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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000741.txt from 2004/10

From: Joseph Wakeling <>
Subj: Re: [kl] Appealing to the superficial
Date: Mon, 25 Oct 2004 11:21:42 -0400

Adam Michlin wrote:

> Right. And it doesn't matter if they learn to read. It's their life.
> It doesn't matter if they learn to write. It's their life. It doesn't
> matter if they learn math. It's their life.

Right. It *is* their life. And that's something that all teachers,
everywhere, really need to take on board.

Now, of course, you and I, being grown-ups, know that reading, writing,
maths and so on are very useful to know because they open lots of doors
to all sorts of other interesting things, and having doors open in your
life is generally a pretty good thing. But young kids don't necessarily
know this, and just telling them "it'll be good for you in future" isn't
necessarily convincing. They're only really going to learn if they
*want* to, so the task for a teacher is to put them in a position where
they feel a *personal* desire to find out about these things.

The problem is often this desire is created through negative
reinforcement. Not so long ago you had to learn what the teacher gave
you or you got beaten or whipped. (A friend of mine used to get smacked
across her knuckles with a ruler by her piano teacher if she played
wrong notes.) Desiring to learn in order to escape punishment isn't a
very good incentive. The chances are students under such a regime will
just do the minimum necessary to escape punishment, and develop a
lifelong hatred of the educational system. Or worse, they will simply
develop a "stupid" front so the teacher just gives up and doesn't expect
anything of them. These days it's no longer possible to physically
punish students, but the "negative reinforcement" approach still seems
to have quite a bit of currency.

In Keith Johnstone's book "Impro", there's a wonderful description of
starting out as a young teacher in a poor district in London, being
given a class with a large proportion of children who had been written
off as "ineducable"---children 10 years old who couldn't even write out
their own names. One of the first things he noticed was that these
children only appeared stupid when they were being asked to learn. If
they were cleaning out the fish tank (for example) they suddenly
brightened up and looked enthusiastic and interested in what they were
doing. He tried various strategies to try to get these children to
engage, but nothing worked, until one day he took his typewriter into
school and offered to type out the children's thoughts and dreams. They
took to the idea with great enthusiasm---now they had something they
*wanted* to write about. The regular students wrote down things, the
"illiterates" were getting their friends to help them write, and
Johnstone, true to his promise, typed up everything they wrote, *exactly
as they wrote it*---mistakes of spelling and grammar and all. Of course
some of the students noticed the spelling mistakes in the typescript,
and the children all reacted with great passion, demanding that he
correct these things. Now they had found something they wanted to write
about, they were all desperate to write it correctly. He decided to
just let them write every day, and they became so enthusiastic that he
literally had to force them out of the classroom to take breaks---and
apparently by far the most creative material came from the "ineducable"

The point is that Johnstone sought out a goal which the *students*
desired, that could only be achieved through the "teaching" that he
wanted to achieve---i.e. reading and writing. He gave them a positive
reason to learn, or perhaps, more exactly, he put them in a position
where they no longer perceived his actions as "teaching" but rather as
helping them with tools to achieve what they wanted. And because the
goal was *theirs* rather than his they were willing to devote incredible
energy to it.

> School just isn't about making sure everyone likes everything. It is
> about giving them a chance and most of all teaching them.

The problem is that "to teach" is a verb, so we think of it as something
we "do to" people. Whereas actually in my experience most really
successful teaching is about setting up a situation in which a student
comes to (or through) the skills we want to teach through their own
momentum. For example, musically, isn't it interesting how much easier
it becomes to get students to focus on "routine" tasks like practising
scales, if there is a piece of music they like where these things are
obviously and directly useful?

There's a lot of interesting material on this in "Impro", centred around
theatre improvisation and storytelling, but still (I think) pretty
widely applicable. Interestingly enough, one of the first things
Johnstone does in his theatre improvisation classes, is to say to his
students: "If you fail, it's *my* fault, because I'm the one supposed to
know about how to do these things." Likewise if the teacher can't
interest the students in his classes, that is also his fault. Of course
there may be external circumstances that make some students more
difficult than others, but that's the nature of the challenge, just as
for actors there are certain characters (like Hamlet, say) who are much
more difficult to empathise with "from the inside" so as to bring them
to life.

And I think that empathy "from the inside" is surely a key part of
successful teaching. If you want your students to learn something,
really learn something, you have to have some sense of what their own
motivations are, how they perceive themselves in relation to you, and
how they perceive your subject matter in relation to their own hopes and
dreams. It's not good enough to just say "There are some things they
will only appreciate later in life". That sounds to me more like a
catch-all excuse for teaching that doesn't engage properly with the

-- Joe

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