Vampires

Lastly, Marjory Barlow discourages us from pupils who might, however unknowingly, sink their teeth into us “… (FM) used to say to us “there are certain types of people – I call them vampires – and you’ve got to be able to spot them and get rid of them otherwise they’ll suck the blood out of you. They won’t do any work.” And it’s true. If you find at the end of the lesson that you’re exhausted instead of being rather stimulated, have a look at that person. You shouldn’t be exhausted. It’s a two-way thing between teachers and pupils. I’ve certainly never forgotten FM’s warning, and it has stood me in good stead over the years”[11]

I have had the advantage of showing an earlier draft with these criteria on social media and the reactions were, as always, instructive. Some teachers were more than reluctant to view anyone as ‘Unteachable’. I am happy to admit that I do not see this as a fixed group of people. After all, none of the five categories constitute mindsets that are, of themselves, permanent. Some teachers opined that, as their experience grew so did the range of people they could teach. I am glad that it should be so. But I would question whether any teacher can really teach everyone. After all, FM himself only took on pupils after an initial interview and once they had committed to reading one of his books and to a course of thirty lessons starting at three lessons a week.[12] These constitute significant hurdles and represent, in my mind, FM’s recognition that ‘significant learning’ cannot be taught: it can only be learned. This is no slander of FM, the Alexander Technique or any teacher of it. Laurens van der Post once asked Jung how many of all the people who came to him had been healed. “He replied that once he had made a rough assessment. He thought that one third of the vast number had not been healed, a third had been partially healed and a third entirely.”[13]

In the UK, the BackCare organisation has, for over fifty years, been supporting those who suffer from back pain. A survey of their members found Alexander Technique to be the most effective of all ‘treatments’ reviewed. Yet, achieving that acclaim required fewer than 40% of respondents to say it had brought about long-term improvement.[14]

Against numbers like these, a claim to be able to teach anyone, or even most people, appears both unlikely and unnecessary.

It is no surprise that the strongest reaction online came from the use of the word ‘vampires’ to describe some pupils. It did not matter that it was used by FM. It did not even matter that it was reused by Marjory Barlow (who I would consider to be uniformly restrained and careful in her choice of words). Some saw it as an unwanted relic of a past century that had no purpose in the light of our own. I was therefore particularly grateful to Carlos Osorio Sordelli for his perspective on the term ‘vampire’: “It is very graphic and self-explanatory. I don't believe any of us would tell a student they are vampires. It is a conversation mostly for us teachers. I remember in my training (IRDEAT/ Mathews School in NYC ), a wonderful teacher from Israel visited us for a couple of days. We all wanted a turn with him and one could feel the will of almost all of us wanting to go next. When I finally got to work with him, (chair work) I was seated and very eager for him to guide me and teach me. All of a sudden, he takes his hands of my neck and says to me: “I can't work with you! You are too eager for me to work on you and teach you”. “What do you mean” I asked? He replied very calm and respectful: “Work on yourself; I work on myself and we work together...Give me some space”. I have never forgotten those ten minutes with him. A great lesson on attitude towards oneself and the technique. I WAS ON VAMPIRE MODE. I wasn't aware of it."[15] I quote this in full, not just because it offers such a telling example of the phenomenon, but more importantly because it reminds me to shine the mirror onto the pupil I should be most concerned with – myself.

[1] Rogers, C. ‘Significant learning: in therapy and in education’ (1958) in Rogers, C. ‘On becoming a person’ (1961) pg 279

[2][2] Rogers, C. ‘Personal thoughts on teaching and learning’ in Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, Vol 3, Summer 1957 pgs 241-243

[3] Twain, M. ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson’ (1894)

[4] Barlow, M. & Carey, S. 'Alexander Technique: the ground rules' (2011) pgs 58-60

[5] McDonald, P. ‘The Alexander Technique as I see it’ (1989) pg 35

[6] Barlow, M. ‘The essence of FM’s teaching. Alexander Memorial Lecture given at the Fircroft College of Adult Education, Birmingham on 8th July 1995’

[7] Alexander F.M. ‘Teaching aphorisms’ from ‘The Alexander Journal’ No 7 (1972) pgs 41-48

[8] “Having fish to fry” is a variation of the more common “other (or bigger) fish to fry” meaning having something else one would prefer to attend to.

[9] Alexander, F.M. ‘ Constructive conscious control of the individual’ (1923) pg 80

[10] Cross, I. personal communication 27 January 2020

[11] Barlow, M. & Carey, S. 'Alexander Technique: the ground rules' (2011) pg 66

[12] Barlow, M. ‘Alexander Technique: the ground rules' Marjory Barlow in conversation with Sean Carey. pgs 58

[13] Van der Post, L. ‘Jung and the story of our time’ (1976) pg 132


[15] Sordelli, C. O. personal communication 28 January 2020

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