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Monday, June 13, 2011

Fostering Critical and Creative Thinkers

Frequently in a lesson I will ask a student to play a review piece, passage or exercise with a specific technical issue in mind. I'll say, for example, "play the first line of French Folk Song and notice whether your bow stays on the 'highway.'" Afterward I'll ask for an assessment. Almost always I get one of two monosyllabic replies: "Good" or "Bad" (the latter response always fascinates me because I am very careful in my teaching never to use the word "bad" to describe any aspect of a student's playing).

The terseness of their answers can be frustrating to be sure, but I think it reveals something interesting about their points of view. So much of what kids are expected to learn is presented to them in black and white. It seems like they come to think that every question has right answer and wrong answers. 1 + 1 = 2. 7-3 is not 5. Missippi is spelled M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya. Phnom Penh is not.

I've noticed that students are very often enthusiastic to answer a question if it has one right answer and they are sure what that answer is. On the other hand, when I ask a student for an opinion or a description they hesitate.

From my perspective as a cello teacher, this is a problem. If kids are thinking about their playing in terms of right vs. wrong, once they have learned to play a piece "right," they don't want to work on it anymore. Instead they want to move on to the next thing. I want them, however, to think of learning music as a continuous process, as having infinite rather than finite possibilities.

Many questions in music do in fact have a right answer? "How many beats are there in a whole note if the time signature says 4/4?" "What is Major key with two sharps?" But many more have many possible answers "How do I want to shape this phrase?" "Should I make this crescendo by increasing my bow-speed or adding more weight?" "What can I do to make this piece sound even better?"

If my goal (or one of them) is to help prepare students one day to become their own teachers, then I need them to be critical thinkers. In fact, one of the many benefits of studying music is that it can help kids learn to think critically and analytically. One hears of study after study that demonstrates that adults who have studied music as kids make successful doctors and engineers and CEO's because they are able to approach problems from a variety of angles, and come up with creative solutions.

So how do we help kids to exercise their critical thinking skills?

1. We encourage them to be creative. We ask questions that have several possible answers. We offer problems that have several possible solutions. We invite them to make up stories to go along with the music. We let them play the role of the teacher, and we the student. We explain things in various ways.
2. We show them that there is more than one way to play a piece, or approach a technical challenge. This is one reason that group classes are so beneficial, because students might have to have the flexibility to play something one way in group and another way by themselves. This is also why I believe it's helpful to work with many different teachers in workshops and institutes, etc.
3. We let them hear recordings and live performances of great musicians. A lot. If students know what the possibilities are, they can form opinions about how they themselves would like to sound, and are more motivated to explore and figure out how to produce that sound themselves.
4. We continue to work on review pieces, so that students will understand that there is no such thing as a finished product in music, but we're always looking for ways to improve that way we play something.
5. We allow them to work collaboratively and encourage them to be open to the ideas of their peers.
6. We allow them to try and to err. And more importantly to try again.

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