Educational Pyschology

What’s going on at Individual Guitar Lessons

Watching a good guitar teacher teach – is so interesting. Probably without knowing it, they do some amazing work completely inline with the tenets of Constructivism and Educational Psychology. They are true masters at keeping the student in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) while acting as a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) (Lev Vygotsky). They carefully scaffold student learning (Jerome Bruner) while trying to encourage error free progression (B.F. Skinner)  and then somehow intuitively know when to bring in some desirable difficulties (Bob Bjork).Veillette-Veillette-Flyer-14_gear_product

A big piece of keeping the student engaged and progressing is managing their cognitive load. There are 3 pieces to cognitive load; intrinsic load, extrinsic load and germane load. All three of these add up to the total cognitive load. The trick is to keep this total sum below the students maximum cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load is related to the difficulty of the task. We most often reduce intrinsic cognitive load by chunking instruction into smaller pieces. Harder the material, the smaller chunks a novice will need to stay engaged, but not overwhelmed. The Extrinsic cognitive load are the distracting things that add to your total cognitive load. It could be a poorly formatted web page or a party going on in next room. One of the reasons for doing guitar lessons in a quiet room is to reduce the amount your brain is working to process non-task related distractions. The third piece of cognitive load is Germane cognitive load which could be that little story about the roots of the blues and where a particular song came from. Which might be fine to tell, if student isn’t already working at their maximum cognitive load. Have you ever noticed after you have mastered something that you become more interested in the history and story behind it. That is a result of intrinsic load drop as something becomes more automatic and you have spare cognitive load to attend to germane details. We all have limited cognitive bandwidth and the trick is to design instruction for where the student is at. An expert can be given a large chunk of information, taught at a high pace, and might still be able to keep up and learn it. A novice would quickly become cognitively overwhelmed. What the novice needs is smaller chunks, slower pace, and more repetition to keep their cognitive load at acceptable levels. When a guitar teacher has you work on the that one phrase or strum or bar, they are trying to find the correct size of task to cognitively challenge you, but not cognitively overwhelm you (whether they know that is what they are doing – is a different question). They want you to practice some of these basic skills so they become automatic which makes them use fewer cognitive resources, so you have more cognitive bandwidth to focus on the main learning task.

When we learn something new, we start by just trying to know mechanically what note or chord to play, eventually understand how different notes and chords fit together, and with time and practice begin to apply the right notes and chords at the right time. With time and practice we can start to use this knowledge and understanding to create new music. This progression is nicely described by Benjamin Bloom‘s cognitive domain taxonomy. Bloom’s taxonomy has this progression from knowing to understanding to applying to creating. One of the interesting things to notice about Bloom’s taxonomy for the cognitive domain is only the lowest level is directly focused on the acquisition of quantities of information. The higher levels all focus on developing deeper meaning.

Biggs and Collis (1982) SOLO taxonomy of learning also nicely captures this learning journey. The SOLO taxonomy has 5 levels:

  • Pre-structural: students acquire new, unconnected pieces of information
  • Unistructural: students begin making simple, obvious connections between pieces of information
  • Mulitstructural: students continue to make connections and begin to be aware of the significance of connections between pieces of information
  • Relational: students switch from information acquisition to the organization of information to facilitate deepening meaning;
  • Extended abstract: students begin to recognize and use emergent patterns and are able to generalize and transfer learning to new situations; students are able to successfully apply abstraction to the understanding of concrete situations.

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In the first three stages of the SOLO taxonomy (Pre-structural, UnistructuraL and Multistructural) you a quantitatively acquire bits of information and the obvious connections between the bits of information – you arrive with some prior knowledge then you learn the notes and scales and practicing them till they are automatic. But your playing at these stages can be a bit robotic, it definitely gets more interesting in the next two stages (Relational and Extended Abstract) when you deepen the meaning of what you already “know”. You start to see deeper meaning  in the connections between the bits you have learned….scales start to make sense….which notes goes with what scale and what chord at a particular time in a song makes sense. You are finding deeper meaning in the connections between bits of information. At the highest level of learning in this taxonomy you start to see emergent patterns – you begin to see even deeper patterns and relationships.

