I’m noticing a trend among younger students. When I ask them a question that requires critical thinking, introspection or deduction they first respond…


with silence.


And then I press them a little. Perhaps goad them with, “Go on- just tell me what you think.”


more silence.


Then, “I don’t know.”



It’s more worrisome than infuriating, although it sure does make teaching a drag. I remember WIlliam Pleeth talking about what made Jackie so special to teach. He said it was like a tennis match, where she returned all of the energy he poured into the lessons with equal verve. I am fortunate to have many private students who do just that.

Learning involves risk. While being smart is sexy, the process of getting there tends to involve the less glamorous task of actively seeking out areas of weakness and rummaging around in them, hoping to weave the new stuff into the already extant facts and notions.

The problem with many college students is that this is not the process they’re after. “Getting a degree” is a thing; a single act. It’s seen as an obstacle, and if you get around it, a magic door opens and your strategy-less ass is suddenly successful.

When I ask an open-ended question designed to get some synapses firing and I get the dreaded, “I don’t know.”, I hear a silent consequent:


… “because I don’t know how to think.”


I am doing my best to sympathize with the 19-year-olds that populate my classroom. If a student doesn’t know how to do something, there’s no sense in having a punitive attitude as an instructor. I think most teachers would concur that teaching is a compulsion. Very few of us make much money, and we are always asked to do twice as much as we think is possible in half the time allotted. There is an idealism to the profession if you do it right. If a single student walks away with Mozart’s sense of humor or the burden of Brahms’ magnificent weight, I am overjoyed.

So I am set to the task of teaching them critical thinking via music. This class would either thrill or horrify the enforcers of curricular standards. There is a real chance that several students will not pass my creampuff class. It’s literally MUS 100. Not even 101. I’m trying not to take this demonstration of the failings of education and culture personally, but it’s hard going.

But worthwhile. These kids may have given up on learning, but I have not given up on them.





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8 Responses

  1. First off, I will do my best to not come off all cynically “Waiting for Superman” on you in the same way I laughed when everybody went all hypocritically “Passion of the Christ” on me when that was the big trend, (Like, “Oh, so you’ll cheat on me with 3 guys, but y’know… Jesus, and all that… You’re a spiritual person. Got it.”) but anyway… That just irritates me beyond words when people put things in such black and white terms in spite of the entire scope of reality.

    I used to be that kid you’re describing. In some rather specific ways I still am, but I don’t think you’re born that way either. I don’t think I’m getting out of line at all by wholeheartedly blaming a familial and societal pressure and attitude of “Be a good boy in school or we won’t like you. Get a diploma or we won’t like you. Get a degree or you’ll never amount to anything. You’re stopping at two associates degrees? You better get that bachelors or we’ll never consider you an adult.” Even if that’s not how it was sent, it was received as such.

    It just seems like throughout life, by default, you’re never asked what you think about something as if it’s not important and for the pressure applying types that define what success is to you, then it’s not important at all. That’s how it was for me, anyway. I had to get away from those people and shut down their “advice” because they may not think they want you to fail, but they’re setting you up for it at every turn. The bad thing is people that never escape this can still grow up to be relatively successful. They’re dead inside, but hey, they can still work many jobs that pay well and easily facilitate any corporate structure that doesn’t require you to think for yourself. It’s good enough for corporate America, so it’s good enough. Their parents must be so proud at the empty obedient lonely soul they’ve shaped…

    So if you’re in the center of this struggle for inner clarity, and someone manages to crack your shell a bit and asks you what you think about something genuinely, it’s the scariest thing in the world. Your whole life you’ve been asked to recite something instead of develop your own case for it, and your brain goes, “Oh SH–! Searching! Searching! C’moooon! I got nothing, man! Game over! Everybody is going to hate you just like they’ve always said. *sounds of planes diving*”

    Maybe they just need some encouragement for these little goslings to finally hatch. Maybe even the occasional sentences ending in, “And how did that make you feel?” If they can just feel safe knowing that within the hallowed walls of your classroom thoughts and opinions are welcome. They might not be in those other clowns’ vile boxes, but here, right here, you’ve got a personality. You’re doing the world a great service by getting them to engage that part of the brain. I’m not a psychologist, in fact I abandoned that in college because I thought that people might like it if I did that and stopped myself, but I think a reason this was such a big problem at least for me was because it was never stated that my opinion was important to getting the job done. Heh, now I’m 30, bitter, and I can’t shut up about anything that resonates with me to compensate. Now for fear my comment is longer than your post, I will stop since it would seem polite to do so.

