What Do We Do When Our Students Forget?
At my house, it takes a ladder to reach Richard Chronister's book,
A Piano Teacher's Legacy. It is on the top shelf of the floor-to-ceiling bookcase next to my grand piano. This seems like the perfect resting place for it, because I always did put Richard on a high pedestal. I still do.
This fall I began my forty-fourth year of teaching. My students, who range in age from six to sixty-six, were eager to begin again, and so was I. I wasn't surprised that some of them had forgotten what I was certain they knew at the end of the last school year. Summer sometimes produces such amnesia. Yet doubt plagued me. I wanted each student to move to a new level of the MTNA syllabus and to pass this year's test with distinction. How much time would it take to catch up?
Thinking about this, I remembered Richard's soothing words: "Students may remember some things we do and say, but we can never be sure which ones."1 I also remembered his adage: "The good teacher counts on only what students are capable of telling themselves."2
Had I failed to create a situation where my students experienced the understanding, the sound, and the feel of the concepts I taught them last year? Had I taught in the way Richard used to decry? "We just do it [explain a concept] again and again, until the student gives up and sees it our way." 3 Had my students just pasted on the knowledge, spitting it back to me in a form they thought I would like without being able to understand and use the concept on their own?
I had the honor of knowing Richard during many aspects of my career. I admired his questioning, his incisive mind, his love of respectful intellectual disagreement, and his willingness to learn by observing. And don't let me forget his humor!
On this fall morning I sorely need Richard's advice, so I climb the ladder and bring down A Piano Teacher's Legacy.
Settling myself in a chair that overlooks our garden, I begin reading.
"We can be reflective only if we allow our fears and our minds to go free."4
"The art of teaching is created out of a study of the people we teach, of how they learn, and under what circumstances they learn best." 5
I can feel Richard's presence. I know I am in good hands.
I quickly find the story I am searching for. Richard spent several years teaching at the Philadelphia Settlement Music School in South Philadelphia. He and his colleagues from the National Keyboard Arts Associates worked with hundreds of students, who studied in groups. They researched the very questions that were plaguing me at the moment. How long does it take for students to learn new material if they only hear it once a week, and how long will they remember it, when and if it does sink in?
Richard and his colleagues created an experiment. In the first week of group class, they introduced the dotted-quarter eighth-note rhythm in an exercise that asked the students to:
1. Point and count the rhythm using slow counting.
2. Point and count the rhythm using fast counting.
3. Point the rhythm without counting.
4. Play the rhythm without counting using any keys on the keyboard, using any dynamics and technique.6
The students did well with the exercise, but the teachers purposely did not assign the rhythm for home practice.
In class the following week, the teachers made the same presentation, making no mention of having done it the week before. Again, the students did well. When the teachers asked, "Have you ever done that before?" no one answered, "Yes."
The third week, the teachers repeated this exercise. When they asked if anyone had done it before, some responded with a "Yes." Yet never did a child say, "We did that here last week." They thought maybe they had done it in school, or they had no idea where they had encountered it.
During the fourth week, some children interrupted the same presentation to point out that they had done it last week. No one said, "We have been doing this for weeks."
By the fifth week, the students recognized the exercise and indicated that they didn't need any help to do it. The teachers then sent the exercise home for practice.7
Ah, I feel better. It takes a long time for any of us to internalize new material to the point where we can use it on our own. In this fast-paced world of teaching to the test, which is going to be given on a certain date whether every student has had the time to absorb the new material or not, this fact is often ignored.
In today's world, schools throughout the nation are opened or closed, funded or not funded based on test scores and little else. The teacher assigns, the student studies, the student takes a standardized test, the district measures the scores. How often do test scores reflect students' true understanding of what teachers present? To quote Richard again, "It is important that students learn to measure themselves."8 In other words, students need to be able to use what they learn with no help at all. "We are successful only to the degree that Johnny becomes his own teacher."9
Richard writes eloquently about the natural stages of learning, which occur at different paces for different children. He outlined three such stages.
The first stage places the new learning into the student's environment in a natural and reasonable way. It presents an idea to a child without any need for remembering or fear of forgetting. Richard uses the example of a toddler hearing a parent refer over and over to "the table." "The child absorbs this and many other similar instances (repetition) and learns. Notice, however, that we never say, 'It's on the table, table, table, table, table.' That kind of repetition dulls the senses . . . ."10
When a teacher exhorts the child to "Remember, this is a table," a child panics, fearing he will forget. The student's "panic has nothing to do with learning 'table.' The object of the lesson has become fear of forgetting." 11 When teachers ask, "What is this called?", Richard says, ". . . we have driven the word from the child's mind, just as the name of an old acquaintance can be driven from your mind when you are suddenly expected to introduce him. When the child cannot immediately say 'table,' we decide he is a slow learner. But we are the slow ones."12
During the second stage of learning we ask children to use their knowledge. A parent might say, "Would you put this on the table?" "In the second stage of natural learning, the teacher always names the object."13 At this point the child only needs to see the table among a number of other objects and be able to choose it. "Nature knows that saying the name of something is not the most important aspect of learning. Nature knows that this comes to the student in due course if we prepare the environment and have a little patience." 14
Richard felt that the final stage of learning happened when the child could answer the question, "Where is my book?" by saying, "It's on the table." Richard reminds us that " . . . this final stage of learning is entirely up to the child. It is never forced. The child could just as easily point to the table instead of saying its name. The child enters this final stage when he or she is ready." 15
I breathe a sigh of relief. Just because my students can't remember all aspects of what they learned last year—the sight, the sound, the feel, the name of every concept, doesn't mean they don't remember any of them. "All the stages of natural learning flow into one another with no need for one stage to come to an exact halt before proceeding to the next." 16
Richard's words, written in 1980, were a prescient message to our test-driven educational world of today. "In a school situation, or in group piano teaching, it is not at all necessary for all children to pass from one stage to the next at the same time, unless we educators have set up some artificial barrier such as an examination, or when we say, 'There is a test on Thursday. On Thursday, you will know table, ready or not.' Testing is foreign to natural education. The test is accomplished when the child moves himself into the next stage." 17
"Too much teaching says, one time: 'This is a table.' And from then on it reminds and reminds and reminds the student that he's been told and told and told that this is a table table table. That is a bore bore bore." 18
I carefully place Richard's book back on the top shelf thinking, "Thank you, Richard. I couldn't agree more more more."
1Chronister, Richard (2005). A Piano Teacher's Legacy. Darling, E., Ed. New Jersey: The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, Inc., p. 10.
2Ibid., p. 10.
3Ibid., p. 15.
4Ibid., p. 2.
5Ibid., p. 9.
6Ibid., p. 17.
7Ibid., pp. 17-18.
8Ibid., p. 19.
9Ibid., p. 19.
10Ibid., p. 33.
11Ibid., p. 33.
12Ibid., p. 34.
13Ibid., p. 34.
14Ibid., p. 34.
15Ibid., p. 34.
16Ibid., p. 34.
17Ibid., p. 34.
18Ibid, p. 35