“You have to run before you can walk.”
This is good common sense to a lot of people. It’s good common sense in a lot of cases, too. If you’re a toddler, then yes, you’re going to walk first. If you’re learning to drive, learn to drive in a parking lot before flying down I-95 at rush hour. But with learning, there’s a lot to be said for a different adage: “Run! It’s fun! Learn how to walk later!”
Robert Duke shares a great story about teaching kids to play drums. It’s something I can relate to, having learned to drum at a young age– unfortunately for me, it was by using the practice pad he mentions @ 56:00 mark. This video is worth the watch. If you fast forward to the section from 54:00 to 1:02:00, you’ll catch up on Duke’s story about “getting to the good stuff first” in education.
If you didn’t watch the whole video, Duke talks about getting students to fall “in love” with a discipline by introducing them to the good stuff first– the kinds of things that make our subjects fun. Too often, we as teachers think that we need to start with the essential elements of a discipline, the kind of drudgery that people in relevant jobs do because they have to– it’s part of the job. Science students are taught the metric system, English students are taught the parts of speech, music students are taught scales. These building blocks are important for mastery, for sure– but how many well-meaning teachers have driven kids away from loving a subject because they began with the drudgery, the painstaking fundamentals, and the things that need to be practiced and done over and over until you get to have any fun conducting experiments, writing stories, or playing a song?
Duke’s point is that instead, we need to hook students with the fun, then show them the elements they need to perfect their discipline. And even then, remember to infuse the joy of doing the discipline into it– witness the history teacher who has students research the history of their house or their family first, before introducing the details of the transition from farm life to city life in the 20th century.
I immediately related to this when I watched this video. As a musician, I’ve taught myself to play several instruments. Without realizing I was doing it, this is the way I made myself learn– when I learned guitar, I figured out three chords and played along to “Sweet Home Alabama” before I even thought about practicing finger exercises. I taught myself violin– one of the most technically demanding instruments, I’ve found, and after figuring out how to hold the bow, I learned a few easy fiddle tunes. They were fun to play, so I that’s what I did. Later, when I was “hooked” on the fun, I wanted to play scales– so I could learn more and better songs. And it wasn’t drudgery anymore. It made me imagine a kid loving the experience of Skyping someone in Montreal for French class, then wanting to learn French grammar and spelling so he could speak better and write better to his friend.
No one wants to play an instrument so he or she can play really great scales– it’s so that you can play a song. But that same student might tune out and stop playing because scales are what his teacher tells her she must learn before she can experience the joy of playing a song. Any teacher can take his or her subject and apply that same lesson– figure out what in your discipline is fun, and then let your students sit down and play drums.