Sitting by Lake Geneva (iv)

… a week later I think further about my meeting with Jean Piaget and note how much we now take for granted about human development that originated from his ideas, and how little we know still.

His genius was to investigate how children’s minds work and to show the value of creating theories about how these minds develop, and so finding better theories.

A simple point to make that is derived from this tradition of thought is that every musical utterance, every musical gesture, every musical statement placed before the teacher by the child embodies the child’s (feelingful) thought offering a window into the child’s perception, cognition, schema formation and this includes the state of their threshold conceptualisations. In other words, how they are developing musically.

Amongst the many powerful insights provided by Piaget, in conclusion I will privilege just one. This was his proposal that it was the earliest sensory-motor action of the child that constituted intellectual behaviour. Yes, sucking, looking, grasping and all those unrefined spontaneous physical gestures were acts of the intellect. These were mindful actions. They were acts of perception and cognition. The body was a thinking-feeling-knowing instrument.

And now, instead of Piaget’s stages there is the idea of ’embodied cognition’, and this as a continuity from infancy to adulthood.

This should be good news for the music teacher.

However, we note that in our systems of education the body is given low priority. Practical knowledge (or if you prefer knowing how) struggles to be recognised alongside the sovereignty of ‘academic knowledge’ narrowly defined. In music education the term ‘practical’ is too often used to imply something un-intellectual, non-theoretical and something that must be brought into the real world of knowing and knowledge through the mediation of language for it to count as knowledge. This is a grave mistake. Yehudi Menuhin has something to say about this:

Until the current flows from the toes to the fingers … and you feel the weight and movement of the body … you won’t quite “get” the music.



Sitting by Lake Geneva (iii)

JF: In last week’s discussion we examined the central role of cognitive structure in your theory and the idea that we build and develop mental schema through the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation. Put simply, our mental schema give us something to think with. We might well have explored the fascinating idea of conservation, the process whereby we learn to hold in mind different aspects of a stimulus and come to see how these relate to eachother (those inter-related musical dimensions, for example). But we must leave this aside for now as I want to raise another matter.

So far we have been thinking about learning and development as a series of cognitive events which develop the mind so that new and better ways of thinking are established. But this form of cognition leaves out feeling. I know you have acknowledged the role of ‘affect’ in learning, but what seems to be significant about the case of music is that to think music involves both thinking and feeling. I have always found the cognition-affective-motor model unhelpful.

The idea of cognitive-feeling has been spoken of in the arts. I believe there is a grave error made by curriculum makers and strategists in the case of music who hold to some general view of cognition, and who reduce it to a matter of ‘ah, now I see and can say’. Knowing music works at a far more profound level than this, surely?

What is it ‘to know music’, ‘what is the nature of musical knowledge?’ Without clarity here dealing with issues such as assessment become confused. Assessment without an epistemological basis will be a birth-strangled babe and cause no end of confusion. And this is why cognitive-feeling is such an important idea.

JP: I see what you are getting at.

As you will know I did carry out work on the nature of play, imagination and dream work, and I think this is relevant to your question here. I recognise that fine musical performance, for example, appears to require a particular form of cognition, and yes, perhaps the idea of cognitive-feeling goes some way to capture this.

What is clear to me is that the form of knowing and understanding of which you speak is free from the tyranny of language. It is a non-verbal form of cognition. And the significance of this form of cognition is rarely appreciated by curriculum makers. Language, for all its immense power – and let’s be clear about this, it is a remarkable tool as Lev Vygotsky has shown – can so easily prevent learning and development.

JF: Yes, this is a very subtle matter in the case of music. Much more work is needed in understanding how language is acquired in the context of music making, and how it enables thought about music.

You mentioned play so allow me to return to those students I spoke about who were adapting badly to their schooling but who operated so well as musical improvisers. I think I can now see that they took to improvising so willingly because it was through improvisation that experience was easily assimilated. Thinking of improvisation as a form of play is helpful, and there needs to be much more of it in a musical education. Indeed, having playful teachers would also help.

I was wondering whether you knew of the work of a fellow Genevan, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze? His eurhythmic classes, where thought, feeling and action worked together, were the basis of growth in musical understanding and where improvisation played an important part. These were taking place in Geneva when you were a child.

JP: But of course, I was in his class. Moving to the music as well as moving the music as a performer-composer-listener is perhaps the finest form of cognition there is!

JF: Another of your ideas was that in reflecting we come to abstract. We need time to absorb experiences and with the passing of time we come to form generalisations and these generate fresh thinking. You refer to this process as ‘reflective abstraction’. I will be doing some of this on my journey home. Thank you.

Sitting by Lake Geneva (ii)

JF: We meet again and this week there is one idea in particular that I am hoping to clarify  and that seems to me to be at the heart your theory of learning.

JP: I think I can guess the matter you are about to raise. Is it the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation?

