Experiential Learning: I played the violin!

I recently attended the HEA Annual Conference in Birmigham. A great event overall, and I will begin my account of it talking about a great session I attended there on “Experiential Learning” delivered by the mighty Laura Ritchie.

When we entered the session venue, the room was already set with violins, cellos, violas and scores: intimidating to say the least. Very few of us had ever touched an instrument. (It took me 40 years to ever go near a violin!) So off we went, the session started with Laura asking us to lift our violin and hold it like the torch of the Statue of Liberty. This allowed us to turn it onto our shoulders and have it just in the correct position, without even knowing it. (Pedagogy Principle 1: when you lay out your teaching material you have to set it so that students will not even need to think about what is the “right” way of approaching it; it will be all orchestrated (pardon the pun) for them so that they can slide into the right practice seamlessly!) We started to get familiar with our instruments, plinging it, finding notes between giggles and hesitations. (Pedagogy Principle 2: learning should be fun and thrilling after all). After this first induction, we were ready to pick up our bows; here we went with another easy demonstration on how to hold the bow right as we were supposed to. After a little of practice, Laura asked us to take turns and observe each other to correct our techniques, helping each other out to fix problems. (Pedagogy Principle 3: peer-instruction anyone?) More was added to our set of skills (jumping across weeks of what constitutes  the syllabus for professional players). We were playing our first concerto, we had conductors, and we were asking the conductors what we needed out of them: tempo, prompting …or ‘breathe’ as they call it! (Pedagogy Principle 4: student feedback to their instructors, what do student need out of us? Are they able to articulate it?) We were asked to invent a short tune, and then look at somebody else in the room. The person we picked was supposed to replicate exactly what we did, and play it on her instrument. (Pedagogy Principle 5: peer-instruction and collaboration. Observe each other, replicate each other’s practice). Lots of emotions were going through my mind while I was struggling to catch the tune, mastering the technique, finding notes, holding the bow…and trying to make my violin producing a sound (for how atrocious it was). Laura remarked that we were struggling, but that we did not give up. By the end of the session we were able to play “Old MacDonald’s Farm”…all by ourselves! (Pedagogy Principle 6: It does not matter how small, you need to give your students an objective to achieve. You need to make sure that they constantly see a purpose to the effort they are putting in their learning. You need to allow them to see the light at the end of the tunnel, a little reward for the investment they make, a sense of reward that brings satisfaction ‘right here and right now’, not just at the end of the module, and not just at the end of their degree).

Laura’s session was a truly inspirational and humbling experience: I think I am a good teacher, and I used to think that I knew exactly how it feels being a student learning new material, drawing on my experience and my memories as a student. Yes, there is some truth in all this, and relying on our emotional intelligence is important (quite ironic that Alan Mortyboys, pivotal figure in the emotional intelligence literature, was sitting just next to me with his violin). The truth is that many moons have passed since I was a student, and I had to acknowledge that my emotional intelligence alone does not make up for the fact that I am no longer a spring-chicken in my teaching profession. I needed to be reminded how it feels to be a student struggling to grasp new material, something never learnt before, with peers all around me, who could judge me and make fun of me, but who could also help me and support my own learning. Thank you Laura for bringing me back to a more humble-self, you certainly left a mark.


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