Monday, October 31, 2011
When I'm seeking a pure solution to a difficult educational problem, I often turn to the Suzuki violin method. It's almost a case of "What Would Suzuki Do?" I have idealized his methods because I trust his heart. He did or said nothing that did not have love of children at its core. So when in doubt, I ask myself, WWSD?
I have the issue of the assessment of learning on my mind, and thinking about how the Suzuki method does it makes it clear what it should be.
About a year ago, at age ten, my daughter had her Suzuki Book One solo recital. It was more than just her demonstration of all she had learned about the violin since she was three. It was many things: a rite of passage, an exercise in endurance, an opportunity to build her self-respect, a day when all her hard work gave her a chance to shine (not to mention a chance for her parents to dissolve into a puddle of love and pride).
As she and I, along with her wonderful teacher, prepared for the recital, my appreciation of the process grew and grew. She had mastered all the songs in Book One, but now she was preparing them for the world. We hung a chart on the wall of all the songs, and put check-marks each time she practiced one, with a special indication when she decided that she had played it with "recital-quality."
As the weeks went by we both grew more and more aware of what she had accomplished. Best of all, she was able to put her personality into the recital, creating funny moments, opportunities for the audience to laugh with her. (She interrupted Allegro just before the final phrase by putting her bow on her head; all the Suzuki students in the audience took pencils we had distributed and put them on their heads, points to the ceiling, as they had done many times in group lesson, and the parents, bewildered, followed suit until the entire audience had pencils on their heads, waiting for Francie to finish the song.) It was her creation, and who she was came shining through.
You always hear people say how hard the violin is. It's true. The violin is very picky about what it needs in order to sound good. When playing the violin, you can't really get a pure tone if you are bowing all crooked or on the fingerboard; you can't get the ringing tones to ring if you don't have your left-hand fingers in precisely the right spot on the fingerboard. If you want to create beauty, you have to master technique.
So one song at a time, one skill at a time, Suzuki teaches technique. In the meantime, you are listening to the songs on your CD, you are attending group violin lessons, and you are tackling each song and each new baby-step of technique. If you are playing Go Tell Aunt Rhodie, Allegro seems very far away; when you get up to Allegro and you see the older students play the Minuets at group violin lesson, you think, "I'm going to play those songs someday -- but when?"
Each little song is an advancement from one technique to the next. You don't play with a complicated division of the bow of Oh Come Little Children until you have mastered the bowings of Lightly Row. But you have not forgotten Lightly Row; you review, review, review. Lightly Row sounds better and better as you advance through each song while continuing to review. And you put yourself into it more and more. (Whoever said to a beginning instrumental music student, "You can express yourself through music" has a lot to answer for. Self-expression doesn't really happen without technique. The first time a child picks up a trombone and blows into it, he thinks, "If this is self-expression, I want no truck with it!")
It is the ideal system of assessment. It grows naturally out of the process of learning. If a child is having trouble remembering to use a low second finger the first time it's called for, the process of learning it is built into the system. You take that measure and repeat, repeat, repeat until your brain is rewired to accommodate that low second finger. Then you go back to the song and repeat the phrase until your second finger knows exactly what to do. Suzuki is not afraid of the dreaded "rote learning." Rote learning, exercises, repetition, is what has to happen if you want to make beautiful music. Suzuki kids understand that.
Other techniques take longer. After her first solo recital, Francie moved very quickly into learning vibrato. It took weeks. First she practiced the muscle movements vibrato requires, without holding the violin. Then she held the violin while practicing those movements. Gradually she put it all together, and created the prettiest vibrato her proud Mom had ever seen: loose, relaxed, effective, and miles ahead of my own!
Now she is preparing for her smaller Book Two half-recital and as she goes back to the first song in the book, Chorus from Judas Maccabeus, a long-bow song that's all about beautiful, sustained, majestic tone. She practices her even vibrato through the entire length of the bow. It sings.
How do you know what a child has learned? How do you know your teaching has resulted in learning? It's hard to look at the public-school classroom through the lens of the Suzuki violin method. For all my understanding of the assessment of violin skills, assessment in the classroom remains a mystery. But my understanding of this method helps me to understand that learning is assessment, and vice-versa. Learning is the process of adding skill onto skill; you get one under your belt, and move on to the next, which requires mastery of all the skills before. When you achieve your goal, whether it is accomplishment of Suzuki Book One, the building of a boat, the completion of a short story, the rebuilding of an engine or the design of a green home, the assessment is the accomplishment.
For all my study of education, this is what I've learned about assessment. How does this view advance our thinking of what happens inside our public schools? We need to completely change how we think about it. How much of it benefits children, and how much just satisfies the need for adults to quantify something that can't be quantified? What's a good score for joyful learning? What's a measurable scale for satisfaction and development of self-respect? For more on these questions; watch this space!