Who are we teaching? Engaging the Net Generation Part 2

Angela Turner

The current teacher generation may have adopted technology and in some cases even embraced it into our routine as necessary, but we may also still operate in ‘offline’ ways. For example, we may still read and play through books of pieces at the piano to get a feel for them, as opposed to relying on the immediacy of YouTube to deliver information, which we may also do from time to time. We have options!

In his book Grown Up Digital (2008), Don Tapscott presented a list of ‘generational norms’ – typical expectations and processes of the Net Generation, that included:

  • Collaboration;
  • Customisation;
  • Speed;
  • Entertainment; and
  • Freedom

How can we use our awareness of these ‘generational norms’ to more deeply engage our students?  Even small adjustments in approach can be potentially transformational. Here are a few personal thoughts.


Decades ago, the late great pedagogue Frances Clark declared that ‘telling is not teaching’.  Today, those words could not be more relevant. Current research and anecdotal evidence alike has demonstrated that the present generation of students will be even less inclined to engage with the ‘read only’ or ‘one-way broadcast’ delivery of information, let alone be motivated to interact with it.  More than ever, the Net Generation wants to be heard: to know that their thoughts and opinions count, not to simply be told and expected to understand.  Having grown up in a culture of strong social connection, information sharing and instant answers – ‘just google it!’ – the ‘how’ of what we present is more important than ever.

Utilising technological tools in the process of learning can be a very effective way to assess our students’ thinking; sound and video recording is an excellent starting point. First and foremost, this is a wonderful way to develop a sense of aural and physical awareness at the piano.

We can actively instigate this process during lessons, by encouraging our students to analyse parts of their own performances via recordings, helping them to verbalise their observations and possible remedies. The teacher’s role can become more of a guide and fellow-explorer, either re-affirming the student’s thoughts, querying further, or suggesting alternative (or more efficient ways) to go about the process. Sometimes encouragement and reassurance is needed: listening to oneself for the first time can be unsettling! In this way, collaborative process can help students on the path to more active, self-instigated self-reflection and deeper listening. They are motivated by their own observations, as opposed to being told, and nothing quite beats the impact of the point when the subject is one’s self!

In 2008, 91% of Australian children under the age of 15 had a computer at home and used it for education purposes. In 2012, 99% of 18-24 year olds owned a mobile, a high percentage of them smartphones. In 2007, there were already more mobile phones in use in Australia than the total population. With these devices capable of capturing video and sound, many of us will have the basic tools readily available to get started straight away.

By late primary and early secondary school, students generally feel like confident ‘experts’ with technology, and thus are more assured in the whole process. Another of the major benefits is that they can productively continue outside of the lesson time.

However, it is important to guide our students in how to most effectively use the technology. That is, not ‘how to’ operate the devices (as they will likely do so with a comfort and grace that only comes to us with much greater diligence!) – but rather, how these everyday devices can be used in the process of learning. Being immersed in technology their entire lives hasn’t necessarily meant that they have an awareness of how to employ it most effectively in the learning process. Technology alone is not the magical answer.

Can we deliver instruction and engage in a more collaborative approach, in general? A question as simple as, ‘Is there a section you would like some help with today?’ could be more effective than, ‘Go from bar 4 where you have trouble with the left hand.’  Both methods will of course have their place in different contexts.  If employed in the right way, the former successfully reflects an inherent value of their opinion and encourages self-questioning. Critically, it also gives us another fairly direct way to observe how our students are thinking.

What about more collaborative music-making experiences? Sometimes tasks such as duet and ensemble playing are (unfortunately) relegated to the ‘only if we have time after you’ve finished your solo repertoire’ category.  Duet playing has always had its well-acknowledged benefits, many of which also resonate well with the ‘generational norms’.


Customisation and Freedom

When I purchased my first smartphone, the first thing I wanted to do was to import my contacts across, and check that the device had a decent calendar and call audio quality. At first, it was primarily a tool to me. When my students bring their new phones to their lessons, they proudly show me how it has been personalised with pictures, colours, sounds and cases, and the other ‘cool’ things they have discovered.  Much in the same way that they personalise their school books, pencil cases or laptops, to them, it is not only a tool but a statement of self-expression. It becomes far more important when they can make it their own, feel ownership, pride and responsibility.

