Since the start of this year, I made a commitment to ask more questions in my teaching.
And not just questions for the sake of them, but effective questions that challenge students to think.
Questions that are suited to each student and give them more ownership of the lesson and their playing.
As a great side benefit, I’ve found that asking more questions requires me to think much more deeply about what and how I’m teaching and how I’m trying to get students to achieve their goals.
Put your hand up if you talk too much…
…I thought that might be a few people!
I think as teachers we are almost predisposed to talking as it’s what we do, right?
If you spend most of your time correcting mistakes and talking at your students in lessons, I’ve got a challenge for you this week that’s going to inspire your teaching and take it in a new direction.
I want to challenge you to short-cut this natural tendency we all have to talk and talk and instead ask more questions.
Questions get students thinking rather than just listening to us and reacting to our listening and thinking. And that’s what we’re here to help them do, right?
Ask yourself what’s more important: immediately correcting mistakes or teaching students to listen and critique their playing themselves (and ultimately be able to do this at home)?
My approach to questioning has really developed since I watched a master teacher in action at a course I was on in January. The teacher was a master of getting students to listen more accurately to their playing and adjust their playing by asking them questions.
In fact, I don’t think he ever dictated anything to improve their playing.
For example, instead of hearing the students play something and then immediately critiquing and correcting mistakes, he just started asking questions:
And I thought, why don’t I do more of this in my own instrumental teaching?
What I’ve found, as I’ve transferred this across to my instrumental teaching, is that asking the right questions is amazingly effective at getting students to listen to themselves.
Most of the time, if students are listening attentively, they can actually fix mistakes themselves.
Just bringing awareness to an issue can be the solution.
Keep in mind that students can’t remember too many things at once when they’re trying to correct something.
So while I might ask quite a few questions to get to the bottom of an issue, I always keep the agreed recommendations to a minimum. For example, if you’re expecting students to correct fingering, play the right notes, add the pedal and remember to shape the end of a phrase, all in one try, then you’re headed for frustration.
Instead, keep your points concise and only get students to work on 1-2 things at a time. You can always fix other things later on.
Oh, and when they’ve tried out the changes/fixes, start asking more questions!
If this focus on effective questioning is a bit new to you, here are some of the things I say in my lessons quite regularly. Try them out this week in your teaching:
This is a natural place to ask open-ended questions (ie. questions which can’t be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’). Eg:
Of course this concept works in all aspects of music teaching: aural, theory, harmony, etc.
In fact, it works in all aspects of teaching in general!
Sure, it might take a bit longer and a bit more thought to teach like this, but you’re going to be tuning-in your students to their own playing, making them think and improving the way they practice at home.
How cool is that?!
So my test for you this week is to challenge yourself to ask as many questions as you can in your next lessons. Avoid dictating anything and rephrase everything as questions and see what the results are. You may go slightly crazy thinking up the questions and your students might think you a bit weird if this is new, but reflect back afterwards and let me know what you think below.
So what did I learn from changing my question technique?
Just watch that you don’t answer questions before students have had a chance to think and answer them. It’s very easy to ask a challenging question and then rush in to answer before a student has had a chance to form an answer (this is particularly important for boys who can take longer to process and verbalise the information). A bit of silence while students are thinking is a great thing – don’t spoil it by simplifying the question or answering.
That said, sometimes you’ll ask a question that doesn’t make sense or that the student can’t understand. Rephrase and refocus with a new question. This takes practice, thought and knowing your students. I guarantee you’ll be a better teacher if you persevere.
Let me know below how you approach questions in your teaching? Do you think they’re important? Do you prefer to dictate and correct?
I’m looking forward to hearing your views.
Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.