How we learn, how we educate, and how we educate ourselves.

There’s a subject that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now, but one I didn’t really feel I had a lot of concrete thought on: it was something I knew, but something I had no really solid way to talk about. It certainly wasn’t anything that I felt was solid enough to blog about, even though the fact of it was something that had been a fundamental thread in the blanket of my reality as long as I can remember. I want to try to talk about it a bit today.

It is fact, pure science, that everyone learns a little differently – that our brains aren’t quite wired the same. After my post about left-handed ukulele, this seemed like a good time to take a post to really investigate this subject a bit, because how we learn bears a direct correlation to how we learn music.

I’ve gone and signed up for a Coursera music theory class. I don’t have any intention of doing any of the quizzes or what have you, and am approaching it sort of as if I’m auditing. (special thanks to vishalishous of Ugly Bass Face for mentioning it).

I know, and have known for a while now, that I really need to delve a bit into theory – at least enough to learn how to read music and figure out enough of the basics that I don’t have to keep googling definitions of musical words.  I did my intro to music theory at uke fest, and I have a book on the subject. I’m having a really hard time opening that book and making it keep my attention in spite of it being laid out in a straight forward sort of way.

Some of us remember data, others look for patterns.  I’ve always been in the latter camp, and this course very much reinforces that for me. I like it because each segment is only 10 minutes long.  Even I won’t ADD to badly in such a short period of them, and the video aspect of things makes it easier to focus. But, reality being real, I do seem myself approaching the subject the way I’ve always done with everything: paying far more attention to connections and patterns than definitions.

I majored in Literature in college. I thought, for a brief time, that I was going to be a high-school teacher so was in the education program, and for bullshit money-grab reasons had to take several courses more than once and loaded 80 hours of in classroom observation under my belt before I threw my hands in the air and said ‘fuck this nonsense’.Between the office politics, and an educational system that is designed not to give kids a solid, foundation of usable knowledge, but rather, teaches them how to pass tests, I just couldn’t endure the idea of making myself a cog in a broken machine.

When I was actually in high school, I watched the very same trap over and over again, where students who were barely passing their classes were floating through standardized exams, and straight A students, some of the most intelligent kids I knew, having to take those same tests multiple times to scrape by with a somewhat respectable score.  I took the SAT twice to crack 1000. Even then, I only barely managed it. I’m a poet, and actually got a high SAT score in math, a subject I have never excelled in, than English. And yet, I was in the top 25% of my graduating class without having ever studied for tests. I always figured if I was paying attention in class, there was no need to study, and that I wasn’t going to cram information in my brain in 15 minutes that I’d had months to learn, so there really was no point; either I knew it, or I didn’t. When I finally chose a college, they didn’t even look at my SAT scores. I don’t recall my exact GPA, but in high school it was somewhere around 3.7-3.8. In Community College I think it was around 3.6-3.7 (with the same lack of studying, which I maintained while teaching karate, working 2 part time jobs totaling 30+ hours per week, and taking an average of 12-15 credits a semester. I was a busy kid. lol.).  When I chose a 4 year college to finish up in, they didn’t even glance at my SAT scores. My GPA told them all they really needed to know. I didn’t even have to write an essay. And, that’s what the transfer councilor essentially told me: that they only look at SAT scores when the GPA is borderline or below average.

So, I became really disenchanted with the educational system, which hasn’t changed. As long as we continue to educate to test rather than test to gauge education, we will continue with this self-perpetrating system in which standardized testing exists as a life jacket for kids who can’t pass their classes, and a humbling mechanism for those who can. (And, as something neutral for all those kids who fall somewhere between.)  Sufficed to say, I dropped the education program.  I can’t say whether or not that was the right choice, but at the time, I couldn’t imagine being chained to it for life. I don’t know that my opinion on the matter has really changed.

I’m not going to suggest that the situation with music education is just as bad, but I am going to suggest that it has the potential for falling into precisely the same trap.

As a literature major, I have a really good command of grammar (please don’t use this blog as an example. It’s very stream of consciousness and I very rarely bother to edit. lol), but if you want me to define ‘present participle’ or ‘syntax’, you are barking up the wrong tree. I can use grammar; I have no need whatsoever to define it.  Some people have no problem fussing over this sort of minutiae. In fact, some people actually enjoy it. (They’re aliens, I’m sure. 🙂 ) I’ve never been one of those people, which has proved to me that my approach to music theory is going to be much the same.  It’s going to take me a really, really long time to remember what things are called, if I ever learn that at all. But the ability to apply how to use those things is likely to come faster. I will remember definitions enough to describe practical applications, but anything out of that scope is just going to be hard for me to retain.

This is how I learn: How does it connect? Is it useful? If it’s not useful, is it fascinating/entertaining/etc? If it’s boring, do I really need it? And, I think this is very much the difference between formal education and my weird DIY approach. To be fair, I chose the DIY methodology because I really don’t have the financial freedom to throw money at a proper instructor on a regular schedule. But, having said that, I remember that I have a history of this sort of learning. I always learned very little sitting in class, listening. I always learned most from doing the reading, from finding something fascinating and pursuing more information on it. That means my learning process is strange, and vastly subject to when the inspiration hits. Is that good or bad? I’d argue it’s neither. It just is, and I think each student, and each teacher, owes it to themselves to acknowledge that the same learning methods just aren’t going to work well for everyone.

