Questions in the Piano Lesson
How often do you use deliberate questioning as a teaching tool? The most effective teachers ask lots of questions in their interactions with students, even as much as 90% of the time. Wherever possible, they replace an instruction with a question. Whilst questions serve to check for understanding, the most important benefit is that questions engage student thinking to a much greater degree than do instructions.
Having a thought is not thinking. Thinking is an internal conversation, a debate of ideas, considerations, and viewpoints. Thinking precedes action, which precedes learning. John Dewey said, “you do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on that experience”. I take it a step further; you do not learn from experience, but from reflecting and then acting upon that experience.
A good opportunity for deep questioning is when giving feedback. Quality feedback is essential for student progress. Feedback needs to be quick, regular, consistent, and accurate. However, before the teacher imparts their wisdom to the student, intelligent questioning allows for self-evaluation. Most students have a lesson once per week and are their own teachers for the remainder. They need to be able to monitor and self-evaluate their progress without the aid of a teacher.
Monitoring and evaluation, along with goal setting and reflection, are the essential metacognitive components for self-directed learning. For self-evaluation, the question could be as simple as “what do you think?” or “what are your thoughts?”. The best teachers continue this questioning process, driving deeper learning for understanding and insight. They tell their students almost nothing, prompting and probing, drawing as much as possible from the student without providing answers. It’s a little like delaying the final perfect cadence! These teachers do not accept shallow or superficial responses, and they have high expectations of the student. Intelligent questions suggest no teacher judgement or expected response, allowing for greater freedom of response.
Useful questions include –
- What makes you say that? (Harvard’s favourite question for driving thinking deeper)
- What are you thinking?
- Tell me what you hear. How does it sound to you?
- Can you explain to me what you are doing?
- Is how you are practising working? Why? Why not?
- What can you do to learn this passage thoroughly?
- Can you show me how to do this?
- What goals would you like to set this week?
Feedback and associated questions apply to both the competent and less-competent aspects of playing. Many teachers are clear with feedback on weaknesses, but less specific on what was good about the playing. They say things like, “that was good. But this section…” What was good about it? Students need to develop an acute awareness of the competent aspects of their playing, as well as the weaknesses. Students can be tough critics of themselves. The question “tell me three good things about your playing just now” prompts a positive focus. Perception of progress is the greatest motivator. Progress must be visible and articulated often, for should the student perceive they are not making progress, they may well stop learning altogether.
When asking questions, teachers should increase the ‘wait’ time for an answer before butting in. The longer the wait-time, the more opportunity to think and explore possibilities. Students can be very quick to say, “I don’t know”, effectively halting the thinking process. We cannot accept this. Thinking needs time. Besides, what is it you don’t know, why do you not know this, and what then, do you know?
Sometimes an instruction is more appropriate than a question. For example, “have your music ready please” rather than an unnecessary question “have you got your music out yet?”.
Questioning is the essence of Socratic teaching. Plato tells the story that Socrates would teach without imparting information or answers. He would ask questions alone, allowing students to construct their own learning.
I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only hope to make them think. – Socrates
Studies on instrumental music teaching reveal that increasing the quality and quantity of questioning in lesson time, is for many teachers, an area for improvement. When teacher talk dominates the lesson, at best shallow learning results. Metacognitive teaching approaches, like questioning, foster how to think rather than what to think, resulting in a greater engagement, motivational autonomy, and capacity to generate ideas and solutions.
Michael Griffin is a pianist, educator, author, and speaker. His website is professional-development.com.au. He is the author of “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” and “Developing Musical Skill – For Students”. Books available through Amazon, Alfred Music (Australia and UK), or email firstname.lastname@example.org.