Cause and Effect, part 2

It has been nagging at me that my previous post remained unfinished. Nagging so much that I came home a little early to have time for a jog. I mentioned earlier that I am a slowpoke. Plus, it was 80 degrees, which is not really relevant – I’m just bragging about the beautiful weather.

At any rate, I decided to see if I could kick up my speed a notch, and do it following my ideas about physical work. In other words, I kept my stride exactly the same size as always, but tried to put in more strides per minute than I am used to. To my astonishment, I completed my run much faster than usual. The astonishment is not that more strides per minute led to a faster pace (I did well in algebra), but that it was relatively easy to keep it up. I think it was because I was not thinking about pushing harder, or working harder, or pumping my legs. It was in a sense value-free: there was no mental freight, just a slightly faster trip from step to step. It was mathematical and not emotional.

As a teacher, it is hard to know what will help a student. I have had success, believe it or not, suggesting “Can you play that again, a little better this time?” Brilliant instruction there. But a tactic that is much more consistently useful as a teaching tool is too ask, after hearing a passage, “On a scale of one to a hundred, where a hundred is the best, how did it go that time?” The answer is usually around forty. I’ll ask the student to try playing it at seventy, or seventy-five. Not ninety or a hundred. Little steps to make things better always work. Big steps feel hard.

It’s interesting to think about how we learn to perform physical activities. Bike riding. You wobble and fall, and try again. Your dad is yelling out advice, normally of the unhelpful variety. Eventually you get it. Imagine trying to explain to someone how to do it: “You use your abdominal muscles to keep yourself upright while using your quads to push the pedals in a circular motion. If you feel yourself leaning to the left, contract the muscles on the right side of your abdomen…” Very helpful, right. Thankfully, just about everyone learning to ride has seen lots of bike riding, and the best method is to plug your ears, ignore the advice, and imitate what you see.

We learn by imitation and by trial and error. A teacher can help us by raising our awareness, directing our attention, suggesting metaphors. I’ve been down plenty of unsuccessful paths on the horn, and I hope to keep my students off those paths. On the other hand, exploring an unsuccessful path can be interesting and even beneficial. Helping my students learn to explore, to think about how they learn, to coordinate their physical selves with their feeling of time, of emotion, of style: these things feel like goals worthy of an academic education. There is a logic to music that is slowly grasped, and there is a logic to the body that comes with equal slowness. Help a student peel back the layers, and you are doing something worth doing. Even if there aren’t that many jobs out there.

 

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1 Response to Cause and Effect, part 2

  1. I love your columns about teaching. The way you think about and convey an activity that is simultaneously intellectual, artistic, and physical. The music part of it is amazing to me, as one who did not get any — not one — of the Grabois/Blau/Spivack music genes. But I also really love the thinking about thinking, and thinking about teaching. Your students are very lucky!

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