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How to Find a Good Teacher? (A Lesson from Aikido…) September 25, 2011

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Music, Teaching.
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2 comments

About a month ago, my Twitter friend @mwforhr and I were talking about piano teaching. Since I’m a piano teacher and she has a  daughter in music lessons, she asked me what questions she should ask a new piano teacher to find out if they were ideal.

I’m rather embarrassed to realize I never answered…mainly because any question I could think of didn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. And people lacking competency in a given field nonetheless often have an amazing ability to BS their way through such questions (as pretty well any university student knows! :D) Level of education, performing experience, “method”, number of years teaching…none of it seemed to pin down what makes a “good teacher”.

But yesterday ago I had an interesting experience along these lines. Not as a teacher, but as a student – of Aikido. I’m a total beginner, never having studied any martial art or even gymnastics. I’m not even naturally “good” at tasks involving kinesthetic awareness and coordination…which is precisely why I’m taking Aikido. (Well, that, and it’s a great workout – and very satisfying when I “get it”!)

Yesterday was my first class. The local aikido club works on more or less a drop-in basis, and that day I was the only beginner. The others were running through a rather complex series of techniques they needed for a test of some sort. I could see, as I watched the sensei, that each move consisted of a number of steps, and I was sure if I could rehearse each step in isolation I could learn the entire technique. But even at “slow motion” speed the demonstration blurred together too quickly for me to grasp any part of it securely. Should I step forward with my left foot first, or my right, grasp or deflect the attacker’s arm, push or pull them to the mat…it was all very confusing.* The sensei was very patient – but, obviously, he couldn’t be everywhere at once and he had other students to correct.

For one exercise I found myself paired off with another woman – I’ll call her Alex. Alex had been there for several months, and obviously had a rather intuitive grasp of aikido. As I tried both the attacking and defending roles, she delivered various corrections in an increasingly exasperated tone. Finally, she burst out with: “Stop thinking about it! Just let your body feel it and do what’s natural!”

I stopped and looked at Alex. “I’m an analytical person,” I told her, trying not to lose my own cool. This is how I learn. If I can break it down, I can get it. I’m trying to break it down.”

Alex seemed taken aback. “Oh,” she said and blinked. Her expression implied she had not even considered this as a means of learning, that what she was doing had come to her naturally – so intuitively she’d never had to analyze it, even to herself. Over the next few minutes, she tried for my sake…but obviously it was a foreign way of thinking to her.

For a later exercise, I was paired with a different student who we’ll call Terri – friendly, warm and above all, patient. As soon as she saw I was having trouble grasping the technique in question, she started reducing it to individual motions (I didn’t even need to ask). After a few minutes of drill I managed to run the basic version successfully – and it felt wonderful. 🙂

As I walked home I realized: this is what makes a good teacher. The ability to break something complex down into steps that anyone – even a rather klutzy beginner like me – can grasp.

Want to find a good music teacher? First of all, ask for a sample lesson (most teachers will do this at no charge – if they charge, it’s probably a bad sign already.) Don’t take them your most polished piece. Instead, bring in a piece that you have trouble with.

Better yet, make it a piece that reflects your weakest point. Have trouble grasping syncopated rhythms? Bring in a ragtime arrangement. Fast scales? Take a Mozart sonatina marked Presto. If this makes you feel embarrassed, remember, you’re not auditioning for them – you’re auditioning them as a teacher.

Then go to them and ask one very simple question:

“Tell me why this isn’t working.”

They’ll have you play the piece in question and, if they’re a good teacher, right away they’ll start getting you to play some simpler form of it. If it’s fast scales, they might make you play it at half the speed, focusing on your hand position. If rhythms, they’ll make you slowly analyze how a single measure works, then expand that to a line, then (maybe) a page…and when the lesson is over, the problem may not be “solved” in its entirety, but you’ll have made significant progress.

Now, if they’re a bad teacher, one of two things will happen:

(1) They’ll offer some vague, handwaving answer. (My own favourite was a teacher who told me, “You just have to move your hands faster!”) Whatever it is, it’ll make you frustrated and confused without helping you get any better. Bad sign – get out while you can!

or:

(2) They’ll go, “Well, just play it like this…” and sit down and demonstrate. This means they teach mainly by demonstration, and either they don’t really understand what they’re doing, or they understand but can’t transmit that knowledge to you in any other way than by doing it. Which isn’t very helpful either.

The thing is, a good teacher will stand back and let you pick up things intuitively when that works for you. If, say, you find arpeggio technique easy, they won’t give you months of arpeggio etudes. But when the day comes that you run into a brick wall – and even the most “gifted” students WILL have these moments – they’ll be there to patiently help you through it. One brick at a time. 😀

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

* It didn’t help that the sensei insisted that we continually switch sides when running each drill — apparently this is standard aikido practice. It’s meant to ensure that you learn how to do both mirror-image versions of the technique, but it had only the effect of scrambling my brain just when I’d _almost_ gotten it…

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Two Theories of Learning: My Thoughts September 30, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Music, Philosophy, Saving the World, Teaching.
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4 comments

A few days ago I saw this article by Marion Brady on Twitter. Being a teacher (with a strong interest in cognitive/educational psychology) I found the article – entitled “How Ed Reformers Push the Wrong Theory of Learning” – well-written and right in line with my own theories of teaching and learning. (A shame, then, that it probably won’t get the attention it deserves, if what it says about the current educational environment is true.)

