Are you answering the right question?

According to Daniel Kahneman, when posed with a difficult question, we can have a tendency to substitute an easier question and answer that one instead. Without noticing!

questionmarkIf that sounds unlikely, consider the way in which some children tackle their music practice. “I still can’t play this section, so what am I going to do to solve the problem? I know, I’ll practise it slowly (like my teacher has told me to!)” This student might be praised for having a considered approach to his practice, and also for following his teacher’s advice. The trouble is, if as a pianist he has chosen poor fingering which really doesn’t work, no amount of slow practice is going to solve the problem. Sadly, what he has actually done is find a much easier answer to the wrong question.

I have written before on the subject of developing an enquiring mind, which I believe to be vital if our pupils are ultimately to stand on their own two feet as musicians. To practise effectively, students need to learn not only to ask questions, but to ask the right questions, time and time again.

I find it helpful to consider all of the potential decisions into an imaginary flow chart, which might include questions such as:

  • Does this passage need work?
  • Where exactly is it going wrong?
  • What, exactly, is the problem – wrong note, technical issue etc
  • Can I try something different?
  • Does this new method make it better, worse, no difference?
  • Have I fixed the problem now, or do I need to find some more questions?

The point is that just one question – “is it getting better?” – is not enough. The right question is “how do I improve it?” – this question has the potential to generate many more questions and even more answers. And it takes ‘effortful mental activity’  (‘system 2’ thinking) to ask these, and even more of the same to ensure that the correct solutions are pursued. Our pupils need to realise that the decision-making required here is constant, and we need to be modelling this for them constantly too. In short, practice is demanding, but with this degree of purposefulness it can also be extremely rewarding.

We need to teach our pupils to think like this. I often tell my pupils that I consider that my role is to teach them to think, not to play the piano! That’s not strictly true, but actually the ability to think for themselves will be far more helpful to them than just knowing how to play a piece of music. How much do they gain if I, the teacher, am the one who has worked out for them how to solve all of the potential difficulties along the way? Very little I think. Once a student knows how to make constructive decisions which can guide their practice so that it is productive, they will fly –  and not just in their musical studies but in everything, since these skills are of course transferable. And we are being told that Music is not an ‘academic’ subject – how ridiculous.

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