Learning from Lessons (Part 2) – Gregg Collins.
My daughter started taking piano lesson right around her fourth birthday, which is much younger than anyone would have considered reasonable when I was a kid. Today, though, it is not uncommon, and this change is largely due to one man: Shin’ichi Suzuki, a Japanese who, rather affectingly, according to Wikipedia, “desired to bring some beauty to the lives of children in his country after the devastation of World War II.” Suzuki arrived at the notion that he could teach four-year-olds to play the violin by reasoning that if they are smart enough to learn language, they are smart enough to learn music. He was right, and he proved it when he stunned the world by producing a corps of pre-school violin virtuosos.
Today, if you take a young child for music training almost anywhere in the world, she will probably be trained through some version of the Suzuki Method. The central tenet of this approach is that kids learn to play by ear. In traditional music lessons, kids start by learning the formal machinery of musical notation along with “music theory–as embodied in learning scales and so on—which is a tedious process that seems far removed from what is attractive about music in the first place. This approach puts an enormous obstacle in front of the learner right at the beginning of her education. It’s no wonder that younger children are generally unable to learn this way—even many older kids who signed up for traditional lessons never got past the theory.
In the Suzuki approach, students learn to play songs that they can enjoy from the start, rather than waiting until they have mastered the written notation. They learn to compare what they play to the way the song sounds on a recording, or their memory of it. In other words, they are put in a position to observe the outcomes of their actions directly, and to learn from this.
There has been a little bit of backlash against the Suzuki approach due to the claim that kids who learn this way may struggle to learn musical notation later on, and so many kids, my daughter included, are now taught through a “modified” Suzuki method in which notion is introduced early even as the student is learning to play songs by ear. This approach starts learners out with an extremely simplified notation that they use as a mnemonic device while playing, and gradually adds complexity to the notation over time. The progression goes something like this:
1. Initially, the student plays with her hand in a fixed position on the piano while looking at a series of numbers telling her which fingers to use in what sequence (1 to 5 corresponding to the numbers on each hand from thumb to pinkie).
2. The numbers are then juxtaposed with whole-note symbols that move up and down on the page vertically to indicate whether the notes in the song are going up or down.
3. Rests, half notes and whole notes are introduced in turn, as the students learn pieces that have different rhythms.
4. The notes begin to appear on a traditional staff, but still with the familiar finger numbers next to them.
5. Numbers are only given for notes at the start of phrases.
6. The numbers go away.
There are two things about this approach that I think are clever. The first is that the notation is made useful. Young students need help remembering the pieces they are meant to play, and the notation provides this. As a result, the student sees the notation as an aid, rather than as something difficult that must be learned. Traditional music lessons, like a lot of old-fashioned education, push students to learn a lot of things in advance of being able to put them to use, and the lesson here is that it is better to wait until the utility is manifest.
The second, related point, which is somewhat more subtle, is that nothing is introduced in the notation that the student has not first learned by ear. For example, the student learns to hear and play half notes before they turn up in the notation, so that when the new notation is introduced, it relates to something they already understand. This seems to make all the difference in comprehension and ability to put theory into practice. It may be the case that, in effect, Self 2 can benefit from some technique, but only when that technique relates directly to something Self 2 has already learned through practice.
When she was younger, my daughter took gymnastics lessons at a training center in southern California that is, strangely enough, one of the best educational institutions I’ve ever seen. (Sadly, we’ve moved away from the area, or she would probably still be taking lessons there.) Some of the reasons why are identical with what I’ve said above: students spend most of their time performing skills, instructors keep discussions of technique to a minimum, and so on, with all of the same beneficial results. But there are a couple of other things about it that I think are worth noting as well.
The first is that in gymnastics, form is a major issue, and the instructor is generally the only one with the expertise on hand to judge form. This means that the instructor has to provide the feedback as well as the coaching, and in general when that is the case there is an enormous risk of mixing the two roles up. For example, if the coach wants to build a child’s confidence, there is a real temptation to tell her she executed a skill well even if she didn’t. What I find really interesting is that the instructors at my daughter’s gymnastics center never do that. Instead, they invariably give the kids straight feedback. That takes a lot of discipline, but the net result is that the kids, who can tell real feedback from fake at a very early age–are extremely motivated by the praise they get, because they know they earned it. To be a sympathetic coach while at the same time providing objective feedback is a serious skill that the instructors in my daughter’s gymnastics program somehow seemed to have gotten exactly right.
