Recently, Scott McLeod called attention to Mike Wesch’s post about “anti-teaching,” which stirred up some discussion. The objections in the discussion centered around the term itself: “anti-teaching.” Most seemed to agree with Wesch’s basic ideas, but didn’t like the implications of that label.

Wesch makes his distinction clear, stating:

Teaching is about providing good information. Anti-teaching is about inspiring good questions. Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » a brief philosophy of “anti-teaching”

Before that, Wesch offers a disclaimer:

Disclaimer: Before I go much further in my description of “anti-teaching” I might say that I do not recommend it for everybody, nor do I think anti-teaching is necessarily superior to teaching. Both must co-exist, for together they are greater than the sum of their parts. If you are a “teacher” please do not take offense to my anti-teaching philosophy. All I am attempting to provide is a necessary companion to traditional teaching. (emphasis added) Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » a brief philosophy of “anti-teaching”

Nevertheless, the label seems a bit too much for many to handle. All of this got me thinking about coyote teaching, an approach that I first encountered through my studies of Navajo culture and my time spent working on the reservation. Perhaps it will prove a more helpful label (and possibly more expansive).

Coyote teaching is cousin to the Socratic method, but has broader application and is less focused, ordered, or systematic.

From the Corner of Your Eye

BA_0512_069For any who aren’t familiar, coyote is a trickster figure for many Southwestern cultures. Appropriately, defining what a “trickster figure” is in any compact yet comprehensive way is fairly impossible. Instead, I’ll point to a few characteristics appropriate to this post and reference some other works if you’re interested. 1Suggested reading: Trickster: American Indian Myth – Paul Radin; Trickster Makes This World – Lewis Hyde; Giving Birth to Thunder, ...continue

  • Tricksters live “in between,” answering “yes” and “no” at the same time and sincerely meaning both–thus, they are frustrating figures who offer no real answers, only more questions
  • Tricksters are boundary-breakers and disruptors; they violate laws, morals, and customs; they invite chaos; they are disturbing and unsettling–but this very attribute is also part of their power to create and invent
  • Tricksters are sneaky, greedy thieves–but their persistence is admirable and often leads to new solutions to a problem
  • Tricksters are holy beings–though generally despised by the “respectable” members of the pantheon, they still rank as divine, meaning their methods may be oppositional, but what they do has lasting significance

You Can’t Get There from Here

CorkScrewOne of the most important aspects of coyote teaching is the principle of disruption. If a coyote teacher isn’t disturbing you or making you question your accepted beliefs and methods for doing things, then s/he’s failing. This is one reason why coyote teachers are more concerned with questions than with answers. The hope is that you will become disturbed enough to seek your own answers, and coyotes know the road (i.e. process) is more important than the destination (i.e. answers). After all, wherever you think you’re going might not be there when you arrive. 2I always received very specific directions from traditional Dine` on the reservation, with precise mileage: “go about 1.6 miles ...continue

Disruption is also about chaos. Coyote, whom Radin calls “an inchoate being of undetermined proportions,” exists in and from chaos (or pure potential, if you’re an optimist). The chaos created by disruption allows for new connections, which educators call “learning” and “creativity.” Chaos is hard for most teachers to handle, though, and does require balance (see “Coyote is Dangerous” below).

Finally, disruption is about multiple approaches. In most trickster stories, coyote is seeking food, prestige, or sex. His own incompetence and/or transgressions are often his greatest obstacles, but this doesn’t stop his persistence. If he fails on one approach, he’ll try another. Usually, the more outrageous the approach, the better. 3Howard Gardner has had much to say about multiple approaches to learning in Multiple Intelligences, Creating Minds, The Disciplined Mind, ...continue

Asking Questions & Testing Limits

171-7132The coyote approach to teaching relies heavily, then, on the principle of discomfort. Nothing is more discomforting than difficult, important questions. Coyote teachers either ask or help students to discover such questions, and then push them to seek their own answers … perhaps leaving some crumbs down a few helpful trails, but never providing solutions.

When a student strays into dangerous territory, coyote teachers let them get into trouble and find their own way out (coyotes are not shepherds). When a student slows down or tries to quit, coyote teachers push and compel, using whatever methods are most likely to get a rise out of the student. (Think of Rafiki in The Lion King: “It means you are a baboon … and I am not.”)

The Trickster & Creativity

Frozen Fire / Fuego CongeladoTricksters are understood to be powerful creative forces, and creativity is both necessary and dangerous. It is the trickster figure who brings fire to the people, but also death. The secret to the trickster’s creative ability lies in his ability to disrupt. By disturbing the norm, by introducing chaos, by raising the difficult questions, by seeking outrageous alternate approaches, new understanding can emerge, new connections can be made. In order to do this, though, old methods are sometimes destroyed.