It was as this was bouncing around in my brain that I came across this:

A lot of the comments below the video on youtube will basically make you throw up in your mouth, but whether you are a fan of this kid or not, you definitely have to acknowledge that the root of what he’s getting at is that, in a world where the internet gives you access to any information you want to find, it is very possible to be your own instructor. Does that mean everyone is best served to learn that way? Not necessarily, but it is a system that does work very well for some.

What I love about this video is that he goes from, ‘first I learned this on guitar’, to ‘then I got curious about this and learned that’, then he learned something else, and something else, and, all these divergent things…he pulled together. Eventually, with enough hard work, he connected the dots.  For someone who is more inclined towards this way of learning – chasing whatever is interesting at the time – I can draw a lot of inspiration from things like this, where even though he doesn’t outright say it, he’s exploring, then connecting. Exploring, then connecting again, finding a place where patterns form.

Some people would say this is the wrong way to learn, that you should do things in order, but some people don’t have orderly thought patterns (and, some people do), and I think it’s doing a disservice to those people to sit them down and say ‘do this my way’.

So, those of you googling your way through it: be self-aware, figure out how you think, how you connect the dots, and play to your strengths. And, those of you who are teachers, I ask you, please, be aware of your students; pay attention to how they are learning, what information they are absorbing and what information they are not absorbing, and adapt the way you teach them to best suit the way they learn, because they can not adapt their learning to your teaching, no matter how much they might like to.

I guess at the end of the day, this post did end up being a bit scattered, but I hope, somewhere in there, my point was made – that we have to acknowledge how our brains work to create a system of education that best suits the student, rather than forcing the student to conform to the system.

Until Next Time, struggling through music theory as best I can. If all I remember is the ‘how’ and not the ‘what’, well, I think that still counts as a sort of success, in its way.

2 thoughts on “How we learn, how we educate, and how we educate ourselves.

  1. I’m glad you’re going through the videos for that course, even if its somewhat mind-numbing at times. I actually look for patterns to learn things as well. I think over time, I’ve picked up on some terminology, but overall, I learn via form and function.

    All of my initial music theory posts when I first started blogging were basically moveable patterns for scales and then for chords. Later on, I started to try to remember names and other details, but even now, I couldn’t tell you what a scale beginning on F or E or something is called. I remember D is Dorian, because it begins with the same letter. I remember C is Ionian because I’ve seen it so much, and when I think about it, I remember A is Aeolian. which really should come to me more quickly since they’re also the same letter, but for some reason doesn’t. For the most part, what I can tell you about any of these is the pattern. And based on the pattern, I can tell you where the chord tones are and also describe if what I’m playing is major or minor.

    The only two scales I really practice, historically, are the major scale and the minor scale. I’ve had epiphanies about them, through practice and when I’m reading stuff, but since so much time has passed, I can’t remember what they were anymore. I hope I wrote most of it down on the blog, actually. 😉

    I think that we differ in another way when it comes to learning though. You seem to really dislike repeating information. I don’t mind it so much. I’ve read the same topics from a bunch of different sources, because its interesting to me to see how different people explain a topic and to see what’s emphasized or not, and if things are missed by one person and covered by another. Once I have something grounded in my head that way, I move on, but I do go back and relook at old information with fresh eyes from time to time.

    That kid in the video you linked to seems to be talented. He’s not just playing several instruments – he’s creating different types of visual art. He might not realize that its not purely Youtube carrying him along. His classical training, supportive family and general strengthening of the parts of the brain associated with creativity and communication probably help him as well. But, his message is still on point – there’s a ton of resources available for many, many topics, if people do their research. If they add personal effort to that formula, they can definitely learn useful and satisfying skills.

    We can blog about it on the way too. 😉


    1. Repeating info, huh? I never thought of that, but it may be true. I’ll revisit things I’m not following, but once I understand something, I understand it. Reading about it over and over again at that point doesn’t seem to have much purpose. I actually get pissed at people at work who make me tell them the same thing over and over again, too.

      It does make some parts of the learning process harder though, like memorizing things. I get a conceptual understanding, but memorizing form takes much longer. If I play the same thing too many times in a row, my fingers get fed up with it, and my mind starts to wander, so I definitely need some variety to avoid frustrating myself.

      I came across the video on YouTube suggestions. If you read the comments on YouTube, there are a lot of haters out there, but I think he has a sort of ‘big picture’ way of learning that I can really respond to, and the way he ties it together is fascinating. I think calling the video “a musical genius” is just clickbait, but there is something fascinating going on in terms of what you can do with online resources+dedication. I agree his classical background gave him a head start, though, for sure. I can only hope that I eventually get to a point where I can tie it all together, too.


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