  2. Youngsters are just coming out of a 12-year long stint in a way of life that has EXTREMELY well-defined measures of success, by arbitrary standards chosen by other people. In 19 years, that is 63% of their life. Nearly two-thirds of their existence on this Earth was spent watching for teachers saying “yes” or “no” as the Gold Standard by which they can gauge whether they are worthy human beings.

    Now, they show up for a music lesson and suddenly someone expects them to act as if none of that matters. It takes time for them to relax into this. They know how to think. They just aren’t used to a teacher or anyone in authority actually MEANING IT when they say, “What do you think?” I had that experience as a kid in school — I’m 45 now, so that gives you an idea of how long ago all this was. “No, I really want to know what you think.”

    So I told them.

    “Wrong answer!”

    So when a person in a position of authority asked me the next time, “No, what do you really think?” I was pretty much aware that what they really meant was, “Tell me what I want to hear, and I’ll pronounce you right.”

    It takes a long time to undo the shackles of watching for the approval of an authority figure. It takes even longer to stop giving a crap for the authority figure who may or may not tell you that they want to know what you really think, but only as long as it’s what they also think, upon which point they will pronounce you correct. Not only have I “learned to think,” but I’ve learned to judge whether or not the person who is asking me what I think really wants to know. This is a nontrivial ability to acquire, and one that takes a long time. A 19 year old won’t be at that point yet.

    Hell, I’m 45 and it’s taken me a while to grasp that. Not to mention having to come to grips with the concept of success not coming in printed form with the first letter of the alphabet scribbled on top of it. Where I have to use my own judgment to determine whether I’m even finished with something much less whether I’ve succeeded at it, or even wanted to do it in the first place. These are kids we’re talking about. 19 year olds are children. They look like adults, but they are kids. Give them a break. They will not behave like we do because they aren’t us. In 20 or 30 years, they will start to settle out, but for now, they are just not there yet. It’s your job to GET them there, not to lose patience with them because they aren’t there yet. This is a multi-decade long process. They won’t shake it all off during the summer between high school and freshman year of college.

  3. At least you don’t give them Brahms’s sense of humor. (Actually, he did have one albeit a heavily idealistic Germanic one).

    I had a similar experience (not with Mozart or Brahms) teaching math to this age group. I still think you’re onto something. Yes, they’re kids, but they indeed do think differently in an age where everything is one google search away from acquisition. One would hope this means they can focus on critical thinking because trivia is easily available and not worth teaching. However, it’s like teaching baking without them ever having touched flour.

    I do think you’re onto something. Dedication can overcome it, true, but if you approach it thinking that they were like you at 19, you may be in for hoping the bread rises without enough yeast.

  4. I really agree with Janis – I can’t tell you how much of middle- and high-school success was telling the teacher what s/he wanted to hear. Some of this reticence from your students may be lack of Critical Thinking skills (we were taught Critical Thinking separate from everything else in HS Gifted class. that was helpful to everyone else in the damn school) but it may also be fear of being wrong, and even fear of looking like an idiot. If you can set your class up as something that it’s OK to have the wrong answer in, just like you encouraged me to see practice as the ideal forum in which to Fail, you will go far to not only teaching music, but giving them the Clue they’ll need to succeed in the rest of their college experience.

  5. Awesome insight, what a tough battle, and amazing tenacity!

    It’s not that most folks don’t know how to think critically. It’s more likely that they’ve been conditioned to blunt or surpress their capability to do so through their interactions with society. It’s not appreciated by most institutional organizations. Good little students become workers that assimilate. Most people seem to somehow accept the notion of getting paid to do, not to think… let alone feel anything outside of inconvenience. What they don’t know is that they’ll become walking dead zombies taking up mind-numbing employment and attending horrible social functions devoid of culture and intellect. From personal experience it took lots of personal grief to finally understand that critical thinking is not entirely appreciated and that those folks to play the game for fun they play it to only win. I try not to play with them cause the game is too fun to waste time arguing over the rules an regulations with those type of people.

