Getting Our Children To Reason Before Reacting

Sometimes I have students who don’t want to reason. In fact, some of them can be outright resistant to even trying; I may ask a simple question which requires a small amount of reasoning and I see them go to their default mode: “memory.” But then when they don’t find the answer there, mild panic ensues and the next thought is, “I don’t know this and I can’t do it,” at which point everything shuts down. This is such an ingrained chain reaction that I doubt it ever occurs to them that they are shooting themselves in the foot.

Until, of course, I point it out to them.

But why does this happen in the first place? At first I thought it was how they were being taught in school, that it was some sort of cultural issue or even that their parents were discouraging them in some way (always easy to blame the parents!). While I am not convinced that the school systems where I live teach children to see patterns and to think logically – much is based on memory here – I am reasonably sure that the parents have nothing to do with it. And neither do self-esteem issues in most of these cases.

The problem, I have found, is lazy brain.

Now before you think I am passing judgement on these kids, know that research says that our brains consume up to 25% of our caloric intake and 20% of the oxygen we breathe – and this high octane organ weighs only 1.4 kilos (three pounds). It’s like having a Ferrari for a brain and a Fiat 500 for the rest of you. In order to make sure we have enough fuel for the rest of our bodily functions, the brain saves energy the best way it can by doing what is easy: “less is more.” So somewhere along the line of their general education these students have encountered things they found difficult and then repeatedly took the easy way out. Their initial lazy brain response of, “Why bother?” has become the habitual reaction of, “I can’t do it.” And what are habits for? Saving energy. It’s just plain easier to think you can’t do something so you don’t have to waste energy trying.*

So, what’s a teacher to do?

  1. Make sure your students are aware of their thought processes and that they are are reacting instead of acting when they resist thinking through a problem. You can easily get your students to agree with you that being an “actor” in life is a lot better than being a “reactor.”
  2. Convince them that stopping and thinking before reacting will save time and effort and will become a habit if they do it, say, 60 times over the course of the week’s practice. That’s only 10 times a day!
  3. Ask very simple questions that you know they can figure out the answer to with a minimum of effort. I am constantly amazed at some of my students’ resistance to reasoning about even the easiest questions, so they may need some prodding or you may have to break your questions down into even easier ones to get them going.
  4. Tell them that you always ask easy questions and would never ask them something they couldn’t figure out. Some of these children have school teachers who try to find out what their students don’t know instead of what they do, terrifying them by asking trick questions. First your students have to trust you and then they can trust their own reasoning capabilities. And even if they give you a wrong answer, you tell them, no one is going to die – or get a bad grade.
  5. Show them how much and how quickly you reason by playing some impossibly fast passage and then explaining all your mental processes while you played it. When they see that it takes you much longer to explain what you were thinking while playing that passage than it does to play it, and that you are doing all this reasoning automatically, they will realize that your good mental habits make it possible for your conscious mind to think about the music instead of instrumental technique. Of course, it is imperative to explain to your students that you were not born this perfect being that they see standing (or sitting) in front of them and that you had to go through exactly what they must – even if this is not altogether true; some of us are born with faster brains than others, more natural mental and physical facility and desire to reason, but never mind – the process is still the same.
  6. Explain to your students that THEY aren’t lazy but their brains are. Students are relieved to know this. Instead of feeling cursed with some awful character or personality trait they feel they can do nothing about, they now know that reasoning instead of reacting is just another habit to acquire, like a correct bow hold. This also makes them view the brain as just another part of their bodies that has to acquire good habits in order to play well.
  7. Get them to understand that your job is to train them to think like violinists which will make almost every other endeavor they take on much easier. Violinists are constantly taking short cuts, seeing patterns and thinking so fast that neurologists cannot measure the velocity of their synapses.** These habits come easier to some of us than others (which I don’t tell my students), but they can be learned. In any case, i think it is safe to say than anyone’s brain is sped up by learning to play the violin.
  8. Make them notice how many once difficult things, like just holding the violin and the bow correctly, they now do well without thinking or being reminded by their parents and teachers. How they have already learned so many good habits that they now take for granted – habits that have fooled their lazy brains into accomplishing something.
  9. Use an example from some other part of the student’s life, like good table manners (okay, kids don’t always see the use of them, but their parents usually make a big fuss about this issue and love it when you bring it up) to show that once they have acquired them, they can have dinner with heads of state and make scintillating conversation without worrying how to behave.
  10. Explain that the brain is like a muscle – even if you start out with a high IQ, it will atrophy if you don’t exercise it. Use it or lose it.

Learning how lazy everyone’s brain is (including mine) has changed my teaching. Now, every time parents tell me how mentally lazy their child is, I respond that we are all lazy because our brains are, that research bears this out and the only way to outsmart our brains is to make the effort to reason until it becomes a habit and thus the brain’s automatic default mode. It really does make a difference when parents realize that everyone suffers from lazy brain – it’s in our evolutionary hardware  – and they become more compassionate and less critical in helping their children overcome mental inertial so they can learn to think like a violinist.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer

*Please see these two links: Eric Barker in his excellent blog, “Barking up the Wrong Tree” strikes again! http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2012/04/what-do-we-do-with-our-leisure-time-what-trul/  which talks about teenagers not doing things that give them more satisfaction because of the initial effort required to start doing them and  http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2016/10/how-to-resist-distraction/ about lazy brains

**Please don’t ask me for a source. I read this fact many years ago, long before blogging even existed and I can’t find a reference on the internet. However, two parents who are therapists told me a few years ago that they heard the same thing at a conference on neurology, much to their surprise – they thought I was making it up when I told this to their daughter.

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3 December 2016

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