The need for creativity in education is becoming more and more evident–and I don’t exclusively mean “the arts.” Creativity is a component in all learning, in all disciplines. It’s the disruptive, propelling force of evolution and invention. It’s the power and destruction of fire. It’s what is too often missing from the classroom. 4Ken Robinson addresses this in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. I would also recommend Eric Jensen’s writings, ...continue

Coyote is Dangerous

BA_0512_070Having argued in quasi-poetic, coyote fashion for the value of coyote teaching, I would end by paraphrasing Wesch’s disclaimer: we need a variety of approaches to teaching, and coyote teaching ain’t for everyone. Students need shepherds and coyotes. And native cultures will tell you that anyone who follows coyote’s path risks great danger … there’s a price to pay for coyote’s immortal, creative power. Indeed, coyote stories are only told in winter, when the powers have withdrawn into the earth. (It’s a cold February day here, so I think I’m safe.)

I Am Microcosm

As I’ve argued before, it’s about balance. We must build on and develop what we have, but we must also welcome the disruptive and creative powers. Teachers need to lead like shepherds sometimes, but at others need to unsettle … like coyotes.

Students need exposure to both approaches. Luckily, as microcosms of the universe, it is within the capacity of each of us to act as both–for those who need it, playing the shepherd, or–when the time is right and the air is cold–the trickster.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Suggested reading: Trickster: American Indian Myth – Paul Radin; Trickster Makes This World – Lewis Hyde; Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter – Barry Lopez
2. I always received very specific directions from traditional Dine` on the reservation, with precise mileage: “go about 1.6 miles …” they’d tell me. At the end of all the directions, though, I was always told that what I was looking for would “probably be there.” After hearing this from many people my first summer on the reservation, I asked how the directions could be so specific but the place itself labeled “probably.” I was told that, in the Navajo conception, everything is being constantly created second by second, so that by the time I arrived at a given place, it may have ceased to be.
3. Howard Gardner has had much to say about multiple approaches to learning in Multiple IntelligencesCreating MindsThe Disciplined Mind, and Intelligence Reframed.
4. Ken Robinson addresses this in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. I would also recommend Eric Jensen’s writings, particularly Enriching the Brain and Teaching with the Brain in Mind.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Wesley Fryer says:

    Great thoughts and analysis! This is deep and compelling stuff. I posted a few ideas over on my blog too. Thanks for the source citations too. I definitely need to read Ken Robinson’s book. David Warlick was discussing Richard Florida’s books last week in Austin, which also go along the same lines of creativity being essential for those who want to thrive in the 21st century. Great use of images in your post too. I think this post is an examplar in many ways, but most of all because it encourages novel thinking. Thanks.

  • Coyote sounds a lot like the Kitsune (nine tailed fox) of Orient mythology and Loki and his kindred in Norse mythology. I loved the comparisons between the trickster and education. Is there a cultural icon that would represent the “sheperd leading” style of teaching?

  • Gail says:

    One of my students this year referred to his mother as a “no-good trickster.” Turns out he’s quite the trickster himself. Your article made me appreciate my tricksters more… makes me want to let them rise up in their gaseous state instead of trying to convert them to solids and put the lid on.

  • Lovely, challenging piece of writing… I think we’ll start our staff meeting today with this piece.


  • Graham Watt says:

    Interesting and thought-provoking. In British Columbia, Haida myths have the raven as the trickster and Bill Reid has carved many raven
    depictions. As well, Mordecai Richler’s wonderful book Solomon Gursky Was Here uses the Raven as trickster throughout.
    The coyote’s creativity can be seen in a story where cowboys chased a coyote around a clearing until the coyote, exhausted crept into a thick bush. Almost instantly it reappeared at top speed leaving the horses behind, then the same sequence was repeated. Soon the cowboy’s horses were exhausted and they left, and
    eventually two coyotes emerged from the bush and left in that little half trot they have perfected.

  • beau says:

    1) Read thee thePrincipia Discordia, if you haven’t already.

    2) Consider some of Wilson’s faintly more serious work, e.g. Prometheus Rising.

    3) Much of what you say seems “obvious” to me, but I was an early Montessori kid.

    1), 2) and 3) notwithstanding, “Coyote Teaching” is the _bomb_ package for the concept. Excellent work to which I’ll enjoy pointing.

  • Eric says:

    @beau: Thanks for the additional resources and the compliment!

    @ everyone else: I’m pretty sure you won’t see this comment because it’s coming so late, but I realize I never said “thank you” in the comments here for the compliments, contributions, and stories. So thank you!

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