The Myth of Difficult and a wonderful trip to China

Just back from an extraordinary two weeks in China.  I spoke to something like a thousand teachers in Beijing, Xi'an, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.  Ostensibly I was talking about sight reading (many of my sight reading books have been translated and published in Chinese) but naturally the whole thing was wrapped in a rich overlay of Simultaneous Learning. And I wondered how the Chinese would respond, well known, as they are, for a rather more austere, ‘old fashioned’ reactionary style of teaching. 


Well… I couldn’t have hoped for a more positive response.   Music, and learning instruments in particular (especially piano and violin) is of course hugely popular and important in China.  In their enormous population of nearly 1.4 billion people, 40 million plus are known to be learning the piano alone.  I was taken to the Music Conservatoire in Xi’an – one of eleven conservatoires in China – and this is a photo of the vocal department (really!). I think that gives a good idea of the extent of their music teaching!


China has its own graded exam system (10 grades) but they also subscribe to international systems, so there was quite a lot of discussion surrounding the usual aspects of exam preparation.  They were particularly interested in how you teach the upper grades so I decided to be a bit challenging and began my (6 hour) talks telling them boldly that Grade 1 is no easier than Grade 8 and Grade 8 is no more difficult than Grade 1.  No shortage of puzzled faces!


But I explained, in a number of ways, that nothing is difficult if you’re always doing the right thing, for the right reasons at the right time.  The word difficult is such an emotional one. And a meaningless one too (in this context).  If you can’t do something, it’s just that you can’t do it – it’s not difficult.  It’s a word we use as an excuse, or to make people feel sorry for us.  Teachers have a powerful responsibility to ensure that they don’t give pupils things to do that they can’t do.  It’s demoralising and gets in the way of progress.  I’m not suggesting we don’t give our pupils challenges – but we must make them appropriate – or the same will happen.


So if we always teach in a logical and sequential way (the basis of Simultaneous Learning) our pupils will always be able to do what they are doing and will always be positive in their learning.   The faces became more interested.


So, I continued, if a pupil is doing Grade 8 at the right time – no problem. They know how to manipulate all the ingredients that come together to make ‘Grade 8’.   It certainly has many more ingredients to manipulate compared to Grade 1 – but they are not more difficult!  Grade 8 is more complex than Grade 1 but it’s not more difficult.  And you teach it, fundamentally, in the same way.


The faces relaxed and they got it.   I felt this a major breakthrough.   The vast majority of the teachers that came to my presentations were of the younger generation.  And they were very open to this new kind of thinking.  I was very excited by this understanding – as were they! 


I found the Chinese very warm hearted, eager to learn and indeed very good learners. They also asked good questions.  Many would stay on afterwards to ask more.  It was all very rewarding.   I also enjoyed the Chinese food - no knives and forks in sight most of the time, so my chopstick technique also improved considerably! 


I’m much looking forward to my next visit.