What Are We Teaching Our Children?

Recently I read a post By Eric Barker from his marvelous blog, “Barking Up The Wrong Tree,”* entitled: “Can One Personality Trait Determine Your Future?” It seems that research says that it can.

What is that trait?

Conscientiousness, defined in the article as being “efficient, organized, neat and systematic.” Apparently having this quality will almost guarantee you success in life – that is, if you define success in life as money, job satisfaction, marital satisfaction, and a healthier life. Well, that is a pretty good description of a successful life, I guess – until you ask where creativity and independence come in. The article asserts that while our schools talk up these two qualities, the students who have them do NOT get the best grades and are not teachers’ pets. School teachers apparently love highly conscientious students who, it so just happens, also score low on creativity. Conversely, students high in creativity seem to get the worst grades. This type of judgement also carries through into the workplace as well: conscientiousness is actually prized more than creativity, no matter how much bosses say creativity is valued.

To be clear, here is an excellent definition of creativity: “…..the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. Creativity is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions.” (thanks to Creativityatwork.com.) Sounds like a pretty good quality to have in today’s ever changing world though, doesn’t it?

So how can we have both? Easy: learn to play the violin. (Okay, not so easy, but worthwhile.) One could easily take the word “creativity” out of the above definition of creativity and put in “Playing the Violin” and it would read just as true. It is an excellent definition of practicing and interpreting.

But why would we want to make all that effort to play the violin if conscientiousness is all you need to succeed in life and you can get that just by doing well in school?

The idea is to give our children the greatest possible range of choices in their personal and professional development. Maybe you don’t want to work on the creative side of things, but giving yourself or your children the chance to develop that side certainly doesn’t hurt – especially when we don’t know what qualities the job market will value 20 years from now!

In an article by Vickie Elmer from the website “Quartz,” ** researchers at Michigan State said that: “Time spent learning to play Chopin or Bach at age 8 or 13 may give a child the chops to eventually be a CEO or scientist….. People who own businesses or were granted patents were up to eight times more likely to participate in arts and crafts or music activities as children compared to the general public.” The article goes on to say that: “Taking lessons or being part of an arts collective or musical group into adulthood made individuals even more likely to excel.  ……. Musical training seemed especially important. Researchers studied a group of Michigan State Honors College graduates from 1990 to 1995 with science, technology, engineering or math majors and found 93% had taken piano, guitar or other music lessons—about three times the average rate of all adults.” Eileen Roraback, one of the researchers, also says in the article: “Starting early really helped. The skills and aptitudes that you developed in the arts practice continued into your business practice.”

This brought me to a sort of “aha” moment. What is the difference between a school teacher and a private music teacher? We both teach the qualities of conscientiousness; obviously you can’t play a musical instrument well if you do not learn to practice properly. But we instrumental teachers teach this as a means to an end. Or we should be anyway: teaching our students to be creative via conscientiousness. Teaching our students to be fine musicians, or as fine as they can be, means challenging them to reach inside themselves to find self-expression, i.e., creativity, while putting into practice all the qualities that make up conscientiousness.  We have the chance to get the best of both worlds – teach our students conscientiousness AND nurture their creativity and independence. We are privileged to have this opportunity and it is due to the nature of our work, the instrument itself and the fact that we have our students one on one.

I have seen too many examples of highly creative children being punished by the school system. Some of these children you may not even recognize as having much creativity at all as they either don’t have the means to express it or are afraid to after having been shot down so many times. I have a student who seems to be flighty, superficial and not willing to use her head. She has an awful time at school, but I have always instinctively insisted that her parents give the child the benefit of the doubt in regard to her teachers’ opinions. (Mr. Barker’s post cited above confirms my instincts.) It turns out that this little girl, now 10 years old, has a highly developed and sophisticated sense of humor, suddenly started reading complicated music for her level very well indeed (much to the surprise of her father), and has a gorgeous bow arm and tone. This means to me that she is a.) very intelligent and b.) can really accomplish whatever she wants if she wants to do it. I forgot to mention that one of her school teachers told the parents that the child is stupid (in nicer words, but that was the gist) – apparently confusing lack of conscientiousness and interest in the subject with lack of intelligence. She certainly isn’t stupid; she just isn’t conscientious. Yet. Highly creative and independent, yes, but those qualities seem to be discouraged in the schools here as far as I can see. So what I have to work on with her and her family is a systematic approach to practice that will allow her to refine, direct and express her creative impulses and will, as a side effect, also give her the means to do better in school.

