Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Waste of time?

Michael Schmidt made an interesting comment on his blog, Melodic Metanoia, recently about learning to play music:

"... the other thing about making music that absolutely amazes me is that even at the basic level of playing a simple song and singing it, people will say, “I wish I could do that.” I have never heard of someone that listened to a musician and said, “Wow, I’m sure glad I didn’t waste my time on that.”
I agree. I have heard numerous people who wished they had learned to play an instrument or had continued on with their childhood piano lessons. My advice is always, "Start now. It's never too late." I am one of those folks who in my thirties was wishing I could play and was cursing myself for not picking up an instrument in my teens. I had the realization that I didn't want to say the same thing about my thirty year old self when I got into my fifties. I signed up for lessons that week. Now in my fifties I have nothing but gratitude to that thirty-something Al for finally picking up the banjo.

This got me to thinking about learning and education in a broader sense. Let's contrast these common positive comments about music with a comment I overheard in a fast food line the other day. A couple of men in their late twenties were talking about the higher level math they took in high school and how they never used it once they graduated. They felt they had "wasted their time."

Wow! Wasted their time. As a teacher this makes me a tad sad. Can learning a topic truly be a waste of time just because you never have or never will use it specifically? I've been told in several educational gatherings that one of the best indicators for success in later high school and college is learning Algebra. Why? No one is really sure. It's suggested that the process of learning Algebra prepares you better for learning more abstract concepts in other subjects.

That argument would not have motivated me in ninth grade when I was struggling to find the value of x in an equation. My motivation was my mother telling me to stop complaining and just get through it. I did. I hated it. But, I passed. I've felt that way about lots of classes, workshops and lets not forget multi-hour faculty meetings. Were those minutes and hours really a waste of my time? Is our real challenge to not only get our students motivated about the topic but about the process?

Tough question. Anybody got a good answer?

[Image: "M. Eli Jackson January 29, 1921 - August 15th 2008" Flickr: Uploaded on August 27, 2008 by coalandice: http://www.flickr.com/photos/coalandice/2802918677/: ((Creative Commons))]

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