The Pedagogies of Earthsea, or Ways to Become a Wizard.

A few weeks ago, my classmates and I voyaged together through Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea for our Modern Fantasy class. This was my very first foray into LeGuin’s world of the Archipelago, and I am still amazed at her smooth storytelling. Through the eyes of the arrogant young Ged, we learn what it means to truly have power over a thing, and how tantalizing that power can be. It is a fantastic story woven with strands of chronicled “history,” dialogue, and lessons from friends and teachers alike.

Ged has many teachers in this story, starting from the very young age of seven when he demonstrates to his hedge-witch aunt his natural proclivity for magic. When his powers outgrow the skills his aunt is able to teach him, he is apprenticed to the Wizard Ogion, who takes a practical but slow approach to the teaching of magic. Frustrated and impatient, Ged chooses then to go to the School of Roke which has the more traditional approach to education that Ged was initially looking for. While each of these different “schools” teach magic in a different way, it is interesting to compare and contrast these approaches throughout the text, and wonder which might have been the more “effective” approach for Ged and perhaps for ourselves.

Thus, I posed the following question to the discussion board:

“Hello friends! I was intrigued by [our professor’s] questions of Ogion and his methods in teaching Ged about magic, the true names of things, and the Equilibrium of Power. I was also interested to listen to his musings about Roke and how they approached teaching, not only Ged but the other students magic. As many of us are teachers … I thought it would be interesting for all of us to discuss how each of Ged’s teachers and educational systems contribute to his ultimate “mastering” of magic. Which pedagogical approach, do you think, was the more effective? Which pedagogical approach might resonate with you if you were a student of magic in Earthsea? Who would you choose to be your teacher, and why? Would you choose the experiential, Socratic quiet with Ogion, or would you respond to the rote learning and theory based discussions in Roke?”

I received a number of responses, all of them critical and thoughtful in their approach. Some of my classmates are teachers, which made the question all the more interesting. We discussed not only Ogion’s silent approach to teaching Ged, but also comparing it with various teachers on Roke who would have a different approach.

Ogion- the Metacognitive Approach

“I don’t think I would respond well to Ogion, though I’d like to say I would. I definitely do better where I’m given more information. I think Ged also needed more than Ogion simply because he never would have learned what he needed to in the state he was in when he first met Ogion. It maybe he would have, but it would have taken him much much longer. It’s said that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. I think that’s definitely true for Ged and we can see that in how quickly he transforms from a prideful boy to a wise wizard.”- M.

“At my school, we’ve been talking quite a bit in the last few months about metacognition and how reflection on the learning process aids students in the long run. When students are struggling with something, or are having a hard time seeing the purpose of an activity, I’ve found spending the time to explain the larger connecting pieces helps them to invest in the activity/unit. Ogion’s approach doesn’t seem to incorporate that. There’s the wizardly stereotype of only giving evasive answers, which likely isn’t very good for student learning. That’s why I don’t think Dumbledore is actually a very good teacher.” -Jens

“When I was listening to Professor Olsen discuss the teaching styles, I immediately thought about Montessori teaching philosophy in comparison to Ogion’s style. Independent, self-directed/discovery. I also found it interesting that Ogion was reflective of the fact that his teaching style may not have been appropriate for Ged to learn the things that he needed to learn.” -Miriam (See quote below for reference)

“How am I to know these things, when you teach me nothing? Since I lived with you I have done nothing, seen nothing—”

“Now you have seen something,” said the mage. “By the door, in the darkness, when I came in.”

Ged was silent. Ogion knelt down and built the fire on the hearth and lit it, for the house was cold. Then, still kneeling, he said in his quiet voice,

“Ged, my young falcon, you are not bound to me or to my service. You did not come to me, but I to you. You are very young to make this choice, but I cannot make it for you. If you wish, I will send you to Roke Island, where all high arts are taught. Any craft you undertake to learn you will learn, for your power is great, greater even than your pride, I hope. I would keep you here with me, for what I have is what you lack, but I will not keep you against your will”.