    If you can reach a few souls that’s great. You saved them. But don’t forget there are a few in your class that have been waiting 19 years for the opportunity to think critically and tap into how they feel… and they’ll take to it like ducks on a pond once they figure it out. Then there’s a whole group that doesn’t have a clue that they’re allowed to think. Pat Conroy’s “The Water Is Wide” is a perfect example.

    The fact that music may be what knocks on the door of their enlightenment is a win-win opportunity. Can’t help but think of Ben Zander’s outlook… His TED presentation is amazing! Especially the first point he makes about the shoe salesmen. His book “The Art of Possibility” touches upon cracking the teacher student dilema based on his experiences as an instructor at the university level too.


  6. I am a bit late to answer, so most of what needs to be said has probably been said. I really liked the comments before me. For me personally, and I am 64 (!, and a rather recent cello student, bu that has nothing to do with it) it comes down to that: There are no children that have switched their thinking off. But there are plenty of kids that protect their damaged little soul, their self-esteem by saying “I don´t know” rather than risking something that may be ready in their head to be said, but that, when uttered, may or may not brand you as the guy who always says the wrong thing. Hearing that what I said was wrong or not quite right is extremely traumatizing, and a little worried soul has developed its clever strategies to protect him/herself from such potential trauma. One of them is to say I don´t know…

    Now I am not saying at all that you, Emily, may be intimidating the poor kid with your questions. Far from it! As my pre-commentators have noted there is a lot of learned baggage that kids (WE!!!) carry around that can be unlearned, in a low-risk, loving, approving, asserting environment. Perhaps there is some fun, playful way to trigger the kids to come out with what they might spontaneously utter.

    But they do think, and they even do think original things, they are just afraid to hear that what they just said is utter nonsense … they have heard that many times before and adjusted accordingly.

    Great post, Emily. Thanks.
    Chris in Brazil.

  7. And sometimes it’s not just risking being visibly wrong, though — at least, not for me. Right and wrong when unambiguous are easy to detach oneself from. There’s a big difference between, “Did you notice that this was a triplet?” and “What sort of music do you listen to at home?” or “Do you think rock is a worthwhile form of music?”

    It’s the opinions where things get a bit twisty, where critical thinking and deduction might not even really play a big role. The first question, where right and wrong are unambiguous, are easy ones. But with the second questions, if I judge that my interlocutor’s tastes are diametrically opposed to mine, I may just shrug and go, “Oh, lots of stuff,” or “I don’t know,” just to avoid a drawn-out discussion that won’t go anywhere. I certainly do have strong opinions on that sort of stuff, but I may not feel motivated to share them. And I learned quickly as a kid that when my piano teacher asked me who my favorite composer was, the right answer was Chopin. I still don’t like Chopin. (God knows I knew better than to say Billy Joel and Scott Joplin.)

    I’m not saying that you’ll go all eyeroll on anyone, but a young student won’t be able to judge whether you will or not, so they may simply play it safe, shrug, and say, “I don’t know,” even if it’s not a matter of right and wrong. Sometimes saying the wrong thing isn’t just a matter of forgetting that a set of eighth notes is a triplet. Sometimes it’s also a matter of liking Barry Manilow when your teacher might be a progressive rock and avant-garde music fan, or liking Trent Reznor when your teacher thinks no great music was written after 1780.

  8. I was very pleased to see Janis’ replies to this. For the last fifteen years I have been teaching voice and piano to middle class kids in their homes and I have been watching a trend. Children are becoming more and more fearful of giving a wrong answer. I have a feeling that these children are picking up on their parents anxiety about the child’s getting into Harvard with a perfect record, a soccer scholarship and a place in the jazz band and it permeates every activity.

    Emily, I don’t know where you are teaching , but since I continue to take college classes at various places , I have noticed that there are teachers who create an atmosphere where students will risk opening there mouths and those who don’t. ‘Recently I was in a master class seminar where the teacher honestly wanted to hear our opinions and techniques, but failed to get a response because she had begun with first day with a rant about people who teach the wrong way. We were into the second day of class before a few of us became brave enough to answer questions or volunteer to sing or conduct. And we all had degrees. By the end of the second day most people realized that the teacher’s response was worth the risk, and that she was not as personally judgemental as we had first supposed. How much better it would have been if she had started the first day with a demonstration of her acceptance of us as people who had come to learn from her, rather than to be decapitated for not knowing how to do it her way .

    The bottom line is that I don’t think there is any less thinking going on these days. I think there is a lot more fear.

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