Many people begin a new year by making a resolution. Usually, it is a stated intent to exchange an undesired behavior for a desired one. We resolve to improve our eating habits, go faithfully to the gym, or embark on some self improvement plan or other. Somehow, the idea of a new year seems to present the opportunity of a new start, and of making a better start.
The truth is, we all want to be the best possible version of ourselves, and we are all too aware of areas in which we fall short of the “me I want to be.” Sadly, by the middle of February, most of us will have succumbed to the path of least resistance, which is to give up trying to change, resigning ourselves to being satisfied with who we have been, and loosing our determination to become something better. While change can be good, it can also be unpleasant. Sometimes, when we are trying to effect a change that goes deeper than what we eat or how often we go to the gym, it can be nearly impossible. When we try to change areas of ourselves that are the essences of who we are, things like our personality, body type, or learning style, we may be chasing a transformation that, even if accomplished, would create as many problems as it solves. At some point, there is no denying who we are, and if we are ever going to be the best version of ourselves, we must achieve it with our natural bents, dispositions, physiques, and capacities.
This is the essence of what we mean when we say we are helping students (or ourselves) reach their full potential. It is doing the most with what we have, and realizing that we cannot do anything with what we don’t have. This is not to say that we cannot learn new things, acquire new skills, or succeed at things we have never done before; clearly we are capable of succeeding at all of that. But we also have limitations along with abilities. A five year old may be able to learn to play violin on a one-quarter size instrument, but has no chance of succeeding at playing the trombone. I can excel at performing music and roles in the theater, but I will not succeed at winning a Nobel prize in physics. It ain’t gonna happen. And I’m okay with that. I enjoy channeling my abilities toward what they are best suited for. I do not lament not being someone who can do things I can’t, or am not well suited for. The best version of myself is realized by knowing what my abilities and strengths are, and pursuing with excellence what I can accomplish with them. I know that I can not pursue with excellence things that do not match my strengths and abilities. I find enjoyment in doing things I can excel at, even if that is learning something new, whereas I do not enjoy “beating my head against the wall” trying to attain excellence at something for which my abilities and strengths are not well matched.
So if I am going to make a new years resolution, it surely won’t be to transform myself into someone I’m not, or someone I’ve never been, for that enterprise is sure to fail. If I am going to make a new years resolution, it will be along the lines of doing more with what I already have. I’m not going to become more fit by joining a gym and working out on machines I don’t like using. I’m going to become more fit by spending more time practicing golf at the range, expanding my love for long walks by walking further when I go out, and by taking up bicycling, which will allow me to see more of nature, which is what I enjoy about walking.
Now, what does all this have to do with students, teaching, and learning? Quite a bit. First, there is often a difference between what teachers want their students to accomplish (or are told their students must accomplish), and what those students want to accomplish for themselves. In music, not every student wants to be classically trained, and not every student needs to learn how to read music. Both are assets, but neither is necessary for everyone to enjoy listening to, creating, or performing music over a lifetime. Paul McCartney has accomplished all he has without reading music, and no one would deny his accomplishments and contributions to music have been legion.
A well trained musical ear, trained from formal education or informal learning, and a working facility with a guitar, and a better than average command of a spoken language are most of what anyone needs to be a successful songwriter and performer. Most successful musicians who don’t read music will tell you they learned from listening and imitating. They learned from playing with sounds; improvising, and exploring ways of putting sounds together into a melody, pairing those tones with a few chords they taught themselves or had someone show them. On the other hand, many great jazz musicians were first classically trained, and then applied their classical training to developing jazz chops. As a classically trained music educator, are you alright if that’s what your student wants? Can you give them those kind of tools, and then set them free to create? This kind of learning is at the heart of much of Orff methodology. Why not extend it beyond general music and xylophones into an invitation to pursue individual learning, applying learning from school music into out of school and life-long musical enjoyment?
Second, if students are going to realize their full potential, they need to know what their abilities and talents are. When it comes to music, many are unaware of what they are capable of doing, or worse, are convinced that they are incapable of doing anything musical. This becomes more of a problem as students get older, especially at the middle school level. Often, a child’s school music teacher is the only person in his or her life that is expert enough to know what their musical potential is, and more often than not, it is much more than the child believes. Often, children have had musical experiences that have remained dormant in school, because no opportunity has been provided for those experiences to be applied. This is often the case with students who have an interest in playing piano. They have taken piano lessons, or have a keyboard at home that they enjoy playing, and just need someone to guide them into more informed, productive use of the instrument. Whereas the student might just think they are doodling and have no real talent, a few lessons with you may prove otherwise. How exciting to be able to point out to such a student how quickly they have taken to what you gave them to do, and how convinced you have become of their potential to develop serious keyboard skills. That child now has a pathway into something much more musically rich and extensive, all because they have been shown they possess the abilities upon which significant advancement can be built.
The best resolutions we as teachers can make are to bring students to a realization of who they are, of what they are well suited to do, of what those two things mean in terms of equipping them to reach excellence, and of how to reach their aspirations. Excellence will never be achieved simply by chasing one-size-fits-all, common core type curriculums. While there unquestionably is a body of knowledge that all students should obtain, and of skills and abilities that all students should acquire and apply, excellence is only achieved when education goes beyond those broad goals and moves every student to bringing the power of who they are to bear on that knowledge, so that it becomes something uniquely theirs. Then it will bring enjoyment to them, and the privilege for us of receiving their worthwhile and valuable contribution to society. And isn’t that what the purpose of education is supposed to be?