Teaching vs Learning

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haroldThis toy is one of the key images that gradually came to mind in my early years of teaching to describe the process by which I was going through with my students. (Another was the Blue Paint Problem I wrote about back last winter.)

As a new lecturer, tasked with producing two hours per week of formal lecture material on ‘Beethoven and His Influence’, and an hour a week on ‘Aesthetics’ (between a miscellany of other classes on music analysis, history, study skills for musicians and a smattering of piano lessons) I was very focused on content. That’s a lot of material to prepare when you’re doing everything for the first time.

But as I spent time in tutorials with students helping them with the essays they were working on for the related assignments, it became clear that what they were hearing in the lectures had only a partial and intermittent relationship with what I was saying. Points I thought I had made quite clearly had been completely missed, and points I had thought of as inconsequential passing remarks had been eagerly grasped and mulled upon at length. Likewise, reading the exam papers at the end of the semester was like walking through a hall of mirrors at a fairground – I kind of recognised many things from my lectures, but they came back to me in funny shapes and odd proportions. (I think reading your own students’ exam scripts has to be one of the humbling experiences a teacher can ever have!)

My focus on lecture content was like being focused on the toy’s yellow shapes. Yes, they’re an important part of the game, but you’re not going to get very far if that’s all you look at. As I emerged from the blind panic of just preparing enough to get through the week, I found myself more and more focused on the shapes of the holes. You can persuade people to learn all sorts of unlikely things, but only if you make the effort to coordinate how you are presenting the ideas with ways the student has available to receive them.

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