Friday, August 27, 2010

Following the Questions

During my morning of lectures, I had one of those experiences for which every teacher hopes. At the back of the room, a student raised his hand and asked a question. This question was not one asking for a repetition of previously shared information or if this information was really important in relation to the exam. No, this question could only follow a precursory statement. The student began, "I know we don't have to know this for the test, but I've always wondered…." What a wonderfully challenging opportunity. In that moment, I was faced with the choice to take advantage of a teachable moment and veer away from my planned curriculum or squash the student's inquisitiveness. I answered his question thoroughly and hope that I made it clear to the other students present that my classroom is a place where inquiry is welcome – even when those questions take us slightly away from the planned discussion. In my personal experience, it has been those explorative discussions that have led to some of my greatest learning experiences, exposing me to new areas of learning that I did not realize were available to me.
I have spent much of the day thinking about that simple encounter. What would happen if I followed the questions in every class, regardless of the subject? Think about the implications. When is it better to explain the concept of the slur to the young piano student: when the published curriculum dictates or when the eight-year-old girl points to the musical marking and asks "What is THAT?" By following the questions, we are matching our teaching with the desired learning goals of the student. Aren't the best educational pursuits learner-centered? If students are not the center of our teaching goals, we are missing the point of WHY we teach as well as the importance of knowing WHO we are teaching.
I realize that a curriculum is necessary to guide our teaching. I do not recommend totally abandoning lesson plans. As music professionals, we have a clear understanding of the material we are teaching and must plan the best route to take our students from the "known" to the "unknown." However, in order to insure that our instruction does not become stale and ineffective, take a chance and look for opportunities to follow students down paths of learning that are initiated by their personal inquiries. I believe that both you and your students will find it a rewarding experience and one that has positive and lasting outcomes.