(LeGuin 24)

The Doorkeeper- The School of Humility

In Earthsea, I think the Master Doorkeeper is probably my favorite. There’s a quiet patience about him that is willing to let the student struggle but without abandoning them. He waits, he watches, he listens, and I don’t get the sense that he’s judging either. He requires that the student explore the riddle/question and the overall goal is only met not simply by producing the right answer (like ticking a box), but by actually getting the meaning/purpose of the activity.” -Jens

“In the end, I believe it changes based on how you define effective.
In terms of amount of learning gained, I would say Roke taught Ged well the content of his toolbox. However, they did not focus on discovering the how, when, or why to apply these tools. They gave basic causality lessons and instructed their pupils on when not to use magic. Roke was a school of “do this” and “do not do this” that covered in essence, the history and mathematics and magic. Ged was not lacking the bits and bobs when he left Roke. However, what Ogion attempted to teach Ged is something that I do not believe can even be encompassed in a lifetime of learning. Ogion was constantly listening and learning and very rarely acting. He was essentially passive (except for the titanic instance of stopping the earthquake). Ogion was teaching the how, when, or why, but I believe, how to determine the how, when, or why of magic for yourself.” -Laurel

Finally, I would like to share thoughts from Sparrow Alden and her fantastic presentation from New England Moot. She discussed her teaching and the lessons that she learned on how to be a great educator through fantasy stories, particularly through Kohlberg’s Framework of Moral Education and Fowler’s Framework of Faith.

“This is the School,” the old man said mildly. “I am the doorkeeper. Enter if you can.”
Ged stepped forward. It seemed to him that he had passed through the doorway: yet he stood outside on the pavement where he had stood before.
Once more he stepped forward, and once more he remained standing outside the door. The doorkeeper, inside, watched him with mild eyes.
Ged was not so much baffled as angry, for this seemed like a further mockery to him. With voice and hand he made the Opening spell which his aunt had taught him long ago; it was the prize among all her stock of spells, and he wove it well now. But it was only a witch’s charm, and the power that held this doorway was not moved at all.
When that failed Ged stood a long while there on the pavement. At last he looked at the old man who waited inside. “I cannot enter,” he said unwillingly, “unless you help me.”
The doorkeeper answered, “Say your name.”
Then again Ged stood still a while; for a man never speaks his own name aloud, until more than his life’s safety is at stake.
“I am Ged,” he said aloud. Stepping forward then he entered the open doorway. Yet it seemed to him that though the light was behind him, a shadow followed him in at his heels.
~ LeGuin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle Series Book 1) (pp. 37-38). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

“And that is Fowler’s earliest stage of Faith development – Trust, Faith in things not seen.””I am here, you are safe, trust that I will take care of you.”

How often do Moms say this to toddlers who are struggling to separate? How often are we asked to believe in something that we cannot physically touch and do not understand? This is a powerful lesson that Ged learns not through direct, didactic instruction, but by being asked to struggle, and then fail.

I sincerely thank all of my classmates who chose to participate in this discussion, and who have elected to share their thoughts to this blog. I hope I have done your comments justice! I would love to continue the discussion, and I ask you, my readers, to continue on Twitter and in the comments of this post. Thank you all, and happy teaching!

Author: Elise TC

Fantasy Literature Scholar and Literacy Educator MA: Teachers College Columbia University and Signum University

2 thoughts on “The Pedagogies of Earthsea, or Ways to Become a Wizard.”

  1. The question lingers long after leaving the classroom 10 years ago but I employed the Socratic way as I find that it allows for open talking between the students and the facilitator. As on the boards the actor transforms as should great teachers, as the content becomes the play and the end result is an indelible discussion which students take home to their respective hearths. Knowledge is power but it should also feel comfortable to the learner. School subjects well taught never frighten those involved.

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