Thoughts on 'Brainless' Learning

July 9, 2013, 4:58 PM · "Bah!" said my one-year-old daughter from her stroller, pointing at the sky. What on Earth? Ah, it wasn't something on Earth; it was the moon. She was pointing to the moon in the morning sky. Why was she calling it a "bah"? I looked up at the moon thoughtfully. What were her words at this point? "Mama" and "Da." "Bah" -- that was her word for "ball." Ball -- it's round!

"You're right my dear, it looks like a ball. But it's the moon. Moooooon."

Moon

"Moo!" she said, pointing at that ball-ish thing in the sky. Still pointing, she looked back at me.

"Yes, that's the moon!" I confirmed. Later on the same walk, she pointed to the satellite dish on our roof. "Bah!" This time I knew what she meant: she wanted the word for that round thing.

"It's round like a ball," I nodded. "That's a satellite dish. Sa-tel-lite dish."

She paused for a moment. "Bah!"

I laughed. "Good enough!"

Children are like sponges, educators like to say; they'll pick up anything. When we look back at our own language learning, most of us don't remember the process. Maybe we know the first word we said, if Mom told us. It seems like we just brainlessly "picked it up." Likewise, people often say that the Suzuki method, with its emphasis on early learning, produces players who are unthinking robots because children brainlessly pick up how to play the violin, without understanding the why and how of what is going on.

But what exactly is "brainless learning"? It's when a child mindlessly imitates his teacher and does the bidding of his parents, who fill him or her up like an empty cup. Except, that's not how it works, ever. Beginning Suzuki lessons involve the painstaking development of many new skills: clapping rhythms, matching pitches, matching numbers to fingers, learning note names, singing, memorizing songs, holding a bow, balancing a violin, placing a finger firmly on a string….By the time a child learns to play "Twinkle," he or she has learned some 45 new skills. Is this process brainless? Why? Because the child didn't analyze and question each of the 45 skills he or she learned? (Actually, in many cases, the child did -- anyone who teaches small children knows this. A three-year-old's favorite question is "Why? Why? Why?")

In early language learning, we "pick up" what we are ready to "pick up," and we speak what we are ready to speak. The two don't always happen at the same pace. We might continue to call the satellite dish a "bah" until the speaking skills catch up and allow us to pronounce a longer chain of syllables and form the more complicated words, "satellite dish."

The same happens in music. A student might hear a professional recording of Paganini's Le Streghe and have this version in his or her head. But perhaps the student's developing technique only enables him or her to play the Suzuki arrangement of Witches Dance -- the same tune, but much less complicated. And maybe it comes out a little stiff around the edges: rigid in rhythm, pedantic in pace, not much vibrato yet, fingers going in the right places only because tapes are there.

This in no way makes the student an unthinking, brainless robot.

Children speak slowly. They mis-pronounce. They over-simplify concepts, and they repeat things they don't yet understand. They read aloud with less expression than Siri. A few hot-shot kids can read aloud at age five with the fluency of a newscaster, but not many.

Yet not one of their efforts to speak or read is "brainless" learning. It's just learning learning. I would argue that the same is true for very young violin students: their learning uses their brains a great deal, and its dependence on a parent is as temporary as is their dependence on a parent for language learning or learning to ride a bicycle.

Perhaps the unique thing that adults like to call "brainlessness" is just openness. Children don't fight learning. They don't look for the "right way" to learn, they just learn in whatever way is presented. Yes, it's a problem if they are presented with bad information and they learn the wrong thing. In violin, you run the danger of learning bad posture habits, scratchy tone, out-of-tune finger placement, a tense hand, etc. But that's not the same thing as learning "the wrong way." If you learned the right thing, there is no "wrong way" to have learned it, and nothing about your knowledge or playing is "brainless."

Replies

July 10, 2013 at 12:03 AM · Yes!

July 10, 2013 at 04:43 AM · Perhaps a good term to describe the difference between early childhood and adult learning patterns would be “non-mindful” vs. “mindful.” Young children simply learn without being aware that they are learning. Adults, by comparison, can be very aware and directive of their learning process. There is, of course, a huge gray area between the two during which an individual transitions from non-mindful to mindful learning as she grows up.

Both types of learning have unique advantages. The beauty of Suzuki instruction is that it recognizes the non-mindful learning of early childhood and capitalizes upon it to help a person learn to play a musical instrument. Possibly this is the first method to do so.

An interesting question for the adult learner is to what extent is it possible to reclaim the lost non-mindful learning of youth; how can it be balanced with mindful, analytical learning; and what advantages in the learning process this might bring to an adult learner.

July 10, 2013 at 02:30 PM · Your... gulp! one-year-old daughter? This was written a decade ago, right?

I guess my focus should have been on the article's subject and not the anecdote. But boy, you sure drew ME in with that opener!

Oh. Nice article, too! : )

July 10, 2013 at 03:30 PM · I must confess that that incident occurred SOME time ago -- today is her 16th birthday! She definitely expresses a wide variety of independent thoughts now! But the exchange was such a revelation for me, the way her ability to express things was evolving, and the way she was testing what she knew while growing a wider vocabulary.

July 10, 2013 at 04:23 PM · Her 16th birthday today? Omigosh! Tell her to have a "bah"ll! ; )

So off topic, I realize, but blogs can be fun that way, huh? And I got a shiver of vicarious relief when you admitted that no, you do not have a 1-y-o daughter tucked away there at home. (My issue, not yours, here!)

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