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The Science of Learning

Most people are familiar with the theory of learning styles, which describes four main ways we learn: visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic. Researchers debate the validity of this theory and there’s always new science coming out around the concept of learning. It seems like every couple of years, a new theory dominates the field and schools change their curriculum for the newest and hottest take on learning.



I have been thinking a lot about what I’ve observed in my own students and how each of them learns best. I’ve noticed that I’ve adapted my teaching style to two main types of learners and that there’s one style of learning that appears to be universal. Again, all of this is based on my own experience. I am not a scientist and I’ve done no real scientific research on the topic, so take this for what it’s worth.


Top-Down Learners


Some students need to see the big picture first to learn best. These students want to look at the picture on the puzzle box and understand the overall concept before they start digging through the pieces and looking for parts that fit together.




How do I adapt my teaching to these learners? An easy example is how I approach teaching reading the grand staff to piano players. These students do well when we start with the grand staff. I take them through the history of the grand staff, and I show them the 11 line staff. We talk about how hard it would be to keep track of which line/space you’re on with that many lines. Then I erase the middle line and show them how it magically morphs into the grand staff with two sets of 5 lines. That missing middle line? That’s middle C! We draw the ledger line only when we need it so that it’s much easier to read the notes quickly without having to count lines and spaces. Once they have an understanding of how the grand staff works, we shift into focusing on learning bass clef. When they’ve mastered bass clef, we learn treble clef. Then we finally put it all together into the grand staff.


Bottom-Up Learners


Students who don’t need the big picture want to understand the individual building blocks of a concept before they can wrap their heads around the big picture. These students want to dig through the puzzle pieces and sort them by color, shape, etc. before they ever look at the picture on the box. Some of them even want to put the puzzle together without ever looking at the picture on the box.



Using the same example of piano players learning to read the grand staff, these students would be lost if we started with the 11 line staff and the history of how we got to the grand staff we have today. They want to focus on one clef at a time and master each piece before they try to put it in the context of the grand staff. We still eventually learn about the 11 line staff and the history, because that’s important information for understanding how it all works together, but these students aren’t ready for that content until they have a handle on the details. It’s a simple change for me to flip the order of the lessons and accommodate how these students learn best!


The Universal Learning Style


No matter what theory of learning you ascribe to, there’s one common element that is a sure-fire way to achieve real learning. It’s something all of my best teachers throughout my education knew and used to their advantage, and it’s something I constantly strive to implement in my lessons: SURPRISE.


Novelty enhances memory. The act of being surprised, or encountering something novel, is something that jolts our brains out of their routine and that novelty is more easily stored in the brain.


“Psychologists have known for some time that if we experience a novel situation within a familiar context, we will more easily store this event in memory. But only recently have studies of the brain begun to explain how this process happens and to suggest new ways of teaching that could improve learning and memory.” (Learning by Surprise, Fenker and Schutze, Scientific American)

For more details on what is actually happening in the brain when we encounter something novel, you can read the rest of the article quoted above here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/learning-by-surprise/


It can be tricky to constantly create novelty, and as the article states, the novelty has to occur within a familiar context. My challenge as a music teacher is to create enough routine and structure to our lessons that it’s a predictable environment, but also to create novelty within that routine. Sometimes I do that through a new game or activity. Sometimes it’s created in how I present the material. With my youngest kids, when we sing note names, I might do funny voices. I do a KILLER Cookie Monster voice. Other times it’s as simple as having a big, funny reaction when a student nails something that they’ve been working on. I might clap and cheer. I might get up and dance. I might literally fall out of my chair in shock. As a teacher, I have to be willing to try silly and strange things to create those novel moments that lock in memories and concepts long-term.


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It’s one of my favorite tasks as a teacher to figure out how each student learns best. I love creating lesson plans designed for an individual and their interests. Nothing feels better as a teacher than knowing I knocked it out of the park and helped a student learn something new that they’ll remember for life.


How do you learn best? Are you a top-down learner or a bottom-up learner? What kind of novel moments or surprises have your teachers created that burned a concept into your mind forever?


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