Many of us give our students a selection of pieces to choose from, but should we do more?  Some under our guidance may seem happy enough to do what is selected for them.  Others may have a burning desire to work on a piece by their favourite composer, band or artist.  (In fact, they have probably already listened to it on their phones, talked to their friends about it, watched the track on YouTube, perhaps downloaded a score, and started working on it!) Can we give their motivation a kick start them by helping them to work on a task that they’re really passionate about?

As an AMEB examiner, it is not uncommon to see and hear the stock repertoire played with essentially accurate notes and rhythms, but little sense of enjoyment or character. Then sometimes there’s an own choice selection which is delivered with spirit, and it brings real light (and hope!) into my day.  It always strikes me when the same student delivers performances that blind listening would suggest were two different people. When I ask the student which piece is their favourite, the response is almost always reflective of the performance:  ‘Yeah, this is my favourite’, ‘I like the way this one sounds/makes me feel’, ‘I got to choose this one (with my teacher)’, or ‘I really liked the movie/book so I wanted to play the song.’  And the less inspired performances? ‘Um, it’s just OK’, ‘my teacher told me I had to play this for my exam’, and the gloomiest response: ‘I don’t know’, followed by a shrug of the shoulders.

Can we give their motivation a kick start them by helping them to work on a task that they’re really passionate about?

Perhaps we might consider a piece because it is a ‘tool’ to develop x technique, and a standard of the repertoire. Perhaps the piece is deemed less interesting by the student who wanted to play the music from Frozen, Adele, or their latest favourite single. In addition to developing fundamentals and refining technique, did we give our students a chance to make this piece their own?  Did we deliver instructions and ideas in such a way that gave them a sense of their own ideas in interpretation, appealing to their creativity?

Tying in with the ideas of customisation and freedom, ‘messing around’ with pieces is often an appealing idea to students. After they have played a piece according to the score, can we go beyond that?  Exaggerate the dynamics? Change the title and character of the piece? Alter the tonality? Compose or improvise a variation on that piece? Add backing tracks or even remix it using technology, making choices about structure, additional lines and harmony, instrumentation and style?

Richard Chronister, in his insightful volume of writings A Piano Teacher’s Legacy, wrote: ‘We must find a way to get the child himself to be interested in putting across the meaning of a piece when he plays it.  We are simply too fond of accuracy.  I think most children think that is all we care about.  We need to live a little dangerously – maybe a lot. Have you lately said, ‘Oh, let’s forget about all those wrong notes. Let’s have fun!’

Google asks its engineers to spent 20% of their time – one day a week – working on projects that are of personal interest to them.  The basic rationale here is that by working on something they really want to invest their time in and are passionate about, that they will likely produce something that is of use for the company.

In addition to the varied activities we do week to week, could we set aside one lesson a term to work on things that they request – perhaps for them to set the lesson tasks?  Learn more about improvisation and chord charts?  To work on an own composition? ‘Mess around’ with an existing piece? Record a few pieces to put on a CD?  It might only take one lesson like this to (re-)inspire a student; it may also help to inspire teaching ideas for that particular student for months to come.

Last year, a rather shy, new 10-year old student began lessons with me.  I mentioned that I’d like to try a little project on the iPad, using Garageband with his piece; maybe if he was interested he could ‘help me out’. In one go, more words came out of him than I’d heard in the month since we’d started lessons. He enthusiastically demonstrated to me some of the features in the Garageband iPad app that we could use to make ‘awesome’ recordings. He was attentive in listening back to his own recording, was able to identify his own mistakes aurally, was assisted to work on the specific part in question, and then excitedly recorded another take, with great improvement in a short period of time. In this piece (a rock-inspired work by Pam Wedgewood), we then started to talk in much greater detail about the structure of the piece. Did he have any ideas about what sounds or instruments we might add/remove in what we’d identified as the ‘chorus’? A new introduction was improvised by the student, drums and bass were added.  End of lesson time was approaching, so the files were saved and emailed to the student, who enthusiastically continued to work on the activity at home, showing me his efforts the following week.