My other point is that gymnastics is notable because it consists of complex skills that seem to have an “all or nothing” quality to them. If you attempt a back flip, for example, you’d better complete it, or you risk breaking your neck. This makes it problematic to learn how to do such maneuvers in the first place. It turns out that the instructors have a lot of tricks up their sleeves to allow kids to practice partial or simplified versions of complex skills. These include the use of trampolines, ultra-bouncy floors, foam-rubber-filled pits, reduced-size apparatus, and so on. My personal favorite is their collection of large vinyl-covered foam rubber pillows, with which the instructors are especially ingenious. For example, if you want to learn to do a back somersault, you start by putting your hands over your head and bending backwards over a large, hexagonally shaped pillow, which your instructor rolls slightly at exactly the right moment to help you over. Vygotsky called such devices scaffolding—learning aids that allow students to attempt a skill that is otherwise beyond their ability. I think that is a pretty useful term. A lot of detailed thought that has gone into providing such scaffolding for gymnastics, and that has a lot to do with why that training is so successful. The reason this is so important is that it allows the gymnastics instructors, like the tennis and piano instructors I’ve talked about, to get learners right into performing real skills.
Some of the principles that can be abstracted out of the lessons we looked at are:
1. Be ambitious about what can be learned. Suzuki thought four year olds could play an instrument well. Gallwey thought beginners could hit solid tennis shots in their first lesson. By rejecting conventional wisdom about the limits of what could be done through training, they both made huge advances.
2. Allow students to learn by doing. All of my daughter’s lessons are centered on having the learner practice the skills in question. Everything else that happens, including coaching and presentation of information, is designed to support the learner’s activity.
3. De-emphasize “success” and “failure”. When learners get their egos too involved, they get in their own way. Powerful natural learning mechanisms are thwarted when the learner is obsessed with instant success, or angry about apparent failure. In the old-school sports training that I got as a kid, coaches made success and failure as personal as possible, deriding those who failed and lauding those who succeeded. This approach is hugely destructive to learning.
4. Avoid overloading learners with technique. This distracts them from the fundamental mechanism of learning, which is trial and error.
5. Help learners focus on one or two key feedback areas at a time. When learners can practice with an intense focus on the results that matter, their natural learning mechanisms ensure steady improvement.
6. Deliver simple coaching inputs just when learners are ready to implement them, and not before. This approach guards against overloading learners with technique.
7. Be skeptical of the idea that people have to master “fundamental skills” before moving on. Suzuki realized that the traditional insistence on teaching musical notation before anything else had created a roadblock for learners. By eliminating this roadblock, he revolutionized the training.
8. Break down skills and provide scaffolding for learners. Many important skills are too complex to learn all at once, yet not easy to break into component parts. Overcoming this requires a lot of detailed effort, but the result it worth it.
Out of all this, a general picture of a modern, effective lesson emerges. It is hands on and fast moving, with minimal presentation of information, clever preparation of scaffolding, a deliberate de-emphasize of ego, an intense (but not emotionally loaded) emphasis on observing outcomes, and a central role for highly skilled coaching. This, I think—and hope–is what the future of education looks like.
Is there a common thread that has caused instruction in so many different fields to converge on a similar, highly effective approach? My guess is that it is mostly just the economics of the marketplace. Lessons like these are relatively expensive luxuries—no one has to take them.
Furthermore, as econpomists have observed, many modern parents have, in broad historical terms, lots of money and leisure time but few offspring, which puts them in a position to be obsessive with regard to almost everything about their children’s upbringing. In that situation, the approaches that work, whatever they might be, will rapidly win out in the free market.
So I think that is the bottom line. The approach to education that we are seeing emergent in my daughter’s lessons is what works.