Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Smoke on the Water and Pseudo-learning

My son plays guitar. (I do as well but not nearly as well as he. Indulging in father-pride, I've provided a Youtube video of my son playing "My One and Only Love." Enjoy it.)

He also gives guitar lessons. Teaching is teaching is teaching is teaching, and the frustrations that my son has as a guitar instructor are the same experienced by the classroom teacher: a lack of commitment, a reluctance to practice, and a tendency to be impressed with having done only a part of the lesson. These points are well illustrated by my son's having taught a student "Smoke on the Water."

When my son comes home from a day of teaching guitar, his mother and I always ask him how the lessons went. On this day my son told us how he had taught a student "Smoke on the Water" and how that was the end of the lesson, because that was all the student wanted to play. The half hour slipped by with my son listening to the kid play. I thought to ask my son if he had taught the kid the chorus. My son said he had never taught any student that part of the song because they never asked to learn it.

I now have this vision of perhaps thousands of kids with guitars (not because my son has taught thousands but because I surmise that the experience repeats itself all across the nation) with kids playing memorable licks from songs, grinning, then playing others and never playing a full song. We have all been to a party and seen this happen. The guitar guy plays the opening of "Stairway to Heaven" and people are amazed. Then he plays the opening of "Sweet Home Alabama" and everyone goes wild. Then he plays the opening of "Stranglehold" to show his diversity and people are so impressed that they are shaking their heads. But the guy never plays a complete song.

It sometimes seems that everyone plays guitar--or says that they play guitar. But my son and I will both tell you that there is a difference between playing guitar and being a guitar player. A guitar player practices scales, works to learn new chord progressions and to understand how they work, and learns to play songs in their entirety, if not for public performance then for self-satisfaction and awareness. Real learning requires commitment, requires risking monotony, and rewards deferred gratification. But kids learning guitar don't want that. They want to impress their friends now.

And that is part of what is wrong with education. Okay, I've identified a problem. Let me suggest a solution: teach not only subject but also values. We can pass on through our teaching those things that we value as a society. Through doing so, we will not only improve the minds of our students, but also improve our society.

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