I think that we’ve become accustomed to thinking that evaluation produces good results, and that often is far from the case, it seems to me. It reminds me of when I begin a new writing class: I tell students that I will be teaching them how to write—not just grading their essays. The latter is the kind of writing instruction that I got (and my grades weren’t bad because I was an avid reader). But no teacher sat with me to show me better strategies that I could use in my writing. Just the grades—that’s all I got. So I had to learn to write on my own. And when I started teaching college undergraduates writing at 21 years old, I vowed that I would do it a different way.
When I teach writing, I sit and discuss every draft with every single student in the class. For over thirty years I have taught classes in great literature (Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Joyce, Faulkner, for example) and in writing and grammar/punctuation and rhetorical analysis and vocabulary acquisition—just as many English teachers do, and although every class is difficult in some ways, the hardest class for me is teaching writing. Why is that? Try doing this sometime–try meeting with every student in your class individually and reading deep into their drafts and helping them (like a good editor) to imagine and express what they want to do in the essay, and then helping them to do that in a very powerful way—try that, and you will quickly see why I call it the most difficult part of teaching.
On the other hand, it is also the most rewarding part of my teaching because I get to see before my very eyes how the writers are growing and improving in their thinking. Every draft is a new step forward in their thinking and communicating. Every new draft is a big deal! The problem is that this slow and deliberate process is very, very difficult and very time-consuming for the teacher and for the students. Surely there has to be a better way!
As a matter of fact, we are inundated these days on social media with all kinds of “better ways”. And they’re all found—it seems—on the internet. Everybody seems to think that Google and the information explosion of the internet will make ordinary strategies of learning obsolete.
The truth is that a lot of this learning is an illusion. When we find information quickly on Google, we have the illusion of gaining knowledge. That is not the same as having the knowledge. We feel that we are gaining knowledge when we are not. If I can get a Wikipedia article on Joyce’s Dubliners, then I ‘know’ the Dubliners right? Wrong! Do you see what an amazing trick is being played on us?
I have been a music lover and a piano lover since I was a young kid. I was always in awe and envious of people who could do things on the piano that were beyond the reach of my ten fingers. But I was obsessed with learning more, studying classical music for some forty years, and then studying jazz piano for another ten years. I know now that I had no idea how to really master playing piano until a concert I attended years ago at a tiny church in Dallas. The pianist was a guy named Sam Rotman. And he played a Beethoven sonata and then some major pieces by Bach and Scarlatti and Rachmaninoff. And he did it all magically and flawlessly and from memory. Then he said something that really got my attention. He said that a teacher at Julliard had taught him how to master piano pieces and with this method, he had been able to memorize one thousand piano masterpieces. And 32 of those 1000 pieces were the immensely difficult and transcendentally beautiful sonatas of Beethoven. I could not wait to talk to him after the concert. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him.
You are not going to believe what the secret is!
(And yes, I know, if you read that on the internet, you will hear that same phrase over and over in those inane infomercials and you might keep reading or keep watching and never hear the ‘secret’ without reaching for your credit card.) Well, here’s the secret that he gave me: slow practice—perfect practice! Play four bars with the right hand over and over—slowly! Play with the dynamics, the expression, and with the exact fingering that you will always use. (He told me—this man who had just played this amazing concert— that if a neighbor came into his NY apt and saw him playing a new piece, the neighbor would think that he was a piano beginner.) Then do the four bars with the left hand—same procedure. Then hands together (and don’t forget fingering and dynamics). Then continue in the same way through the other four -bar fragments and then start stringing them together*. He said that when you sleep, the brain is putting everything you’ve learned into the hard drive, so that by the time you put the pieces together, you can play it all from memory. That’s the basic procedure. And with the metronome, you move it up to half speed and then gradually up to full speed. Sam said, “You are bombarding the mind with correct data, so then, strictly speaking, you don’t need to memorize it in the usual sense as a separate step.”
This method, which changed all my ideas about learning piano—and learning in general, has now been validated by a new book which is the rage on the talk circuit at the moment. Freakonomics is even trying to replicate this new research with its audience. The book is Peak, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Ericcson is the researcher who came up with the concept of 10,000 hours to master a skill, and Malcolm Gladwell made that number go viral in his book, Outliers. Ericsson wrote Peak to try to correct false impressions about the 10,000 hours. In his new book he makes it clear that 10,000 won’t turn you into a master pianist or tennis player or chess player or anything else. It is slow and deliberate practice (with objective feedback) from a teacher or some other means (metronome, recording, videos) that makes the difference. It is perfect practice that does the trick. Auto-pilot, sloppy practice won’t give you any improvement even if you do it for 10,000 hours!
So yes, you need to constantly test your skills to make sure that you are keeping the train on the track, and you need a very skilled teacher to help you along the way, but “testing just to test” tells us very little.
Slow and deliberate practice is the only real way to learn. There are no short cuts. So having an excellent teacher/editor working with you is really the way to learn to write. And, of course, there is another component in learning to write like a pro. Students of writing also need to know how grammar and punctuation work too. Loving Grammar will help you to master grammar and punctuation in the same way that Sam Rotman has shown me how to master a sonata by Beethoven. It is slow and deliberate instruction and you will do it under the direction of a master teacher—and, therefore, you will be able to master it all in one book—but more on that in my next blog.