The bed of Procustes

September 29th, 2011

I’ve always been at odds with some of my colleagues over teaching philosophy.

Years ago, one of them even came up to me and told me point-blank, so you’re the guy with the weird ideas.

Well, if you call a flexible approach weird, then I plead guilty.

I believe in a flexible approach to teaching.

The core of my teaching is based on the belief that each student is unique and that we should customize the method to fit the individual rather than fit the student to the method.

One example is that of keeping the right-hand wrist in a straight line.

I’ve never believed in this straight wrist rule in right hand positioning because it’s just plain too rigid and don’t take into account each student’s unique physiology.

I won’t go into the details here because I’ve written about it quite exhaustively over the years.

In one of my last ruminations on the subject, I quoted a story from Osho about a mad king who tried to make everyone fit the length of his guest bed by either stretching them or chopping off their feet.

Well, as it turns out, the story is from Greek mythology about a certain man named Procustes. (Thanks to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and The Bed of Procustes for pointing this out in the latter.)

So the need to enforce rigid ideas and exert absolute control is not such a recent phenomenon after all.

Such heartwarming news.

The thing of course, is that it’s much harder to teach from a flexible standpoint.

You’ll have to make many decisions, you’ll have to possess a multitude of solutions, and you also have to have the creativity to come up with new ones when the need arises.

Because there’s always the unexpected student with unusual needs.

For instance, this semester, for the first time in my teaching career, I came across a student who has a missing tendon in his right hand. This genetic condition prevents him from using his thumb in the ‘normal’ way.

Yes, it’s so much easier to teach the rigid way.

Because all you need is one method, one solution for everyone.

And you apply it across the board, no exceptions, no special considerations. One blanket implementation.

On the surface, it might seem that such a one-size-fits-all approach will have some advantages.

It has a clear structure — you’ll look organized to the student and will appear to know exactly what you’re doing. (The other way will make you appear to be improvising as you teach, without any fixed method.)

And that uniformity of approach, it shows no ‘favoritism’ – everyone gets the same dosage of attention and material.

But to me, the structure and uniformity is just a cover for laziness.

Because you’ve essentially abdicated your teaching duties and deferred them to a ‘higher authority.’

And all you’re doing is dispensing the prescriptions from the higher authority and making sure students follow them faithfully.

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