Can Anyone Be ‘Made’ To Learn Anything?

T in the Park 2012The Independent featured an interview this week with the acclaimed violinist, Nicola Benedetti who criticised music teaching in the UK. Now, I don’t doubt Ms Benedetti’s commitment to music education. She’s done a lot to inspire kids playing in Scotland’s El Sistema model, The Big Noise project in Raploch. I’m sure she’s sincere in her desire to bring classical music to more young people.

She’s just wrong, that’s all.

According to the Independent, ‘She said teachers should be encouraged to take children through symphonies from Beethoven and Sibelius to Dvorak and Mahler and explain the form in detail. “Every single young person in this country should be made – within the context of their school curriculum – to listen to the greatest classical works.”

Now, aside from the fact that this process sounds suspiciously like the miserable failure of ‘music appreciation’ classes that I and millions of other schoolkids were forced to endure in the 1960s, it raises to important questions. First, is forcing kids to listen to any form of music the best way to fire them up in their appreciation of it? Second, can anyone be successfully ‘forced’ to learn anything?

I work as part of the Musical Futures team that has probably done more to increase the numbers of students studying music at GCSE level in England, than any other pedagogical approach. Teachers who adopt Musical Futures approaches see a minimum of 40% increase in GCSE numbers (and usually much more). Those students  are then usually required to learn and analyse classical music (depending upon the exam board requirements). How have we achieved this increase in the number of students appreciating classical music? By allowing students to choose their entry point – the music they love – and putting instruments in their hands all of the time. Ms Benedetti appears to dismiss anything other than ‘complex’ music as ‘fun’, and makes no reference to kids actually playing classical music, possibly because she knows that for the average, untrained, class of Year 7s, it would be beyond them.

Ms Benedetti joins a long and distinguished line of lobbyists of classical music, and it’s hard to see how these lobbyists would be given  airtime in any other subject area. Can you imagine Prince Charles arguing that PE lessons should revolve, not just around polo, but on merely watching polo? Or francophile Tony Blair suggesting that all kids should compulsory study French  by watching Gerard Depardieu movies – but not actually speak French?

Of course these are ludicrous examples, but so is the proposition that one genre of music is  inherently superior to another. Jazz isn’t complex? The music of Brian Wilson or Stephen Sondheim isn’t complex? I don’t think so.

Rather than insist on absolutes, people who aren’t regularly in classrooms should perhaps trust teachers to find their own keys to unlock kids’ musical passions. Through Musical Futures, we’ve seen lots of students better understand classical music by trying to play it. But we don’t insist that they start with it. A good teacher’s job is, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, to start from the near, but work to the far.

The article, however, also raises the issue of compulsion in learning. Can anyone be made to deeply learn anything? Personally, I don’t think so. Sure, with enough repetition you could maybe drag even the most reluctant learner through a test – but would they have truly learned the subject matter? Doesn’t that require interest and motivation on the part of the learner? Forcing unwilling kids to listen to classical music is reminiscent of the ‘beatings will continue until morale improves’ psychology.

And one has to wonder what it is about classical music (which I love, by the way) that demands such forcefulness in the face of resistance? A hint is given by Nicola Benedetti: “(it gives us) a way to go as deep as you can into our history and our understanding of humanity; of our expression and growth as people.” Oh, not that one, Nicola! Classical music as a civilising influence…. tell that to classical buffs Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Surely our job as educators in schools is to excite kids about learning, not force-feed them our own prejudices?

11 Responses to Can Anyone Be ‘Made’ To Learn Anything?

  1. Trev Gibb says:

    Great piece Dave. I completely agree with you. Mind I’m an auto-didact when it comes to music. I still wish I’d received the right support and encouragement when I was in school and perhaps I might have developed more in terms of theory and practice. Engagement, enjoyment and passion. Music is a personal journey, a discovery. If teachers and/or the system can facilitate this student to student then it’s a win win. You should submit this piece to the Independent.

  2. adsnads1976 says:

    Another great article – this is becoming a habit…

    • David says:

      Thanks, Adam!

      • adsnads1976 says:

        It’s also caused a bit of a ripple on Facebook, with a number of people leaving comments in the thread created after sharing this. I look forward to reading the book – but please keep up the blogging, you pose many of the best questions that are necessary in keeping education moving in a positive and progressive direction. Something that our current Education Secretary seems entirely incapable of doing…

  3. Ben Smith says:

    Well said David! I always enjoy reading your articles, they are good food for thought and I often find they support my own thinking, especially this one.

  4. Ally brown says:

    Fantastic response David! I welcome Ms Benedetti into my school to see how many students she can inspire with her approach, and also challenge her not to find students in my school totally engaged and enthused for music. Music makes a difference and transcends all things but is an individual language with individual folk!

  5. Matt says:

    Spot on! Learning through play doesn’t stop the minute you’ve outgrown your sandpit. Through history people have been engulfed by something which makes life meaningful to them and then, quite probably through genuine excitement and good intention, feel duty bound to share their truth….and gradually the blinkers sneak across, the prejudice begins, and they forgot how excited they were when they discovered this for themselves, in their own way.
    Leave teaching to the teachers; the facilitators of discovery.

  6. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Your Prince Charles and polo analogy is spot-on David, it’s the classic ‘it worked for me so it will work for everybody’ mentality. Aside from the horribly distorted bias in the media which chose to report this ‘story’ (again, another symptom of ‘it’s good enough for us so it’s good enough for everyone’) it serves to illustrate the one-size-fits-all approach of so many aspects of our society. You provide an invaluable public service by ridiculing it.

  7. Kevin Murphy says:

    I wonder what this says too about the other end of the classical music education spectrum – i.e. The music conservatoire which I presume Nicola had some interaction with? It is positive that talented musicians are passionate about their field but this kind of unhelpful dogma should surely be debunked by the leaders of these establishments – what possible long term benefit can it be bringing to classical music? I do agree that long term sustained involvement that enables you to delve into a subject in depth is vital – but as you point out unless learners are engaged and motivated by their own interest this is unlikely to happen. The same would be true if Nicola decided to explore jazz or pop music – the superficial attraction would never grow into genuine interest unless Nicola truly desired it – no amount of forced exposure would help.

  8. Ally brown says:

    Some of us are lucky enough to have amazing learning experiences that can have life changing impact. This seems
    To be the case with Ms Benedetti and her experience of music. The effect can be so exciting and motivating that it is natural to want everyone to have the same experience but this cannot be forced or imposed upon another person. Because the way Ms Benedetti has been taught music has worked for her, does not mean it is the right approach for everyone, and it is wrong for her to assume so. Moreover, to insist that everyone is forced into having the same experience has potential
    to do more harm than good. Engage students at their personal point of impact and then who knows the experiences they may have!

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