The literal meaning of the latin word educare is ‘to draw out’, or as a former teacher of mine defined it, ‘to lead out.’ [I was hopeless at Latin at school, but I’m sure this definition of education is close enough!] There is nothing in the word which suggests that it means attaching information to a pupil in the hope that it sticks – it is much, much deeper than that. This ties in with the music@monkton strapline – enabling every pupil to find their own voice; to find our own voice, we need to make our own enquiry, to come to our own conclusions so that our learning is somehow sewn deeply inside us, so that we not only know how/why, but understand how/why.
It is all too easy to give the answers, and to be pleased to see our pupils grasp these, put them into practice and master them swiftly; we might even confuse that for teaching. In fact, that’s the next E coming up, which is Equip. Musicians need a huge variety of skills, and it is our role as the teacher to equip them with these – but it is the way in which we equip them which we are addressing here. If we simply need to get the job done, then telling is enough. I recall vividly as a child getting very stressed that my dad wouldn’t ‘help’ me with my maths homework which was due in the following morning. I was struggling, and all I wanted was the answers so that it was done! Our view of ‘help’ differed hugely, in that he wanted me to work it out for myself…
In my experience, the best learning comes from asking the right questions. That is, the pupil asking the right questions. A new piano pupil asked me recently “How do I solve this [technical] problem?” I was absolutely delighted at the enquiry, and gave her my immediate response: “Well done, fantastic! That’s the right question.” Our chief weapon is surprise….! (remember that?) She was genuinely surprised, but also intrigued, and immediately began to offer suggestions as to how she might address the problem. Between us we spent the next few minutes investigating a few solutions and their relative merits, and in the end she was delighted to realise that she had answered her own question.
The teacher’s role in the lesson is to guide this process, to lead or draw out the pupil in a way in which they investigate things for themselves. In this way we are teaching them to be enquiring, to have the confidence to look to themselves to find the answers, and to trust their own judgements. Of course they won’t always get this right, so we need to be constantly shaping their thinking to make the right choice each time, until they can ascertain for themselves what the right choice is. For the beginner there might only be one choice (correct hand position, for example) and we need to ensure that they arrive at it; for the advanced pupil there may be many valid answers, and of course in arriving at one of these, they are finding their own voice.
If a pupil constantly has their own questions fired back at them (which I appreciate can sometimes be frustrating!) I find that eventually they stop asking me, and just ask themselves instead, taking themselves through the same questioning process which I would have done to solve the problem. This self-sufficiency is wonderful to see, and above all it gives me enormous confidence that when it comes to practice, they will be able to use their time wisely.
I have always loved practising because I love problem-solving. The student who can’t problem-solve is always going to be up against it when they practise by themselves, because they are unable to make appropriate judgements on their own performance. If a student does not know which questions to ask, they are unlikely to work out how to improve under their own initiative. And if their own practice time in ineffective, they are not going to make much progress outside their lesson time, and they are certainly going to be unenthusiastic about practice because it doesn’t seem to make much difference. The final part of the cycle will be in finding that they are more difficult to engage because they feel inadequate.
All too often children appear to be entirely dependent on the teacher to tell them what they need to be able to play a particular piece. On closer inspection, it is all too easy to discover that they have little idea what they are doing other than following the instructions they were given. They are not to blame for this, but personally I find it immensely frustrating. On the other hand, once a child realises that they can be in the driving seat, progress can be extraordinary. Forgive me for jumping the gun, but that is empowering! Before that, we need a closer look at how with equip our pupils with all that they need to succeed.