JF: Yes, that’s it. But let me work with this idea in a very general way – I appreciate that the idea is a part of a whole theory and that I am asking a great deal of generosity on your part. When I first encountered this idea I found that it explained a great deal. At the time I was teaching in a secondary school, and my greatest challenge was teaching groups who were thought to need remedial help. Their grasp of language was weak and they found mathematical calculation difficult. There they were at secondary school aged 14, 15 and 16 with no sign of being able to think abstractly and with little ability to work inside their heads. They made sense through sensory-motor-tactile action, and of course they enjoyed making sense through playing instruments, making music and becoming masters (as they were all boys) of minimalist musical composition, or rather improvisations, sometimes very extended ones.

What I now understood was that these students had been exposed to entirely the wrong educational experiences throughout their schooling, and this had served only to disable them. It was as if these molluscs had been taken to an alien environment and subjected to entirely the wrong circumstances. Neither their social or intellectual states of being had been acknowledged as part of their schooling.

JP: There are a number of matters you raise here. But quite simply you are saying that these students had throughout their schooling been expected to ‘assimilate’ too many new experiences without enough space or time for these to be ‘accommodated’. The analogy of digestion is helpful. Their digestive systems (mental structures) were continually overwhelmed. This is very common, and it is why I doubt whether schools as we know them are the best places for humans to develop. I have heard about the current enthusiasm for objectives and prescribable outcomes, for measuring progression to satisfy school managers, Inspectors, the government, and so forth. Such a climate of accountability and distrust is very unlikely to facilitate worthwhile development.

JF: The picture that I formed was of students never having the opportunity to properly assimilate the kinds of new experiences presented to them in a way that they could be accommodated to existing ones. They were always having to accommodate too much to what their teachers demanded. I saw their minds as being like a house with furniture. The teacher came along with more furniture for the house, while the learner was never given enough time or the means to see how it might fit with or replace the furniture that was already there. Once this process had gone wrong, it was as if things could only get worse, and these students then came to me confused, having merely learnt what were coping strategies, or survival strategies.

JP: Yes, that makes sense and I am happy for you to generalise in this way. However, I am sure you won’t mind me pointing out that your analogy of a house with furniture is not so helpful. The analogy is too static. The mind is dynamic, alive. The analogy of the digestive system is better. So, let me explain. I don’t think you have quite grasped it yet. Assimilation is the process whereby incoming stimuli are modified by the child’s mental structure, and accommodation the process whereby the mental structures are changed.

The idea of assimilation and accommodation must however be related to two other ideas. The assumption is that the learner is building what I call a set of schemas. A schema works as a mental model, or a mental frame of reference. It is like a file in the filing cabinet of the mind, a category or conceptual framework.

Each of us from the earliest years of life will have developed an increasing number of schemas: schemas for sucking, grasping, opening doors, running a hundred metres, making song lyrics, playing a particular instrument, shaping a musical phrase and so on. These schemas are always developing, differentiating, integrating, expanding, and this is why understanding can never be a finite matter.

Let me offer an example. If we are presented with a piece of music to perform which we have not before encountered, while we may have a schema to draw upon, it is unlikely to fit the new experience like a glove as you say. If it did this would be pure assimilation. There would be no need for accommodation. ‘I have played in this style before. I know how to shape these kinds of phrases’. However, if not, then our musical phrasing schema will need to be modified and expanded as assimilation and accommodation do their work. It is when our schemas meet new experiences, that is, they don’t too easily fit our schema, that mental structures change. However, this is a matter of very careful balance and great sensitivity. That teachers are expected to get this right with large classes is ambitious.

JF: Right, so our equilibrium is disturbed, we are made to think, readjust the furniture as it were. (Now my furniture is always alive, malleable and moving. I am animating it!) The really important ideas then are assimilation accommodation, equilibrium and schema.

JP: Yes, and in a nut shell, as you say (I like this English expression), the processes of assimilation, accommodation, dis-equilibrium and equilibrium explain how we change, learn, and develop.

JF: As you were suggesting, this then places a great responsibility on the teacher to set tasks that disturb sufficiently and lead to reordering thought.

JP: Yes, that is right, but who is the teacher? The learner, assuming he/she is an explorer, will find the right kind of challenges for themselves. This is certainly how I have learnt and developed. Or what happens commonly is that children will adapt the task set, pervert it so that they can regulate their own learning.

JF: There is a lot to think about and now another beautiful sunset.

Sitting by Lake Geneva (i)

Back a while I made reference to the thought of Jean Piaget. This provoked questions from readers and I promised to address these in the future. Time to respond.

In August I will write four blogs in the form of an imaginary dialogue between Jean Piaget and myself. In this way I hope to draw out the significance of his work. The blogs draw heavily on ‘Sitting by Lake Geneva’ first published in ‘Sound Progress: exploring musical development. National Association of Music Educators. 2009.

First an introduction.

