Yesterday I gave a presentation on teaching beginners as part of the Sydney Conservatorium’s annual Piano Teacher Festival. I promised I would blog about this presentation, but there were so many ideas in the 90 minutes of talk that I need to break things into smaller units. So today I begin with Models of Learning.
What I couldn’t show in my presentation, but would have loved to have had as prerequisite viewing, was this clip
But the model of learning/teaching the piano that I really took to task in yesterday’s presentation was the model of information being given to the student via some (optional) explanation which then resulted in a performance. This information-explanation-performance model is the way most of us piano teachers working today (2012) were taught; music (information) was popped onto the music-stand, and with some limited explanations (how to play the ornaments, or heavy pencil markings reminding us to count the rests) we then transformed this information into a performance. The job of the teacher was to control for error, making sure that the final performance was as close to a ‘correct answer’ as possible.
That’s still the way most of us teach.
When it comes to absolute beginners this learning/teaching model ends up supporting lessons where we tell students lots of stuff (‘this is a crotchet’, ‘this is a D’, ‘this is a barline’, ‘lift off when you see a rest’) and the student has to demonstrate that they’ve remembered all this stuff when they play. We end up putting lots of circles around the bits students don’t remember, and hope that these markings will be an extra reminder to remember. Sometimes it takes three or four lessons before beginner students get all the remembering done for one particular piece.
In the presentation yesterday I suggested a different learning/teaching model (one which parents in 2012 are likely to expect from all teachers in any learning context). In this model all learning begins with experience. So the student will have the experience of hearing the teacher play something, seeing the teacher create sounds on the keyboard. The student then explores what they’ve just experienced – going to the keyboard to copy what they’ve heard, to mimic the movements they’ve just seen, and while they are exploring these sounds and movements they will also be having more experiences (what does it feel like? what does this feeling sound like?) and further explorations (what if I play faster? higher? softer?), and these further explorations veer into the territory I called experimenting.
In the experiment phase of the learning process the student is now creating hypotheses such as “I imagine that this will sound more exciting loud than soft” or “I think it would be more interesting to play this higher on the piano” or “I expect people will be scared when I suddenly play something after a long silence” and so on. The student is exploring what is possible and experimenting with the impact these changes and different approaches will make. Sooner or later (and it really is impossible to know how soon or late it might be) the student has something to say. This is now the phase of expressing.
Expressing oneself at the piano involves deliberately doing something that will have a known effect and communicate something more or less consistently to a known audience. This is a vital part of the learning cycle, for until a child/student communicates through their playing they are not really learning to ‘play’ the piano at all, they’re just learning about the piano.
Of course, once a student expresses something the student finds themselves back at the start of the cycle – they are experiencing the music they are playing, the thing being communicated, the sounds being created.
You’ll see how ‘information’ isn’t intentionally part of this process at all. And yet students will have gained oodles of ‘information’ through this process. Even by playing one simple piece or pattern students will have learned about weight needed to make sounds (of varying dynamic levels), differences of register across the keyboard, pitch direction, keyboard geography and patterns in that geography, and so forth. But instead of learning these things through instruction the student learns these things through experience and exploration.
It’s the old saying: “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.”
[Or is it an old saying? It seems terribly current-educational-thinking to me!]
And at the heart of my presentation was this idea that at the heart of teaching is the development of understanding, not the transmission of knowledge.
To be continued…