Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why do you want to learn to play the mandolin?

It was time to learn something new. That was my mindset when I signed up for mandolin lessons at Earful of Fiddle Camp. Even though I have had some musical training (piano and flute), I knew learning to play a stringed instrument was going to be a challenge. So I spent last week swatting mosquitoes and strumming strings, all so I might someday call myself a mandolin player.

Laurel and Michael
of Red Tail Ring
Oh, and as the sign says, we also got to listen to some old time music. On Tuesday, Red Tail Ring taught a workshop on harmony in the afternoon and put on a concert that night. Afterward, I asked Michael (he played the mandolin on a few songs) if he ever gave lessons. He said, "Yes." And then, perhaps noticing my age, he asked, "Why do you want to learn to play the mandolin? What are your goals?"

I responded, "Don't worry, I'm not looking to replace you." He laughed, but I could see that he was serious about knowing my musical aspirations. Perhaps his instructional approach would depend upon what I wanted to accomplish.

"I'm struggling with my fingering."

He asked, "You mean your fingers are tender?"

"They are," I said looking at the blisters on my fingertips, "but I mean creating a clean sound when I play."

He explained that the two were related. Once calluses formed, I'd be able to press on the strings with more commitment. However, we still hadn't addressed the original questions. He tried again, "Who do you want to play with or for?"

Now I got it. "Mostly with my family. My wife and son-in-law are here, too. You know, like around the campfire. Oh, and I'd like to be able to play for my grandson; songs like Puff the Magic Dragon and Itsy-Bitsy Spider." This made sense to him and we made arrangements to connect later in the summer to arrange some lessons.

At the end of the week, campers perform for the rest of the camp, friends, and family in an event called, Earful of Idol. When the group I played with finished our song, I was reminded of my conversation with Michael. I had been miserable most of the day trying to memorize the song. During the performance, I only played about half of the notes, and only half of those at the right time. My "bandmates" picked up the slack and the audience was generous with their applause, but I was ready to quit mandolin. There was no point continuing if I wasn't enjoying it.

That's when Michael's question hit me, "Why do you want to learn to play mandolin?" My purpose for picking up the mandolin was to have fun with my family. It wasn't to perform in front of strangers. Even the best audience couldn't hold a candle to this guy.

Vance wants more cowbell!
Maybe I'll be grateful I played at Earful of Idol someday - maybe not. (I do not subscribe to the "someday, you'll thank me" school of teaching.) At the very least, I gained empathy for students who "quit" math because the effort does not seem worth the experience. Whether it's music or math, learners need to find their own purpose in order to stay engaged in learning.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Who deserves a seat at the table?

From ProCon.or
When it comes to discussions about issues in education, I would like to think I interact with an educated mind. It is important for me to try to understand different points of view without necessarily adopting them, and I hope that everyone engaged in the discussion will do the same. This was tested last week as I interacted with a Canadian mathematician involved in a group interested in influencing education policy in his country (some of the interaction can be seen here).

The exchange came about because one of his colleagues recently published a commentary focusing on improving math scores in Canada. What to Do about Canada's Declining Test Scores offers three recommendations but I was most interested in the first piece of "advice":
As a rule of thumb, teachers should be encouraged to follow an 80/20 rule, favouring direct instructional techniques over discovery-based instructional techniques. 
The rationale provided includes references to multiple studies that support the use of direct instruction. However, the commentary ignores any research that disagrees with the premise that direct instruction is the most effective method of teaching.

In trying to understand the perspective of this group of mathematicians, I got this regarding the use of qualitative research:
This stance reminds me of my brief time in debate during high school, where people disparaged the source rather than addressing the content. I don't like debates like this because they focus on producing winners and losers instead of solutions. Ignoring an entire branch of education research is limiting, especially if you want input into making decisions about education.

Which brings me back to the question, "Who deserves a seat at the table?" I would say everyone does (although, people who engage in antisocial behavior ought to have it pointed out, and if it continues be shown the door). Extending the metaphor a bit, this does not mean that cooks ought to feel obliged to try to meet every guests' suggestion about the meal or its preparation. While some guests may have more expertise than others in cooking, the cooks are the experts on their own kitchen and their own skills. The cooks need to decide what advice to take. Certainly, this might result in some unhappy guests, but it is likely impossible to satisfy everyone given that the table is open to all.

The same goes for teachers. Too many outside "experts" are telling teachers what ought to be going on in their classroom. Whether the experts are saying discovery-based or direct instruction, teachers ought to remember Hattie's (2012) overall findings:
The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers. (p. 14)
Therefore, I encourage teachers and students to think of themselves as researchers - experimenting to determine what is and isn't working to foster learning and why. It should be noted that numbers on a test do not provide enough data to answer these questions.

The Hattie quote comes early in the text. In regards to the remainder of the book, or any other advice related to classroom instruction, I would suggest teachers heed Aristotle - feel free to entertain the research/recommendations of others but do not accept them if they won't improve the teaching and learning in your classroom.