Guitar teachers will switch you from mass practice to interleaved practice (Bob Bjork) depending on what they are trying to achieve. With massed practice, there is an interesting effect that every guitar student has likely felt after a large block of practice at a lesson. We get home from the lesson and suddenly are not as good as we were at the lesson and can’t do the very thing we did at the lesson – time and time again. Blocking practice can lead to what is known as “high accessibility” which turns out NOT to be a reliable index of  learning. To practice so it sticks we need to constantly interleave practice of different tasks and skills. Unfortunately interleaving isn’t very satisfying, who wants to delay the feeling of progress?  This “delay” in progress is in fact increasing “true” learning. Bob Bjork eloquently describes these competing factors as “storage strength” (learning) and “retrieval strength” (accessibility). There is also the effect of no longer being in your Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) because you are no longer with your More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) (Lev Vygotsky)

Finally, our teachers encourage us to practice more, telling us that practice is the key to success. This is good advice, and is in line  with the Carol Dweck idea that we have a fixed or growth view of intelligence (known as fixed or growth mindset). When we have a fixed mindset, we think intelligence is that immutable gift we get from our genes – we are as good as our “talent”. With a fixed mindset, lots of practice should be unnecessary, if we are talented enough. This notion of the gift of “talent” contrasts with the more useful belief in a growth mindset, where we think intelligence is a work in progress and effort and practice are the key to mastery.  Carol Dweck has done some wonderful studies that confirm that the growth mindset is the most useful, if we want to truly become expert.

Ideas about Large Group Instruction

I just had a less then optimal experience with large group guitar instruction. As one of the less skilled players in the room, I would quickly get over-whelmed and fall off the instructional train. The instructional train never slowed down or backed up to help me get back on board.

Large group instruction is extremely challenging to do well.

First, the learning environment needs to be safe. What I mean by safe is that the teacher and other students need to be friendly and encouraging to create an environment where risk taking and  failure are celebrated as an important part of the learning process. I think there is a unfortunate belief out there that if we are friendly and encouraging enough, the novice can just take the plunge and jump in and learn – unfortunately a safe learning environment isn’t the only thing the novice needs. Many large group lessons actually do very well with creating these safe learning environments. It’s not enough. Although it is key, it just an important first step in developing effective instruction.

When there is great diversity in students prior knowledge and skill levels – using direct instruction is problematic. When you have diverse learners and rely on direct instruction, the best you can do is aim somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately this leaves the novice behind and bores the more advanced students. But how can you differentiate instruction to accommodate the different skill levels? The answer is scaffolding. It provides interim supports the novice learner. Scaffolds are used by the novice during instruction to reduce their cognitive load. We all have limited cognitive bandwidth and novices are very susceptible to being overwhelmed. Experts often have practiced enough that many skills become automatic and take very little cognitive overhead. So they actually have more cognitive bandwidth available to learn something new.  This makes it really hard of novice who is often operating at very high cognitive loads right from the start. Scaffolds can can reduce the total cognitive load of a given task, so novices don’t become over-whelmed. The rub with scaffolds is they actually reduce learning for more advanced learners. The trick is to provide optional scaffolds that only the novice accesses. In the context of a group guitar lesson they might be song sheets, tablature, pre-class preparation exercises, or videos that can be used by the novice to prepare before the session and accurately practice after the session.

The other difficulty for the teacher is to pick an appropriate pace and decide how best to chunk the pieces of instruction into smaller cognitively digestible bits for the novice. By using smaller chunks of instruction, the teacher is lowering the intrinsic cognitive load and trying to keep total cognitive load below the students maximum cognitive load. Repetition can be really important here, since it can give the novice the opportunity to get back on the instructional train and to help build what is called automaticity. The more we practice a specific task, the less cognitive processing power it takes and more is left over to learn other things. It needs to be an interesting dance at the edge of what a student can do – not too easy and not too hard. The interesting part about automaticity is that it can lead to the curse of expertise in the teacher. When we practice and practice and finally really learn something, we often can’t remember all the component tasks and struggles. A great teacher is the expert who can remember well the struggles as a beginner. This often needs to be specific repetition of the original instructions, not just more practice/playing opportunities. The SET-BODY-CLOSE lesson plan model could probably be used to great effect here.

Feedback drives learning. Getting enough targeted and specific feedback can be problematic in larger settings where the teacher is a scarce resource. A really nice idea is that the teacher ask students to stop playing once they got something figured out, since this helps the teacher get connected with the students who have yet to figure it out. The other place you might be able to create opportunities for corrective feedback is student-to-student. The teacher could form dyads or trios at beginning of class based on skill levels. That way if a more advanced student figures it out, they can then be tasked with teaching it to their teammates. The nice part of this is that the diversity is used to increase the quality of instruction. This is a very pleasant shift from the thinking that diversity is a “problem” to be managed. The other nice piece of this is that student-to-student feedback is completely scalable. More students, more groups – all the while feedback inside each group is maintained at high levels.

It’s ironic that developing instruction for novices is actually much more difficult and time consuming than developing instruction for more expert learners.