The study of didactics is certainly very useful for present and future teachers. But while it is a good thing to have a method for teaching, I have learned that It is not a good idea to allow that method to turn into dogma. I know teachers who have an almost religious attitude towards their chosen method and seldom waver in their implementation of it, the result being that the student must fit the method, not the method fitting the student.
To make a method fit your student, you have to believe in yourself and your student more than in The Method. Young enthusiasts usually start out believing whole-heartedly in a method and its infallibility, however, so how do we make this transition? Experience – that is, experience that we learn from. Books tell us one thing, but experience often tells us another, if we are paying attention. Some teachers never succeed in shifting the balance of their faith from The Method to themselves and their students no matter how much experience they get – they don’t seem to learn from it. They adhere to their ideas, or rather someone else’s, no matter what. One example of this comes to mind: A mother brought me a little girl who had studied with another teacher for two years. The child had wanted to quit entirely but the mother wanted to try another teacher. Why did the child want to quit? She was bored out of her mind after playing on open strings for TWO YEARS, because her teacher believed that “children should never be pushed.” Ever. This little girl was dying to be challenged. She then began practicing hard, went to conservatory, got a college degree in something unrelated, changed her mind, studied the violin abroad, won an audition and now plays in a prestigious opera house orchestra which she loves. And to think she would have quit in service to someone’s useless, even damaging, rigid principles!
I am all for pushing children when they need it. But sometimes we have to recognize that it’s not a good idea. I had an illuminating experience with my younger daughter, Diana, that drove this point home. I decided when she was born that I was going to use the Glenn Doman Method to teach her to read and do math. I read the books and did exactly what Doman said to do. At the age of two Diana could read 52 words, recognize the difference between the card with 73 red dots on it and the one with 75 (she amazed me there – I couldn’t do it!), and could do addition and even multiplication. Things were going swimmingly UNTIL we tried subtraction and division, which she flatly refused to do. I tried everything – reread the books, tried other approaches. Nothing. According to Doman’s book this was impossible. (Those were the days before the Internet, and calling anyone from the Middle East where we were living at the time was out of the question.) I had to give up. This is hard for me to admit because it’s not in my nature as a teacher to ever give up on anyone, but here I had to throw in the towel. Well, not entirely – I just decided to let it go and wait until she was older. Fast forward to first grade in an English school in Mauritius; the teacher informed me that Diana had a serious learning disability with math – she just couldn’t do subtraction and division. Hmm. I knew better, so I sat her down at a table and told her that she wasn’t getting up until she had done her math homework. Great big tears splatted onto the paper, but she did it and turned it in all blotchy. The little stinker had her teacher convinced that she was math-challenged! When she was two, I couldn’t insist she do subtraction and division, but at six, yes. It isn’t that she couldn’t do it – she just didn’t want to. Nothing has changed now, by the way – thank heaven for our cell phone calculators! (By the way, she didn’t want to practice the violin either but you can guess how that turned out.) The point is that you have to know when to give up – or at least when to postpone dealing with a problem. This is what experience teaches you – not books. Listening to Doman, it was impossible that a child not like something presented in the right way, so something had to be wrong with ME. But I wasn’t the problem. And neither was Diana. She was just a very opinionated two-year old, and didactic methods don’t usually leave room for this. Their method HAS to work so they can sell it. Well, I can tell you, it DOESN’T always work and we have to improvise, use other tactics when possible or just plain give up – for the moment.
Here’s another example: when I was in college (majoring in Greek and Latin, not music), I decided it would be a good idea to get certified to teach school, which meant taking a couple of general education (didactics) courses. The professor gave us lots of lovely books which claimed that children should never be pushed to learn or study anything – that if they have a goal, they will do everything necessary to achieve that goal, even unpleasant and tiresome things. Well, to someone who studied the violin and piano and who had to be made to practice as a child (thanks, Mom), this was extremely suspect. First of all, the child has to have a specific goal – do you know many children like this? I don’t. Their “goal” is usually to practice or study as little as possible. And if they have goals, they may not include all the subjects needed to get a complete education. Anyway, I then found out that my education professor had a son who was a child prodigy on – you guessed it – the violin. I asked him if his son, who was 14 at the time, liked to practice. “Not much,” he said. “He likes to play along with the records.” I then asked if he made this boy practice and the answer was enlightening: “Let’s just say that if I have to drive 2 1/2 hours each way to the lessons and pay out a lot of money for them – HE PRACTICES.” Well, there you are. This guy was teaching one thing in class and doing something quite different at home. How could I take anything he was telling us seriously? That’s when I decided that methods are a point of departure and that no one method or philosophy, not even Mr. Doman’s, has all the answers. You have to find them yourself even if you don’t like the answer or the result much. THAT’S getting experience.
Ya gotta teach the student, not the method. Otherwise you will never benefit from experience and will never learn anything. You will just keep repeating the same old mistakes and assume that either you’re a lousy teacher (highly unusual) or that your student is not talented or motivated enough (more likely). Heaven forbid you should decide that the method you use may have some holes in it or may not be perfect for every student! A method will teach you that 2 + 2 equals 4. Experience will teach you that 2 + 2 may sometimes equal 5 and that you’ll have to find some way to deal with it.
Post Author Eloise Hellyer