It would have been newsworthy had this student gone home and actively put the metronome on to improve his rhythmic playing. And yet he was very keen to setup a drum beat in Garageband to play along with! The interactivity of the process allowed the student to drive the learning; he was fully engaged and had confidence in the task. It was the activity that really broke the ice and spurred him on.

Entertainment and Speed

Generally speaking, the Net Generation has become accustomed to interactive learning experiences. They often expect fairly instantaneous results, with everything wanting to be attained at speed. In the age of wireless and mobile connectivity, the answer to that niggling question can be retrieved in seconds. We consider that speed and ease convenient; for the Net Generation, it is essential and how it has always been.

Perhaps we have observed a person’s frustration when information is not readily accessible (or available for free), and when the results of one’s efforts are not immediately evident.  These frustrations are not necessarily caused because of a lack of persistence in character, as is often presumed. Quite to the contrary, the Net Generation are generally strong problem solvers if the goal is clearly focussed.  With defined goals, determination, tenacity and self-motivation are more likely, because a student then knows what he or she wants to achieve.

When we see young people play video games, they are not dissuaded by difficulty of the ‘puzzle’, whatever it may be.  They will repeatedly try to achieve whatever the goal may be, because of the inherent challenges that they want to conquer. The goal is very clearly defined in their mind (to reach the end of the level, for example), and they receive ongoing feedback during the process – reinforcement of progress through the acquirement of points, rewards, new powers, etc. – whatever is the currency in that particular game. If they hit a wall, they will problem solve to get through the issue. They may recruit their friends to help get through the level together, research solutions online, and even watch hours of YouTube tutorials to work out the best way forward. There is interactive engagement and motivation to do better, despite the obstacles.

Can we apply the idea of game mechanics to piano learning? Define smaller, more numerous, clearly defined goals or stages, whilst still keeping some contest in the task?  Incorporate extension tasks (bonus rounds!) for extra points?  Incorporate duet or ensemble (multiplayer!) play, for example?  Nurture creativity in the process?

Concepts based upon the ‘40 Piece Challenge’ are ideally suited to the typical Net Generation student. As many teachers have already seen, giving regular, clearly-defined targets in turn sharpens focus and motivates. For teachers, too, it is in effect a scaffold for streaming repertoire. We can provide students with a range of pieces, some selected to be learnt quickly for that sense of rapid result, then possibly ‘customised’ and extended by way of transposition or re-arrangement; other selections can provide variety and awareness of myriad styles, building foundations; there are opportunities for student’s input into choices; and other ‘longer term’ pieces that can offer more extended challenges, and help develop tenacity. Repertoire choices need not be a steady diet of ‘pupil savers’ (a term that I personally find quite vexing). Conscious and careful scaffolding of repertoire and exercises can help develop healthy foundations for long term development, awareness and engagement.

Reading an article in Clavier Companion by George Litterst some years ago, I was struck by these words: ‘Are we preparing our students for our past, or their future?’  These words see me re-evaluate my own teaching on a regular basis.

Am I constantly expanding my awareness of repertoire? Is my method of delivery and curriculum suitable? Can I be more efficient and engage more effectively if I used technology in this task?  If so, how could I best achieve this? Can I improve the way that I have taught this piece/concept/skill by making it more relevant to this student in particular? Am I teaching in the same way I did 5, 10, or 15 years ago? What will my current students have taken from my teaching if they go onto become piano teachers in the next decade?

We are clearly at a point in time where many of the standard parameters have shifted: the student generation has inherently changed, technology is abundant, and information is readily accessible. Clearly, that should bring regular re-evaluation of how we teach. This generation doesn’t need technology for technology’s sake, and by no means do we need to simply sugar-coat the piano learning experience by bathing our studios with shiny gadgets. I have never felt that students come to piano lessons expecting them to be solely about technology. But we can always be provoking deeper thinking about how the devices (and world) around us can be reflected in the piano studio.

Can you fortify the principles of Collaboration, Customisation, Speed, Entertainment and Freedom in your teaching interactions?  We needn’t lose any of the honoured traditions that underpin our praxis, nor compromise the thoroughness of what we do. To the contrary: we continue to build efficient techniques and musical understanding, in ways that connect with our current student generation. The potential of small changes in delivery can transform our work: after all, we’re simply trying to engage a generation in ways that reflect the environment that they have grown up in.

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