The two qualities, conscientiousness and creativity, are not mutually exclusive. It sure helps to be conscientious or to be able to call up that quality at will in order to realize a creative idea, though. And this is where music teachers make a difference. Playing music (well) is by definition an expression of the soul – and what could be more creative than that? But we can’t do this without being conscientious first – and that is exactly the quality that creative kids need in order to succeed in school and even in the workplace. Also encouraging extremely conscientious kids to find, give voice to and value their sometimes well-hidden creative side is among the more satisfying experiences I have had as a teacher.

So teachers, when you have that dutiful little student who always practices whatever you give her and is very conscientious and workmanlike in her approach, don’t forget to rattle her cage and dare her to do something in a different way, or ask her to think of other approaches to a phrase. Don’t assume that she may not have much creative talent – she probably hasn’t been encouraged by the system or perhaps even her family to develop or express her creativity. On the other hand, don’t give up on the rebel who won’t practice (not like you want her to, anyway), who seems dreamy and disconnected – you may have the chance to give her the tools to turn what seems to be her downfall into the source of her greatest success, either in music or in any other endeavor she decides to try.

The difference between the hack (or a computer) and the great musician? The hack will hit every note every time and will bore you to death. The great musician will hit every note every time (and sometimes not – I have heard even the greatest make mistakes, but who cares?) and will thrill you or touch you. The first is conscientious. The second is conscientious AND creative. Not all of us can be creative geniuses – there are obviously various gradations between the hack and the great musician – but we can learn to be conscientious which will give us the skills to stimulate and realize whatever creativity may be hidden inside ourselves. And for those of us who are born hide-bound conscientious? Well, a teacher who challenges us to do something more, find other aspects of ourselves and help us give expression to our souls could be a profound influence on our futures.

Post author: Eloise Hellyer


** http://qz.com/139916/ceos-and-inventors-most-likely-took-art-or-music-lessons-as-a-kid/

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16 August 2016

7 thoughts on “What Are We Teaching Our Children?

  1. Chuck G

    This is why so many hate Suzuki method. A good teacher can overcome the robot-inducing teachings of Suzuki method and make great musicians. I teach Suzuki, but my students learn to read and understand music from the beginning, just like I did.

    This is a terrific article. Thank you!

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Ah, you have pointed out something really important. However, it isn’t the method that’s at fault, it’s the teacher who is using it! A method is only as good as the teacher who is teaching it. If a teacher constantly encourages discipline AND thinking outside the box, among other equally important things, it doesn’t matter what method he or she uses. I know great teachers who never heard of Suzuki and awful ones who use only that. However, I also know lots of great teachers who use the Suzuki method and lots of awful ones who do not. A method is something you use, not something you are. Teachers have to work on themselves and know what they are about before they can teach well. Of course, this is a subject very close to my heart. The Suzuki method is really excellent for all ages in the right teaching hands, but particularly for the very young student. So don’t worry about when to teach reading music – do it when you feel the student needs it (which is a really good guiding principle) which I am sure you are already doing. It sounds like you have your heart in the right place – the most important thing – so whatever you do, I’m sure your students will turn out well. Good luck and thanks for your comment (and the very encouraging compliment!).

  2. gipsika

    A deep and thought-provoking post! In the light of manufacturing jobs first being off-shored to China and now being automated, first robbing Americans and now Chinese people of their livelihoods, I’d say creativity is more likely the single most important quality a person can bring to the table when trying for ANY job.

  3. Lydia

    Thank you for posting this. I so wish to share this on LinkedIn. Having been an elementary early childhood teacher for the first few years of my life then becoming an instrumental instructor I applaud your observations on creativity and conscientiousness. Many of my educator colleagues only want to teach those conscientious students. Teaching children who are creative and teaching creativity to those who are conscientious is challenging and rewarding. The art of teaching lies therein. Perhaps we as teachers need to tap into our own creativity, to dabble in art or music so we can remember how necessary it is for children to explore their own creativity. Adults have forgotten. Teachers are charged to teach the whole child, so perhaps we need to find the child within ourselves and remember how creativity makes us so in tune with our purpose, thus feeling the drive to be conscientious.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Go right ahead and share! Thank you for your kind comment and excellent insights.


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