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Teach Them to Think

Posted on 2011.06.07 at 23:32
Current Music: Language of Silence ~Deuter
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Everything we say or don't say, everything we do or don't do...it is teaching those around us something. We teach on purpose and by default, but we are always teaching just as we are constantly presented with opportunities to learn and grow. The next time I'm asked what I teach I'm going to just be blunt and say "I teach them how to think. I do it through music."

In a curriculum meeting today thinking was the topic of discussion. I don't really understand why this is such a scary or uncomfortable thing to teach; to me it's at the foundation of teaching. Sometimes I think we make things more complicated than it needs to be. What is it that a person truly needs to know? Or let's go back even further: what is the point of education?

You would probably get a lot of ideas like to get a job, to get a better job, to pay your bills, to take care of yourself, to be happy, to be able to deal with problems when they arise, etc. We don't talk about thinking specifically, but it's behind each one of those things we expect a student to get out of education; it is the core of who we are. So then we move into what do the kids really need to know to be able to do these things?

They must be able to count, do simple math, read, write, express themselves intelligently, stay calm to look for a solution, to not give up in the face of adversity, to know themselves, to listen and understand others, to be aware of the world around them, to see the importance in their words and thoughts and actions, and to prioritize their own values and beliefs. Again, this all requires thinking--not just the superficial 2+2=4, but the how does that work and why is that important.

I teach all of that through music. We count beats, they have to add the beats in measures and ties and longer notes to know how long to hold them, or what fraction of a beat it is. We decode in multiple ways and track the notes on the page, internalizing it just like the language we speak. We have to read and write about the music as well as discuss it and the composer and eras. To be taken even half seriously you have to speak and write intelligently which means they learn how to say things to convey what they are truly thinking--and when to wait and collect their thoughts first. If they get frustrated, they have to look for a different approach to solve the issue--a different way to count the rests or another fingering for a particular passage to make it easier. Even when it's tough, even when my time with them is cut short or we're pushed into a hallway for a movie, I teach them to do their best anyway and keep going because they will succeed. They must know their own strengths and weaknesses so they can practice properly and grow--music is a continual assessment of their individual playing as well as the group. They must listen to themselves and others to determine who is right or in tune, but they must do so in a respectful, yet critical, manner and if they or someone else doesn't get it they must explain themselves, ask thoughtful questions, and try to help the rest of the group see or hear what they do. Which of course means they must constantly be aware of what they see on the page, how their body is physically positioned and feels (since they must be relaxed to play), and listening to ensure they are together and in tune. They learn that what they think becomes what they say and that turns into what they do...how they think about the music translates into what they say back to me and that becomes how they train their fingers and muscles to move to make the sounds we call music. And they must make judgements on their own playing and that of others to determine not just what is correct, but what is better...what is calming, exciting, frustrating, boring, etc. Music is something they experience yes, but it is mostly something they create.

I teach them how to think and how to see the world through a musician's eyes, ears, fingers, and heart. All subjects should be taught like this, just through the mathematician's side or the scientist's side, etc. The thing people seem to forget is teaching isn't really about me, it's about the student. It's my job to figure out where he is, how he thinks, and make that connection. Then it is his job to learn. I then become a guide to help him along the way and give direction if he starts to stray too far from the objective. We must let the students experience and fail if they are to succeed. That doesn't mean we leave them high and dry, but we must let them learn. My students know if it's acceptable or not...but I don't always tell them the answer. If I did, they would never learn. Instead I give them another question or guide their activities to help them discover the answer on their own. That is teaching and through their "failures" they learn. Failure isn't bad unless it is the result of laziness, lack of trying, or defiance. We as teachers must be willing to fail also--we must take the risks to get out of our comfort zone and truly teach.

What do students get out of my class? They leave being able to listen critically, seeking understanding of what their senses are telling them, assessing their performances and the performances of others, and are forming their own personal values and beliefs...in the context of music. I relate this to other disciplines for them because that is natural. The problem is the other disciplines are not relating back to me. A connection only half formed will usually not go both ways. By drawing the connections to math, English, science, etc. in my class, students begin pull those areas into their music on instinct...and my class is better because of it. But if their other teacher isn't doing the same, the thinking they have learned in my class isn't carrying over--they only use that in my class because I have showed them how to connect and I have set it as an expectation. They will give us what we demand of them.

So my question to teachers, what are you teaching? Are you teaching them to think or are you teaching them your content? If you focus on teaching them how to think and learn, and do it in the context of your content, the connections back to a class like mine come naturally and are easy. If you are stuck in just teaching your content--which I understand with the tests--you're cutting your nose off to spite your face. I'm not talking about the day you're sick and show up anyway; I'm talking about on a regular basis. It's easy for me to type this yes, but this is at the heart of what drives everything in my classroom and how I write my curriculum. I have bad days too, but if I have something in my curriculum that I can't answer how and why, it's either there for the wrong reasons or I need to spend more time figuring out the how and why it's there. I must keep my focus on the students and what they need to learn--and how they will learn it best. Think outside the box; you're more creative than that. Content and thinking are not two separate tasks, rather they are so intrinsically integrated you must have both to do the content justice. So I'll ask again, What Do You Teach?

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