Are we teaching our students that they can’t learn?

As I’m sat reflecting on my teaching, I can’t help but think of an interaction that I had with a guitar student that I met a while back. This interaction is something I wanted to share with you as I believe it could expose a potentially overlooked issue in our teaching. That issue is the matter of how easy it is to teach our students how to fail. I’ll elaborate…

As a guitar teacher I take on students of all ages, including some students that have had some kind of previous experience with learning guitar. One common issue I see a lot of is a real lack of self esteem when it comes to the individual’s ability to learn. When I dig a little deeper into this, I always seem to end up hearing the same basic story, which is usually along the lines of the story I’d like to share with you from my reflection today – ‘I’ve had lessons before with another teacher, they tried teaching me [insert lesson focus here] and it was really complicated. I just couldn’t do it. I’m rubbish at it.’

My issue isn’t necessarily the story itself – the fact that the student has had an unsatisfactory experience that has led them to me is a good thing. If anything, I have gratitude for the fact that their previous experiences have given me the opportunity to meet and help these awesome individuals. My issue is the fact that when I hear these stories, the student often blames themself for their lack of progress or perceived failure almost 100% of the time. In other words, these experiences cause our students to feel responsible for the fact that they could not learn what was taught to them.

As a teacher, I consider myself to have an extremely prestigious role. This role is one of knowledge, authority, influence, compassion and of trust. To call myself a teacher, I need to exhume these qualities consistently so that there can be no shadow of a doubt in anyone’s mind that I am a reliable source of information and guidance. Having once been a student myself (really, I am still a student!), I know that these are the qualities I’d expect. So, given that I’m fairly average, when I put myself in the shoes of a prospective student I expect that most people also seek the same qualities in a teacher whether it be consciously or unconsciously. Herein is where the issue lies.

In any educational setting, when our students are sat in front of us they are in one of their most vulnerable states, if not THE most vulnerable state. They are (hopefully) prepared to open their minds to us and expect in return the very best knowledge and advice we can give. They are seeking to be enlightened in their chosen disciplines, looking for solutions to problems they have, or may not yet know they have. They want guidance, and we as teachers are being trusted to deliver the right information to help them on their path. They are not – and should never be – in a position to consider or question whether the content of the lesson is suitable to them, they just understand that the content has been passed on to them and there is now an expectation that this is learned. Once that expectation is set, there are two things that can happen:

  1. The student aligns with the expectation and succeeds, or
  2. The student doesn’t meet the expectation and ‘fails’.

Understandably, when an expectation isn’t met, there is a reason for the lack of achievement. Of course, it is easy to be defensive and talk about how our students don’t practise at all, practise the wrong thing or practise something completely different to what it is they have been asked to do. But really, that is just an attempt for us to shirk all responsibility and embarrassment for the fact that our students have lost their way in our care, that we haven’t been effective as teachers. In these situations, it is ultimately our job to read between the lines and understand that our student is trying to communicate some precious information to us within their actions; 24 karat gold feedback. If we are prepared to accept this feedback and try to learn from it ourselves, we will eventually find the very reason they aren’t practising or ‘getting it’. Usually, it is because we are the ones not ‘getting it’. If we shelve our pride and put a decent amount of effort into understanding the feedback we are given, this can create a really strong environment to hone our skills and increase our success. Furthermore, it is important to understand that the reason anybody gives us any kind of feedback is because they want us to be better at what we do. Why would we not listen to what they have to say?

My bottom line is that it is so important to get to know our learners as quickly as we can try to avoid situations like this. I also want to communicate my belief that there is no such thing as a bad learner, but there are misunderstood learners. There are learners that for whatever reason we aren’t reaching, and it is up to us as experienced teachers to develop our sight and sensitivity towards these individuals to reach them and facilitate success. In fact, it is in our best interest not only from a pedagogical perspective, but a financial perspective, too. Afterall, the better our product is, the more people will want to invest in it, right?

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