Constructivist education is about helping the students to construct their own knowledge. We do this is in many ways. We give them group or individual projects, short and long term, which they work to master based on their own skills, class materials, and prior knowledge. We, the teachers, guide them with Socratic Questioning to discover pieces their missing. We monitor their independent work, formally an informally, and choose when to help and when to allow short-term failure.
The arts are as amenable as any discipline to constructivism. If students are “taught” art, as I was, it easily becomes unenrolling dogma or, worse, noise. Art at its core is the artist representing meaning and emotional truths in his or her medium. These need to be received by each student individually, with them finding the emotions truths of the art for themselves. Likewise, to be an artist requires the practice of creating art independently.
These methods and skills need to be practiced and used in the classroom but they cannot be limited to the classroom. In fact, they are well suited to independent, overnight pursuit. Giving a student time alone to ponder, experiment, contemplate, and practice is incredibly valuable.
Being sick this week, I laid in bed and to pass the time I watched TED Talks. One of those talks was given by Evelyn Glennie, famous for being one of the world’s greatest percussionists and almost completely deaf. Here is a story she told that demonstrates the value of independent practice beautifully… and the inauthenticy of drills for good measure:
“I remember my teacher. When I first started, my very first lesson, I was all prepared with sticks, ready to go. And instead of him saying, ‘OK, Evelyn, please. Feet slightly apart, arms at a more-or-less 90-degree angle, sticks in a more-or-less V shape, keep this amount of space here, et cetera. Please keep your back straight, et cetera et cetera et cetera.’ Where I was probably just going to end up absolutely rigid, frozen, and I would not be able to strike the drum, because I was thinking of so many other things. He said, ‘Evelyn, take this drum away for seven days, and I’ll see you next week.’
So, heavens! What was I to do? I no longer required the sticks, I wasn’t allowed to have these sticks. I had to basically look at this particular drum, see how it was made, what these little lugs did, what the snares did. Turned it upside down, experimented with the shell, experimented with the head. Experimented with my body, experimented with jewelry, experimented with all sorts of things. And of course, I returned with all sorts of bruises and things like that — but nevertheless, it was such an unbelievable experience, because then, where on Earth are you going to experience that in a piece of music? Where on Earth are you going to experience that in a study book? So we never, ever dealt with actual study books.”
She continues, “So for example, one of the things that we learn when we are dealing with being a percussion player, as opposed to a musician, is basically straightforward single stroke rolls…. And interestingly, the older I became, when I became a full-time student at a so called ‘music institution,’ all of that went out of the window. We had to study from study books. And constantly, the question, well, why? Why? What is this relating to? I need to play a piece of music. ‘Oh, well, this will help your control!’ Well, how? Why do I need to learn that? I need to relate it to a piece of music. You know. I need to say something”
Independent practice is a crucial part of constructivist education.