Teaching without Telling
Advanced Technology Group
Apple Computer, Inc.
Learning Concepts Group Note #17
Sometimes you can teach better without saying anything.
May 22, 1995
Research Note: RN-95-55
Educational concerts for children usually follow a predictable pattern: the musicians demonstrate their instruments, play a few short pieces, and perhaps try to make a point or two about some aspect of music. There's usually a fair amount of talking and explaining in these presentations: the musicians tell what the violin bow is made of, they recount how they got started playing, they say who wrote the music, they define some terms.
Recently XTET, a chamber music group of which I'm a member, produced some children's concerts for an audience that didn't all speak English. For a while we thought we'd do the concert bilingually, in Spanish and English, but then we found out that some of the kids spoke only Armenian. We decided we'd better do the concert without saying anything.
I thought this was an unfortunate decision. If an audience is unfamiliar with chamber music, one of the best ways to win them over is to talk with them in a friendly way. I feared that by giving up talking we were giving up our best means of establishing a human connection with our audience.
Boy, was I wrong. Instead of becoming restless and noisy as children's concert audiences usually do, our audience stayed quiet, interested, and engaged. Leaving out the words seemed to help.
Of course, abandoning speech wasn't sufficient to keep our audience involved. We had thought hard about how to create a concert that would help the children stay curious and fascinated.
To do this, we prepared a collection of brief events involving different combinations of our musicians. The events were like short "bits" or sketches: they were brief pieces of music and quick demonstrations of the instruments. In the performance, musicians came onstage to do something, then left to make room for somebody else. You never knew who, or what, was coming next. For pieces that started with only part of the group, we had people stay offstage until it was time to, literally, come in. Some of the events were related: certain melodies would keep cropping up.
A few of the events were silly. The clarinetist came out on stage, opened his case, and started to put his instrument together. When he added a piece to his instrument he'd play a little, and you could hear the sound change as the clarinet grew. But just when he almost had the instrument completed, he reached into the case and pulled out something that didn't quite fit: a metal pipe, a Barbie doll, a bagel. He couldn't seem to find that final piece.
Other events were quite simple, but fascinating because instruments are simply fascinating. The percussionist assembled a marimba before our very eyes. (Even the musicians waiting offstage craned their necks to watch this one.) The harpist showed some of the beautiful sounds a harp can make. (Later in the concert she came back with two other musicians and played those same sounds again as part of a piece of music.)
Some of the events were exactly like what you might see at any children's concert, except that nobody said anything. The flutist blew across bottles and then across her flute and piccolo. Volunteers came up onstage to organize single-note percussion instruments into a familiar melody.
The only words we spoke were a welcome at the beginning and a farewell at the end, and even these became a musical event: each sentence was echoed by instruments hidden backstage. We didn't say what the instruments were called. We didn't give the titles of the pieces, or tell who wrote what, or say when or where anything was composed.
The result seemed to be a heightened attention, a sense of fun and enjoyment. At several points we felt a wonderful hush of expectancy. A happy side-effect was that the musicians enjoyed the concert, too. Many of them had entered into the project reluctantly, even grumblingly, having played too many dispiriting kiddie concerts, but the pleasure of surprising and delighting their audience seemed to energize the players as well.
What's so great about shutting up? I'm not sure, but I think kids get talked at so much that they may tune out when an adult starts dispensing information. By not talking, we left the children in charge of deciding what was interesting and important. Also, our format offered them the fun of puzzling out what was going on. Because we didn't announce what was coming next, they had to figure it out for themselves.
Maybe by getting the words out of the way we made it easier for musical perception to take over. (Betty Edwards talks about how hard it is to talk and draw at the same time; these modes are in conflict.)
Last summer I watched a teacher instruct a class of young violinists. The class was
too big, too diverse in age and ability, and it met in a cramped, stuffy room in
the heat of the afternoon. The children were cranky, restless, sluggish, and tired.
Twice the teacher taught the entire class without saying a word. From the moment she walked
in, she was mute. The class was riveted, attentive to her every move and gesture,
and their attentiveness woke them up and replenished their energy. It was some of
the best teaching I've ever seen.
I am reminded of an axiom I first heard from math teacher Mary Laycock: "Teaching is not telling." Mary is one of those teachers who concoct situations to engage children in the exciting and enjoyable task of figuring things out for themselves. Since so much of what needs to be learned is non-verbal, it makes sense that doing without words might help.