Every Child can learn

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We live in a society which places value on the concept of the ‘divine spark’ in children. This is shown by the way the phrase “Mozart Effect” is used to describe a child demonstrating skill in an activity, and the combination of the words “child” and “prodigy.” The concept of “giftedness” has been a part of western civilization since the 19th Century and can be traced to Francis Galton, a 19th Century English aristocrat. Galton (1869) tells us that we all have natural limits which may not be exceeded. Once this limit has been reached, an individual should desist, satisfied that they have done what they can, and gracefully admit that they have reached their limits;

Unless he is incurably blinded by self-conceit, he learns precisely of what performance he is capable, and what other enterprises lie beyond his compass…he is no longer tormented into hopeless efforts by the fallacious promptings of overweening vanity…”

(Galton F., 1869, pp. 16)

Modern teachers, coaches and researchers have disproven this theory repeatedly by observing instances of somebody continuing to develop past their limits in all aspects of life. Shinichi Suzuki (1983) had already identified this truth intuitively before much research had taken place.

Instead, from my years of experiences as a music educator working with young children, I have come to a point where I am no longer able to accept the existence of specific natal traits such as musical ability. To have the capacity to develop tone deafness or even to become a wolf – this I believe is precisely the essential character of human beings. (Suzuki S., 2012, pp. 19)

He observed that children are especially quick to adapt, which permits them to push past their boundaries at a faster rate than adults. Suzuki mentions an instance demonstrating the level of adaption a human is capable of; two young Indian girls, who, being discarded from society, happen to be picked up by a she-wolf and consequently bought up as part of the pack.

They had broad, strong shoulders and their legs bent at the crotch, unable to straighten out. To grab hold of things, they used their mouths rather than their hands, and they took food and water in the manner of dogs. (Suzuki S., 2012, pp. 17)

Children are expected to learn to walk, to talk and to engage in cultural norms, all while doubling mass every few years. This adaptivity allows every child, regardless of personal background, to achieve given a structured programme of instruction to guide them and a nurturing environment.

This fact vividly conveys how the world’s children try to live by means of their life forces, and how each and every human being develops. It poignantly counsels us to discard every notion of what we have believed until now to be innate, including our hearts, sensibilities, wisdom, and conduct. (Suzuki S., 2012 pp. 17)

Children will adapt to any environment and therefore deserve one where they can adapt in a positive way which will set them up for a life of cultural enrichment, good conduct and moral living (whatever that means for them). Children will also become a vehicle to transport culture to the generation following them. We need to create conditions conducive to development in areas we value as a society because the benefits of providing universal care for children in this way would be transformative for society.

The statement ‘every child can learn’ recognizes that every child will meet different successes in a given pursuit. Suzuki simply suggests that we should give ourselves more credit as to what we are capable of;

Human civilization up to now is analogous to someone looking at the limp seedlings they have raised and assuming they were genetically weak to begin with, then blithely continuing to cultivate them without attending to the fact that so many of the seedlings are going poorly. Humankind must someday disengage itself from such folly. The sooner everyone realizes this, the better things will be, and the sooner everyone changes the situation, the closer will true happiness be within the reach of humanity.

(Suzuki S., 2012 pp. 142)

I believe not only that every child can learn, but that every person can learn; we are doing ourselves a huge disfavor by subscribing to the concept that ‘you can’t teach a dog new tricks.’ We are all capable of meaningful change and, as somebody who learned the cello later than many others, I believe that we favor personal development in the young when there are, in fact, amazing achievements of personal growth in adults, often at a retirement age. We are biased towards youth, using our advanced age to explain our missed opportunities and sloth. In an age where the New Zealand population can expect to live to over eighty, this is an incalculably destructive excuse for inaction.

 

Two specific ways in which Dr. Suzuki’s ideas are implemented in my teaching.

Repetition

Mindful based repetition is the process of repeating and refining good patterns, and using problem solving to improve each repetition towards a perceived ideal. Through doing so we ingrain habits which will stay with us lifelong and build a robust technique. I have experienced the benefits of repetition in my own practice since bringing focus to it.

I believe that there is a misconception in the education community that we have to ‘shock’ ourselves with new stimuli constantly in order to somehow become more adaptable and versatile. In my experience, I have found this style of learning to be shallow; if we continually change angles, no repetition can be realized and therefore ability will increase at a slower rate. Additionally, a diffuse programme can make the student feel insecure and stressed since they have no idea what the next angle on the problem is going to be.

Quality control is very important if a student has been prescribed repetition in their daily practice. This is why parental involvement in practice is invaluable. If a student is left to their own devices, they will, sooner or later and regardless of maturity, revert into a ‘broken record’ style of repetition where aesthetic judgment and quality control are abandoned. This phenomenon can be heard in any practice area of every music school in the world, often by professional musicians.

The “broken record” is particularly dangerous when we consider the statement ‘every child can learn.’ While practicing like a ‘broken record,’ students are not practicing at the edge of their ability to overcome the challenges on their instrument, rather they are practicing to practice inefficiently. Just as there is a technique to cello playing, there is a technique to practicing which must be mastered to go beyond a certain point in a given field.

Janos Starker discusses the sequential building of technique in An Organized Method of String Playing;

The Contention is that in order to produce music on an instrument one has to learn the available steps as one learns the alphabet; the combinations thereof will provide us with “syllables,” then “words” (phrases), and eventually the ability to play a musical composition will come within reach. Too often gifted instrumentalists learn to jump without the awareness of how to walk.

(Starker & Bekefi, 1961, Foreword by Starker, J)

The above suggests that we need to continually revisit and review the “syllables” of technique and, through mindful repetition, improve these so that “words” can be fluently formed.

To truly benefit from repetition, a student needs to be humble and always be willing to review elements of technique and as a teacher it can very difficult adopting a student who has not been in a constant process of review. They inevitably perceive review as failure and reversion, rather than a meaningful and continual process of renewal. To progress through the books is their primary goal, to gain ability is secondary. When embarking with the Suzuki Method, students will need to reverse these priorities if their efforts are to be successful in the long term.

 

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