The ‘right’ learning environment – an exemplary example

So, if learning is mostly about setting the stage for the mind and the body to function the way we want them to, to produce a desired result, one of the best examples I can think of where this is implemented with scrupulous attention to detail is the Suzuki Method of learning music.

Suzuki Master Teacher Fine Tuning A Student's Position

The Suzuki Method is based on the Mother Tongue Learning approach. Dr. Shinichi Suzuki’s realization that all babies learn their mother tongue and his inference that the same approach could be applied to music learning is the founding principle of this method. He believed that anyone could learn to play an instrument – a belief that challenged the then popular notion that you had to be born with an innate talent.

I can see why Suzuki teachers lay so much emphasis on the child being nurtured in the right environment, rather than on being the ‘best’ or competing with other students. The focus is on effort and ability, not talent or achievement. Suzuki teachers seldom go overboard with appreciation. Nor do they criticize in a hurtful manner or scold a student for making a mistake while playing.  They are trained to spot and nurture interest and encourage effort at every stage creatively and patiently, not to praise victory (of having learned a piece) or to punish a child for not meeting certain standards.

The other thing that amazes me about this method, at least, to the extent that I have seen in M’s teacher, Ms. Judy, is this: She seems to have an endless bag of tricks to get a distracted child’s attention. There have been times (oh, many many times) when I have been completely frustrated with M’s behavior during her lesson. Ms. Judy is a very loveable person and M has no inhibitions getting comfortable with someone she likes and treating them as family. She also has no problem treating their space – professional or otherwise- as her home. Needless to say, she would do these annoying things. Like go exploring areas of her teacher’s studios where she had no business going or hiding under the pianos and pretending that the teacher couldn’t see her. Or the time, when she almost sipped from the teacher’s beverage glass. I would sit there fuming and fretting and trying to get M to behave with all the politeness I could muster, so as not to subject Ms.Judy to sounds and decibels she probably wasn’t used to. Ms. J., on the other hand would calmly let M do her thing for a couple of minutes, pretend like nothing happened and gently but tactfully steer the conversation towards the piece she was learning in a matter of fact way.  She has done this so many times in so many creative ways that I now know that no matter how hopeless the situation seems to me and no matter how many times M drives me to the edge of irritation where I’m ready to give up on her learning piano, she will come around. Thanks to the teacher and the method that refuses to give up on her.

Others may have shown us the door a long time ago, suggesting that my daughter was too young, too immature or that the piano was just not for her. Not Ms. J. She sees the potential and ability in M and others like her underneath all that distraction and playfulness and knows ways to tap into that potential without making judgements.

There are many lessons to take away from the Suzuki method, not just for students of music, but for parents and educators in general.

The emphasis on learning things the right way from the outset, even if progress seems slow at first, is one of them. The focus is on getting the fundamentals right and not how fast one can move from one piece or stage to the next. The other important lesson is patience and the grace to allow the student the time and space he needs to feel comfortable and in control. Funnily enough, M’s teacher accomplishes far more, in far less time simply by being patient.

Not comparing students, offering meaningful encouragement rather than empty praise, recommending a fix to a problem rather than calling out a child’s flaws and embracing every learning and teaching challenge with humor and humility are some of the other valuable lessons.

If it’s the environment that is most crucial to one’s learning process, then I’m truly fortunate to have found a conducive one.  Every music lesson for M ensures that I come away with a parenting lesson or two as well. Regardless of how far M goes with her piano, I’d like to think we’re both imbibing enduring life lessons.

Now, if only we could implement them more often.

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