Recently, my family purchased an inexpensive used piano.
My wife and children have all had piano lessons from someone who knows how to teach piano. Thanks to good teaching plus good practice, they are at various stages in the mastery process. But honestly, my children haven’t always loved practicing the piano, and my wife didn’t always love it, either. This occasional lack of motivation has led to fewer practice hours, and these fewer practice hours have led to less mastery than they might otherwise have achieved.
I, on the other hand, haven’t had piano lessons, but I have spent snatches of time in the past few weeks looking up YouTube videos on how to play basic piano chords, and printing off chord charts, and messing around based on what the videos and charts have shown me.
In just a couple of weeks, I can play a few songs, all by myself — songs that my children and I have always loved to sing. I’ve even messed around to create a few new tunes. It is very gratifying, and the small successes motivate me to want to work more at the skill.
So in light of the two stories, wouldn’t we be smart to switch school so that it’s more like how I’ve learned the piano and less like how my wife and children and thousands of others have?
Not so fast.
First of all, we should never base decisions about school on anecdotal evidence (“I hated piano drills growing up”), rhyming slogans (“drills kill”), or buzzy TED talks. Heck, we shouldn’t even base them off the findings of single studies. We must always be thinking hard and from first principles. Just because something seems true doesn’t mean that it is true. Just because some data supports a conclusion doesn’t mean that all the data will. (Just ask Ptolemy.)
(Now, be careful with that last paragraph because you can get carried away with skepticism. Remember: when skepticism leads us to avoid something that’s true — and certainly, some things are — that skepticism isn't working well for us.)
Second, what’s invisible in my story (and in most “Holy cow learning new stuff is easier than we make it out to be in schools!” stories) is the role that my prior knowledge plays in both my motivation and in my success.* As it turns out, my prior knowledge isn’t a minor character in the story of my piano progress — it’s the protagonist.
Even though I’ve never played piano before, I was once taught by a friend how to play a few basic guitar chords, and the friend showed me how I could use these chords and a capo to play all kinds of songs. This has allowed me to play hundreds of hours of bedtime guitar for my children over the years, and these hundreds of hours have proven to me, beyond doubt, that there’s a way to “learn enough” on the guitar to have it increase one’s quality of life.
When we recently lugged this old piano into our home, my piano journey started with a single memory. This one involved a different friend of mine, years ago, sitting down at his kids’ piano and playing a few songs. I was shocked and said, “Wow, did you take lessons or what?”
“No,” he said, “I just learned a few chords, watched some YouTube videos, and I’ve been messing around with them for years.”
So take a look at how this prior experience (a form of knowledge) completely reshapes my motivation for teaching myself piano. (We’ll use the five key beliefs to analyze my motivation.)
Credibility: I’ve taught myself guitar to the “good enough” level that I’m after through the learning of basic chords. I know that I’ve got what it takes (with some YouTube help) to do the same thing with piano.
Value: I know that playing the piano can enrich my life because I’ve experienced how playing guitar has enriched my life with my children. My kids are learning piano, and I want to learn it with them. None of the rest of my life is musical, so this little bit is deeply gratifying — I know that from guitar.
Belonging: I know that people like me can learn the piano like this because 1) I’ve done it with guitar, and 2) my good buddy did it with piano. This belief is also helped by the fact that as a middle-aged man my sense of identity is firmer than the typical adolescent’s or child’s.
Effort: I’ve proven to myself with guitar that effort at learning piano chords is a “smarter not harder” approach to achieving the “good enough to have fun” piano ability that I’m after.
Efficacy: (This is getting redundant, isn’t it? The beliefs are inter-connected.) My past success with guitar plus my friend’s success with a chord-based method for learning piano makes me confident that I can succeed at learning piano this way.
My prior knowledge completely predicts my level of motivation for learning the piano. It also ensures that I’ll approach practicing piano intelligently, with full engagement in the design of my practice. Since I’ve mastered all kinds of things in three decades of life, and since I’ve studied the mastery process for at least one of those decades, I’m not a child when it comes to teaching. I know how to teach and I know how to learn. So I’m way more likely to succeed at a self-directed approach to learning piano, and this success is likely to breed more motivation and therefore more success.
A child, on the other hand, is at the start of the lifelong learning journey. She needs to be shown, by an expert, how to learn piano. But that expert would be wise to attend to not just the content of her lessons and her recommended practice regimen, but also to the ways in which her instruction and practice promote or inhibit the five key beliefs. How can she create early, meaningful success for her students? How can she help her students value piano for themselves, right now — not for their parents, not for some distant future? These are the kinds of questions that the five key beliefs call educators into.
So no: students shouldn’t teach themselves. We can love and honor and respect and value our children without blindly assuming that their ability to teach themselves is the same as that of an adult.
*Learning piano is also a significantly “kinder” learning domain than learning something like writing or history. David Epstein introduced me to the idea of kind vs. wicked learning domains in his book Range.
If your school is looking for professional development that helps with motivating students regardless of learning mode (remote, hybrid, or in-person), learn more about my speaking and workshop record here. I'm currently seeking partners for back-to-school 2020.