Promoting Meaningful Learning in the Suzuki Method
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, College of Fine Arts and Communication
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Suzuki teachers who have the opportunity to teach students who have completed all the Suzuki repertoire often enjoy the satisfaction of seeing them continue their progress in their higher music education. Other learning methods may include exams and other kinds of negative pressure, and can be joyless experiences. And yet, the Suzuki students still achieve similar results as their conservatory counterparts, learn at their own pace, and have the same motivation to be the best musicians they can become. But exams, and other assessments of the level and performance of the students, are in part a test of effectiveness for the teacher. In general, a teacher’s work cannot be assessed by looking at her most successful students. One must also consider those who have not yet become successful, and the drop-out rate over a teacher’s history. Has the teacher helped her students to love music, feel good about their music making, be organized with regard to their practice time, and learn in a way that stays with them and helps them think for themselves, be creative, and meet their potential? The theory of meaningful learning is relevant to this issue because it describes how to identify efficient teaching and learning, a way to help students gain long-lasting knowledge and high-level abilities by taking the small steps needed to accomplish this. What teachers do in the class, what happens during home practices, and even the actual results must pass through many filters that cannot always be controlled: the background knowledge of the student, a home environment that facilitates learning, and the willingness to learn on the part of the student are crucial points in this pathway. Meaningful learning theory and its ramifications throughout various studies of the learning process also touch on these points and consider their relevance to students’ learning pace and quality. One other point to consider is that most of the time, teachers base their work on procedures in order to teach certain abilities, finding a way that works most of the time, and they keep teaching it in that way student after student. This is not wrong. They probably learned these methods from experienced teachers with whom they have observed and trained. However, times change, people change, society changes, and the teacher must adapt to the particular student in front of her at any given moment. As an example, many teachers comment in forums and meetings the physical impact of two very concrete facts on children: the use of electronic devices (smartphones and tablets) and the removal of sand from the parks and its replacement with soft ground. The tactile devices make the students’ thumbs and index fingers strong and tight, and the lack of time playing with sand (or play dough, clay, and other such materials) makes all the outer parts of the hand (the ring finger and pinky) very weak. How are music teachers reacting to this issue in order to provide these young students with the strength they need to actually play a note with the tip of the pinky or ease up with the thumbs to avoid tension? This is only one of many small details that reflect the continuous transformation of society and therefore education. If a teacher wants to be truly effective, she must discover a way to make what she is teaching interesting, accessible, and relevant to the students, who in spite of their age, have specific cultural and family environments, clear preferences, and a background of experiences that can be used to the teacher’s advantage or ignored. It is a great responsibility. There are many uncontrollable factors in students’ lives that affect their learning. The society continues to change. Teachers change as well. Promoting meaningful learning is challenging, but it is possible. What follows is an introduction to David Ausubel’s theory of meaningful learning and some ideas about how it can be used in Suzuki teaching.