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.
Having 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