Thursday, February 10, 2011

Routinized Learning in Unschooling; Music and Math

Taliesin and his cousin Aiden
To those who know how we happily avoid repetitive worksheets, scheduled music (or anything else) practice, and most teaching of routinized nature in general, it may seem strange to couple routinized learning with unschooling. But it's not.

Routine is natural. We need routine to feel secure, and to develop skills that require repetition. We need repetition to learn. The times repetition can become detrimental to learning is when it is enforced without inspiration or a personal drive to do it. Then it can turn a perfectly interesting lesson into something very boring. When repetition is a part of the process of discovery, it's fun, and this is where it becomes part of unschooling.

I am writing this post wholly as a response to my son's piano adventures, at the moment. He doesn't take piano lessons. I've tried to teach him a few things, and he wasn't very receptive, so I just let it go. Right now he is playing scales.
CEG-CEG-FEDC, DFA-DFA-GFED, EGB-EGB-AGFE, etc. (135-135-4321)

This began with violin. Tal first asked us for a violin, with deep earnestness, when he was two. And so, for his 3rd birthday, he was given one by my mother. He played for a few months like it was his voice. The passion and music that came out of that 1/4-size violin in the hands (and feet) of a boy who really needed a 1/32-size at the time, was amazing. Then my dear mother tried to teach him about his instrument. She began by showing him how to play Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star, which went very well, until she made the mistake of putting tape on the violin, to show him where to put his fingers, and he became so enraged that from that moment on, for years, he would no longer play. None of us had quite realized the seriousness of his aversion to instruction, at that point.

Playing guitar-style in Brian's yurt.
Finally this year I organized music mentoring for him and his violin (tape-free), with Brian Hoover - a really virtuoso mentor, here on the island. The idea is not to create a performer, but to allow Tal to rediscover the joy that he once had in his instrument. When I arranged the mentoring I was careful to choose someone who I knew could work openly, and could join Taliesin in discovering his violin. Brian pulls up a pillow on the floor with Tal, mimics Tal's bass-clutched-in-feet-style of playing when necessary, waits quietly while Tal imagines, adventures, and processes, and, with his gentle, accepting nature, has led my headstrong but wary son through story-adventures, rhythm exercises and musical instruction, while merging these activities seamlessly in a beautiful journey, every week. Brian leads the way into exploration and discovery as he allows Taliesin to connect with his instrument and learn of his own desire. He has nurtured the seeds of joy in what Tali now again calls "his own" instrument, and now those seeds are growing.

Brian knows that Tal resists direction. A couple of months ago they played something that Tal instantly recognized. He looked up suddenly, and almost accusingly. "I know that."

Brian calmly said, "Oh. You do?"

"It's Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star."

Brian handled the situation expertly: "Oh, well I guess it could be. But it doesn't have to be."

"Oh." And they progressed onto something else. I had the definite feeling that that had been a very close call, and wondered wordlessly if Brian knew.

One of Tal's creative playing methods...
For a few weeks nothing came of this. Then eventually at one of our Kids' Junkets, he noticed that a friend of ours, only slightly older, who plays violin with the Vancouver Symphony Youth Orchestra, also has tape on his violin. Soon after this, without mentioning anything to anybody, Tal very very slowly picked out the melody to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on his violin. After some frustration, he came and asked me for some tape. Scotch? "No -- the type I need for... for putting back on my violin."

A few days later he proudly played Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star for his beloved Nana, on his taped violin.

Eventually he begun picking the song out on the piano, and then, because it was December, he figured out Jingle Bells. Then Silent Night. Then he tried some of the same on our Melodica, then on the recorder, then on his violin. He continued playing the piano and violin expressively, without intent, as well, but his scientific experimenting with the various instruments grew to the point where now, about two months later, he figures out about one new song (though often only the first part) every few days. Some of his favourites are Greensleeves, To Drive the Cold Winter Away, Bingham Bailey (Wild Boar), and the Swan's Theme (Swan Lake).

Why scales? Well, because yesterday he was experimenting with different intervals on the piano, and I explained about intervals on the piano, telling also about 3rds and 5ths, since that's mostly what he was doing... And guess what Brian happened to show him, today? How to play two notes at once on the violin! What happenstance! So when we got home after violin, ballet, a good long adventure in the meadow and wetland, some games, and dinner, Tal ended up back at the piano, experimenting with intervals. Nobody said anything about it; nobody really paid him much attention, quite frankly. Not even when I realized he was playing scales, one note higher at a time, up to the very very highest note he could.

Why is routinized learning important? Because we need it to cement the things we're learning. Even when the things we learn are of our own device and inspiration, we repeat them again and again, allowing us to settle them into those nooks and crannies of our brains where later, perhaps in unexpected ways, they'll come in handy. This choice to routinize their own learning, within self-directed explorative activities, is just one of the many ways our free-range children have of processing and growing within their world.

I sometimes feel worried that my relatively free-range children will stagnate in their learning as they often seem to reach everywhere, but nowhere in particular; as they never have to drill something into their brains because somebody said so. To see Taliesin choosing to implant, methodically, every combination of 1-3-5-4321 into his brain is to see him embrace the math and science of music, which is one of the great passions of his life.

Meadow Math
Taliesin setting up his telescope.
Tal has often been put off by me urging him to practice some equations. So he doesn't do it, and we almost never talk about it. He declares that he loves science but hates math. Today, long after violin mentoring, on our way to the meadow, Tal carried his telescope. He said: "Imagine if you had a hundred lenses inside. Then you could see a hundred times as far!"

"Well, actually, if they're all the same, each one magnifies the last by the same amount, right? So if you had one that doubled the size something appeared to be, then if you put another one that also doubled, you'd see something twice as big again. Right?"

"Right. Four times."

"Yes. So what if you had three of those same lenses in a row?"

"Six times?"

"Nope. Think again. The third lens doubles what it sees."

"Eight times."

"Right. So what about four lenses?"

"Mama! I don't know eight times two!" (He counted.) "Sixteen."

"Right. That's actually an exponential equation. You show it by putting a little tiny number up to the right of the number it's talking about. So this one with four lenses would be a 2 with a little four up beside it. So two-times-two-times-two-times-two. Can you figure out what the equation would be for the three lenses magnification?"

He thought about it. "A two with a three?"


"Mama, you know this is math." Pause. "But it's also a kind of science."

We continued our walk. I'm not going to get into exactly how this conversation had anything to do with Taliesin's piano scales, a few hours later, but I know it did.

Interesting reading:
How We Learn, by Alison Gopnik (NY Times, January 2005)


  1. Hope you don't mind a drop in from a stranger! I stumbled upon your blog last night, and I Love this post! The story of your son and the violin is beautiful. I have a 5 yr old who is very adverse to instruction. Although my we had planned to unschool, we have found that my son requires it. I have wondered how to help him learn the things he wants to learn and needs to learn, without turning him off. Your story gave me great hope! Thanks

  2. Thanks! No problem commenting here; that's why the comments are permitted! I looked at your blogs, too. It seems we have some similar hurdles and joys in our boys! It's sure been a long journey for us to really grasp the depth of the independence our son requires, and we're by no means at the top of the mountain. But we're learning so much, and I just love when things go well and we see how he's succeeding in this way.


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