Old Dogs, New Tricks

Adventures with adult learners

The trouble with being a full-time coursebook writer is that you’re always preparing lessons for others to teach.

With the drawn-out publishing process, there’s about a year’s development from concept to finished work. Even then, the book has to jump through bureaucratic hoops to be approved by the relevant education authorities, before final printing and distribution. By the time you’re actually getting royalties, (usually the only form of feedback you’ll ever get) the work itself may be a distant memory.

It’s all a little … abstract.

That’s why I enjoy opportunities to teach. For me, they’re recreation, not work. They’re also a way of keeping myself grounded.

I have variously taught: English to Icelanders (a long time ago); German translation to undergraduates (also lost in the mists of time, when the world was young); productive gardening for small backyards, and music.

At present, one afternoon a week, I teach beginners to play five-string banjo. It has been tremendous fun developing course materials and trying them out on my guinea pigs … umm, students.

My aims are modest, in keeping with my own musical skills:

Help them to acquire the basics of the three-finger picking technique made famous by Earl Scruggs; encourage them to play in time and in tune; furnish them with the rudiments of musical theory, so that they can make their own musical choices and discoveries …

… and unleash them on the world. Fly, my beauties, fly! (Imagine mad cackling laughter at this point.)

It is interesting, teaching adults. Or more correctly, I think: creating learning opportunities for adults. Adults, like cats, can’t be taught a darn thing, except by themselves. They have to want to avail themselves of the resources that you, the teacher, offer them. We’ll just call it ‘teaching’ though, for the purposes of this ramble.

It is particularly interesting to teach older adults a subject which requires the intermeshing of practical, manual skills, sensory feedback, aesthetic interpretation and theory, such as music or the plastic arts.

We’ve all been battered a little by life, acquiring decades of diverse experiences, professional skills, personality quirks and physical injuries. Arthritic joints don’t necessarily work in the way that young, supple joints do. Thus also minds.

Such a variety of hands! Big hands with blunt, stubby fingers; tiny hands with dainty fingers; stiff hands; flexible hands. In the case of life-long guitar players, agile hands with good reach — better than mine, which came to music at the age of 51.

The author’s White Swallow banjo

One guy was missing the tips of two fingers. It was a challenge, working out how he could fret the strings with those flat, soft, wide tips to produce passable notes. It’s a lot easier with average, pointy fingertips, but even those need to acquire calluses from long practice before they can get a clean sound.

Eyesight may be dodgy, spectacles never quite the right prescription for the job. Hearing aids can get overloaded by loud neighbours (we’re talking banjos here), so that instructions are missed or misunderstood.

Minds display even greater variety than hands.

Some seem impervious to sensory feedback (e.g. being out of tune, out of time with everyone else). Some are sponges: effortlessly absorbing explanations; imitating hand positions; relating tabulature diagrams to positions on the fretboard; following conclusions. For others, translating dots on lines to fingers on frets is baffling, frustrating. For some, new knowledge is slow to sink in. For others, it is quick to evaporate.

Such a variety of attitudes to the learning process, too!

Here are some archetypes I’ve noticed.

The Keen One

The Keen One likes to come to lessons well prepared. Show them a scale once, and they’ll be playing it fluently by the next lesson. They get to classes early and practically have to be pushed out the door at the end.

The Faithful One

The Faithful One is mostly here for the company, and to support their friend, the teacher, bless them. They’re never-complaining, always good-natured. They make slow, steady process. They deflect compliments with bluster.

The Class Clown

The Class Clown attempts to distract from their insecurities by making people laugh. They can be a little disruptive and we’d get more done without the comedy, but it’s impossible to get cross with them. Mildly irritated? Yes, definitely that, on occasions.

The Under-Confident One

The Under-Confident One practises diligently at home until they’re note-perfect. Under the teacher’s beady eye, it all falls apart. Sometimes they’re close to tears in frustration. No matter how many times I tell them: ‘That was good!’ it is never as good as it was back home, when nobody was listening.

The Cocky One

The Cocky One accepts that you’re the teacher and they’re the student, but only just. Critiques and pointers for improvement are received with a ‘Yeah, I knew that really’ smirk. They’re a quick learner though, which is nice, and it’s good to be kept on your toes.

The Prickly One

The Prickly One is rather like the Under-Confident One, but their debacles are All Your Fault, Teacher. Why did you not explain properly? Often there is a genuinely kind and sensitive person lurking behind the armour of grumps and gripes.

The Mule

The Mule stubbornly follows their own path. Give them a neat folder of coursenotes and within two weeks, they’ll have reordered them, added their own from dubious sources, and lost a few. They’re always on page 11 when the rest are on page 9.

Remember: these are archetypes, not individuals.

As an individual learner, I recognise in myself characteristics of most of them, particularly the Keen One and the Under-Confident One.

What about you, dear reader?

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