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Technical challenges: Barriers to Learning

This semester I spend time reflecting particularly on music learning and constructing a curriculum from the point of view of the teacher. BUT the learning challenges and barriers to learning are often the same across disciplines, so if you are not a musician, but a computer scientist, or a writer, or something completely different – I do think this will still hold relevance for you.

This week in specific I asked my students to dissect the topic of technical challenges, and that means I do it too. It struck me that there are two very distinct sides to the challenges in learning and they are perhaps not equal, but definitely intertwined and inseparable.

When learning, practicing – as we call it in music, there are barriers. One of the first barriers is access. Yes, the basic access of being able to learn about that thing and get the appropriate equipment and tuition, and that is a HUGE topic that I will not address now. The access I’m talking about is after all that – so you have the equipment and the teacher lined up, you are in the class, and now what? Let me draw you a picture to show how different it can be for different people. If you are studying the piano (and you have a piano in your house) it is there. You do not need to do anything more to access it. Saying that, you can only play it in the place where it is, and that can be tricky, but it is all ready to go. You sit down and play. If I play the cello, (and this principle holds true for many instruments and other disciplines too) I need to get the case and take it to the room where I will play it, open it, take out the instrument, set it up – tighten the bow, pull out the spike (endpin), and tune it. That is a big faff if I am 8 or 9 and especially if I don’t have help. I might not know how to tune it yet. Sometimes the act of having to set up whatever it is can be a deterrent and the mental side of learning and being motivated is a big consideration.

On the positive side, it can also become a time where you can focus. It can be the beginning of a ritual that sets up your mind and the space around you to devote the next few minutes or hours to learning. That is where I want to be, in mindful preparation. That releases the activity completely from being a chore.

5285929597_4c1c64cd3a_zHaving overcome the setting-up deterrent, we then have the problem of applying the skills and techniques. This could seem simple, but it requires a level of metacognition. Thinking about thinking. Dissecting. Analysing. Understanding what needs to be done and having the clarity to see (and then follow) a productive path to develop that passage of music or technique. What are you learning? Is it about sound? Is it about physical motion? Is it about dexterity? Do you understand how the muscles work together to allow the body to achieve what the mind’s ear perceives? (image CC BY by Ano Lobb)

This learning thing is more than just repetition or playing from the beginning to the end. (or even playing from the end to the beginning, although that can be useful too)

Whatever you do – music, writing, creating, refining, inventing, organising – I challenge you to understand and analyse some of the fundamental building blocks for your specialism. In metaphorical terms, we each need to create our own vehicle, but common to all of them they will have fundamental structures and components. As a teacher it is so important to understand those in many different lights, so all of the different learners we come across can have the best chance of connecting and being driven to develop their learning.

Tools, Inspiration, Encouragement, Application, Recognition.

The learner is the only one who can learn. Nobody can do it for them, for you, or for me, but teachers can guide, explain, inspire, encourage, and help those learners to see progress and achievement. I reflect on my own learning so I can better prepare both to learn and to teach. Some questions to think on:

  • How do you learn and what are the barriers to learning in your specialism?
  • Can you explain the fundamentals?
  • Can you pinpoint symptomatic difficulties associated with learning?
  • Can you see the path to tackle new things?

Remember – Tools, Inspiration, Encouragement, Application, Recognition.


Image CC BY-NC by Fred Dunn

Featured image CC BY by woodleywonderworks

2 thoughts on “Technical challenges: Barriers to Learning”

  1. I can’t stand the fact there are no comments, Laura. By the way, where are the students posting their responses?

    So I want to leave you a very short thought even though my brain is exploding (your piece here: got me thinking about how we use music to unlock kids’ moods and tones, how we have kids respond and free write to the same photos but have them do it twice with two different pieces playing in the room, how David Ludwig (American composer) and I and jointly taught kids to write — me working with music teachers and he working with writers — and together we gave them seeds for story and emotion and then played one of his pieces and had them write for the length of the piece, as fast as they could…) And so, that’s my answer to the first question. The barriers are ourselves — the I can’t, I don’t know how, I don’t understand which really comes down to I’m not listening with clear ears, too many thoughts are crowding out my being in the present to hear what I should be hearing and to come into synch with my brain. Am I focused? If I am focused and in synch and listening then I can begin to learn, express what I am thinking, what I have learned, what I want to say.

    Does that make sense? Or is it to stream-of-consciousness?

    Barriers to writing: Our conscious. Our lack of knowledge. Our lack of confidence. Our lack of energy, interest in our idea. Our lack of a focused idea.

    Ways around those barriers: Peruvian Worry Dolls — assign them each the distracting thoughts, doubts, un-related tasks. Research — Interview, search, read, find out more and more and more about what you want to write about — the period, the character, the problem, the setting, the story. Focus, enthusiasm, curiosity breeds confidence — its confidence about the idea not necessarily personal confidence, the confidence to say, I CAN do this. Focus — creating a road map — different for each writer — and thus waiting longer than you think you should wait before starting and then MAKING SURE you have the time, sufficient water and food, peace to do it (reverse time manage; how much time do you actually NEED to get your piece, once ready, onto the paper/screen?


    1. It makes complete sense. I have been looking at your comment for a day now thinking. Hard questions first:

      The comments? Well, sometimes there are and often they are not yet… see, everything I do here is extra. Nobody has to engage, it’s not assessed, not even part of the formal class, but extra. For me learning has no walls and there is no divide between ‘has to’ and ‘extra’ – it’s more about how much I can do before either my brain fills up or I need a rest. So the student comments? Often they are invisible. The good thing is I know they are engaging, but not always the way I design. Some have their own blogs that they keep private, some have made public blogs, others don’t at all. In one of the first comments you wrote to me, you said that with the YWP you had worked to connect via their media and it hadn’t worked (yet)… It’s the same here but in reverse. I get students for 12 weeks in this class, and they (technically) don’t sign up for anything online. Sometimes it clicks, and other times it clicks later – that the skills, reflection, thinking are all relevant and useful even though they aren’t ‘part of the grade’. Back to the medium – they ALL talk to me about the content… and I suppose I could make this required, but then the learning wouldn’t be something that came from them – and that’s the best bit.

      On to barriers, yes, 100% it is us. We are our own barriers. That was my PhD, my book, my me-search (research) – all on how to un-peel the barriers because often they are imposed or perceived by us – just as you say. I love the idea of both the flow of writing while the music unfolds, and the idea of the 7 min flow of writing (that was drawn from your posts about #digiwrimo and the comments on writing in general 🙂 ) and I am so thankful that at least WORDS are a sort of default that people are at least a bit comfortable with – the challenge comes when I ask them to combine mediums, or cross them, and wtite about music. That’s an unknown, and throws up all sorts of warning lights and danger signs. But why? …the self.

      The moral of the story is to keep going. When I started my blog I wrote to a very experienced music writer who I met via the Connected Courses project (where I first worked with Jonathan – to develop Unit 2 in that project) and that writer said he writes every day, but there are seldom comments. But when there are, they are gold and you know that connection has happened… and not because of a requirement, but because, as you said – the post inspired that person so much they had to write about it. -So it might be another one of my learning ‘things’ that it sits outside the box, but it is an open invitation to come along and see where it leads. And when people do join in – that’s when you have no idea where it can go. I did that with one group, and it was so moving I had to write about it – and it ended up being 74,000 words. That is another story! 🙂
      As always, thank you for taking the time to write and share.

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