Bradley writes:

Theory T [the “conventional wisdom”] says kids come to school with heads mostly empty. As textbooks are read, information transfers from pages to empty heads. As teachers talk, information transfers from teachers’ heads to kids’ heads. When homework and term papers are assigned, kids go to the library or the Internet, find information, and transfer it from reference works or Wikipedia. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the information in their heads piles up…Measuring the success of Theory T learning is easy and precise – just a matter of waiting a few days or weeks after the transfer process has been attempted and asking the kid, “How much do you remember?” No research says how much of what’s recalled at test time remains permanently in memory, nor to what practical use, if any, that information is later put…

…Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by way of Theory T. We learned it on our own as we discovered real-world patterns and relationships – new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge. Let’s call this relating process “Theory R.”

Theory R is why little kids learn so much so rapidly, before traditional schooling overwhelms them with Theory T. Theory R is why Socrates was famous, why project learning, internships and apprenticeships work so well, why the Progressives of a hundred years ago were so adamant about “hands on” work and “learning by doing,” why real dialogue in school is essential, why knowledge of a subject doesn’t necessarily make a teacher effective, why asking good questions is far more important than knowing right answers, why tying national standards to a 19th Century curriculum is stupid, why standardized tests are a cruel, anti-learning, Theory T joke.

Anyone who’s read my previous blog post (or for that matter spent any time ON my blog :D) will probably know that my own teaching consists almost totally of Theory R, with Theory T brought in only when absolutely necessary and then with considerable reluctance. I’m fairly sure that, in most lessons I teach, about 50% of the time is spent asking questions (“If that note is 2 beats long, how long is this note?”), about 45% making requests (“Try playing this bit after me”) and only about 5% issuing statements, like “That note is a G”.

It may, perhaps, seem self-evident that the only way to learn piano is “learning by doing”, that children cannot possibly play music they don’t understand, that asking questions in a lesson is the best way to teach children how to figure out new music at home. And yet, I’ve had, occasionally, considerable resistance thrown up to Theory R methods. More often it’s come from parents who want “quick results” – measurable, testable “progress” to, say, a given method book by a given date.

Understanding doesn’t work that way. Particularly not in music, which is partly a physical, partly mental, partly emotional and even (when playing with others) an interpersonal discipline. It’s the norm, rather than the exception, for a student to quickly master one aspect of music – say, notation – and yet struggle with, for example, the physical aspects of piano technique for years As in my own experience.

Yet I’ve encountered resistance from children as well. Most often it’s from children in the late elementary school age range, who have become so accustomed to “Theory T” methods of teaching and learning that they cannot see any alternative, and yet aren’t old enough to analyze what I am actually trying to do. Their reaction is simply bewilderment, and sometimes annoyance:

Why is my new piano teacher asking me all these questions? Is this some kind of test – will I get a mark? How am I supposed to answer to “get it right”? I don’t remember what that note is, this isn’t fair, it’s been all summer…what does she mean “you can figure it out”, sure I know the note two spaces above it, but how does that help…

Oh.

(One 8-year boy I taught must win the prize, hands down, for an “extreme Theory T” approach. He played a song in his lesson that I’d assigned the week before; the notes were mostly right, but the rhythm was so erratic that it bore no resemblance to the original. I asked him if he’d read the words printed beneath each line of music, since their natural rhythm would have helped him figure it out. He gave me a look of wide-eyed, almost betrayed astonishment. “But you didn’t ASSIGN the words!” he protested.)

…And yet, after the initial shock, there’s this almost ubiquitous sense of relief – that, when they step into the piano studio, they can leave all the arbitrariness and unreasonableness of Theory T learning, and testing, behind them. This is a teacher who asks lots of questions, sure, but who will show them how to get the answers if needed. Better yet, this is a teacher who will answer any question they ask, even if it means leaving the F major scale until next week – and who will give them an answer that really makes sense. This teacher doesn’t expect them to “know” lots of stuff…only be willing to figure it out. Children have a limited vocabulary to analyze or talk about educational methods, but I’m frankly astounded by how many students have told me (in whatever words they can find) that their lessons make sense this year, like they didn’t last year with the old teacher. Something has clicked.

The smallest things can make a difference, too. One student expressed immense relief to me that I “didn’t use red pen to mark his theory questions, like the old teacher.” Of course it had never in a million years occurred to me to do that – every piano teacher keeps a pencil on hand, and when I’d come across an incorrect answer I’d merely circled it with the pencil, handed the book to him and explained why it needed fixing, whereupon he corrected it. But – thinking it over – there is something profoundly disquieting about the urge to mark in red pen (despite its convenience for large group test situations!) The color red suggests stop signs, stoplights, a rigid rule or law that has been broken, with dire consequences. And then pen is indelible. To mark something in red pen (even if you let the student fix it later!) must subconsciously suggest to the child that they got the answer wrong, and it will always be wrong, and even if they fix it a hundred times this wrong score will be forever recorded, set in stone, immutable.

Of course, I have the immense privilege of teaching students in a one-on-one situation, which allows for more flexibility. I cannot imagine how teachers in charge of large classrooms make it through the day, let alone teach (at all!) I can well imagine that it would be hard to, for example, suddenly begin using Socratic methods in a classroom of 30 first-graders. And yet there must be a better method than to furiously cram information into a child’s head, test to ensure that it (or at least a bit of it) “stuck”, and then move on to the next batch. Maybe technology holds a greater potential for interactive, “hands-on” learning? But that’s sheer speculation, and deserves a blog post in and of itself…

In any case, technology has already made certain of one thing. Theory T may never have made all that much sense, but in an time where any fact is a click of the mouse away, it is quite spectacularly pointless. Let’s try something – anything! – else, but surely even a 6-year old child could see that Theory T has become hopelessly redundant in the Internet Era?

…Oh wait. They have. It’s adults who are still catching up.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus