Friday, March 6, 2009

Teaching Them to Be Students

Music teachers are not often philosophers. Yet, at a staff meeting yesterday, where the faculty talked about a new curriculum for "freshman seminar," a high school course required of freshman to teach them basic academic skills, a music teacher responded to a question posed to us: What do you think all freshman should be taught?" Her reply got to the core of what was on many of our minds: "we need to teach them how to be students before we can TEACH them anything." She commented that before she can teach a student how to play the oboe, they must be taught how to learn, take and use guidance, attempt success, and not give up if they stumble. These are things that, sadly, many students do not come to high school knowing.

This is an often neglected and integral piece of the educative process: in order that students can learn, they must learn to be students first. In an age where we tell students many grand stories extolling the virtues of challenging authority - from the American founders to Galileo - we neglect to teach them the value of authority and the wisdom to know how and when to accept it.

We live, quite justly, in a classless system, where anyone from anywhere has the civic freedom to move up or down in the world based on their own efforts and a pinch of luck. Because of this, I think, we are inherently distrustful of words like 'authority,' 'wisdom,' and to the ideas that come with them. To accept instruction from those who know better than we hints at the idea that some are "better" than others and that the learner must bow to the teacher.

But just like skepticism in matters of science, while sometimes good, can be taken to the extreme, so can the idea that authority should be rebelled against. In order to learn, students must at some point accept the fact that they do not know all they need to know and must become willing (even grudgingly) to receive information from those in a position of authority.

This is what I think the music teacher means by saying that students must learn to be students before they learn anything. We must teach them the wisdom to know when to challenge authority and when to accept that authority may have something to teach them. They must learn when to have an ego and when to pack it away for the sake of their betterment. They must learn that while "doing their own thing" can be good, they must also do things that are not of their own design or choosing, but are things that BOTH things can benefit them. (One without the other becomes detrimental to well-being.)

These are some of the things students are not coming to us with. Sometimes, it is as if they come to us convinced that they inhabit a universe of one. We, as teachers, must take as our first mission to widen their universe.

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