The influence of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) on the way we think about human development has been considerable. Piaget was interested in children’s thinking and the changing structure of their minds. How was it that a child’s thinking went through qualitative changes as they matured towards adulthood? How was it that the child started life as an intelligent sensory-motor-tactile being yet unable to reason in the way an adult could? How did the mind of the child grow through interaction with its environment? It was Piaget’s view that the mind was an active organism continually working on experience, continually being disturbed, continually finding new levels of equilibrium only to be disturbed again and so on. The mind was self-regulating. It was the learner who made sense.

These ideas have had a profound impact on the way we view learning and development, and which we may now take for granted or perhaps find rather disturbing.

Piaget’s critics have been many. Some reject the way his approach distorts and contains childhood, some show the limitations of his experimental method, some point out what his theory can’t explain, while some maintain that he offers merely a description of what cognitive development might look like rather than an explanation for how it is.

However, there are those who hold to Piaget’s basic tenets and operate as neo-piagetians and others who have created newer and equally powerful ways of thinking about human development. In the case of Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky, for example, both language and culture have a much greater role to play. And now there are neuro-biological insights that lead to fresh perspectives, although even these frequently make reference to aspects of Piaget’s work, checking out their discoveries against his and acknowledging the visionary quality of his ideas.

Some have applied Piaget’s thinking in very specific ways to the classroom, some more generally. What is undoubtedly valuable is the way in which Piaget helps us to focus on the development of the mind, on the ways in which children think and learn rather than attending to content, context and individual differences. Instead, these matters are provided with a powerful point of reference.

While what follows is fanciful, it also is an attempt to draw out a number of powerful ideas that are likely to be of value for some time to come.

Sitting by Lake Geneva

John Finney: Sitting here near where you were born, and where you so diligently observed the lakeside molluscs growing through their adaptation to their environment, you must feel satisfied about your life’s work and the contribution made to twentieth-century thinking about human development.

Jean Piaget: I was little more than a boy when I began work on what was to be my doctoral thesis setting out to understand the relationship between nature and environmental nurture. My teachers in school were wise. I was what you now refer to as a ‘gifted’ child, and they realised that I could learn more without them than with them and that I was asking more questions than they could answer. Schools are rarely the best places to learn. My school in fact was extremely enlightened. We were encouraged to argue with our teachers and to ask them difficult questions. Now, so I understand, you have strategies teaching teachers how to ask their pupils questions. This does not seem to me to be the appropriate way to encourage curiosity. Shouldn’t pupils be asking the questions?

JF: Maybe you’re right, but we must leave such matters for now as I want you to clarify one point at the outset. Many have mistakenly thought that you were a psychologist, when in fact your area of study was biology and more specifically genetic epistemology. Can you explain what this is?

JP: Well, let us consider that mollusc there. By watching and studying change carefully, it became clear to me that a mollusc has the potential to grow and develop rather like all molluscs before it. This is a genetic reality. However, it can only grow through a process of adaptation to its environment. It has the capacity to either be very good at this or not so good, depending largely on its environment. Applying this to human growth and development seemed to me an obvious step to take. You must remember that I was beginning my experiments at a time when there were worrying beliefs emerging about the determining influence of genetic characteristics and this was leading to a belief in eugenics.

JF: So, as a genetic epistemologist you were interested in knowledge – how a human being comes to know and understand, how knowledge is created, how ways of thinking change and the part that both maturation and the environment play in this.

JP: Yes, this is true. What is more, it became clear that we all pass through a series of developmental stages, and while this will happen to some extent at different ages for each of us, these stages remain invariant. The sensory-motor way of knowing the world will always come first. This is the first way of thinking for a human being, for all human beings. It is a fascinating stage where all the senses work together to ‘make sense’.

I was concerned with a particular kind of intellectual development, the development of logical thought and yes, sensory-motor thinking was its foundation. (By the way, I do have a quiet smile when I hear of the recent interest in multi-sensory learning. It is coming back into fashion, so I hear.) Sensory-motor-tactile knowing is intelligent behaviour, a form of cognition, a form of thinking. From here the child comes to understand, through acts of intuition, to know and to operate, first in a concrete way and later in a more abstract way. The child proceeds from thinking in action to thinking through internalised actions or mental operations.

All thought is action, outer first, inner later. (I think you speak alot about the process of internalisation in music education and quite unlike other subjects. I find that interesting.) I was fascinated to discover how we come to think abstractly when clearly this was not possible in early childhood.

JF: So, your interest was in the growth of the child towards being a fully fledged logical thinker able to solve abstract problems. You will appreciate that this may not be entirely helpful to those of us who have an interest in musical development. We tend to believe that musical intelligence, if indeed there is such a thing, is quite different to the form of logical-deductive reasoning that you had in mind, although of course there could be some interesting relationships and overlaps with musical thinking.

JP: Yes, of course. It would be a wonderful life’s work to understand the nature of musical intelligence. What a challenge this would be! I hope somebody attempts to clarify this most complex idea.

JF: The sun is setting across the lake and we must stop for today. Hopefully we have made a start in understanding your ideas. When we meet next week I will begin with an important question that goes to the heart of the developmental process.

JP: I look forward to this.