Teaching and Learning

In the article, "Piano Lessons," in the March/April 2018 issue of Poets & Writers, Jim Sollisch states that "There's a difference between teaching and coaching" (25). His example, in summary, is how his young son had a gift for playing the piano, but for many years his enthusiasm was squashed by different teachers. His son just wanted to play, but the teachers insisted on starting in early with theory and technique, which turned him off. Finally, he found a jazz piano teacher, and gradually, as he played, the son wanted to learn more.

I think back to when I began teaching bookmaking and letterpress printing. As a younger teacher, I tried to insist on good technique, point out what could be improved. Some of my college students were ready for this, but I suspect most were not. When I worked as a specialist in an elementary school one spring, I noticed the opposite: that at the very beginner level, the lower grades, many of the teachers did not ask for correct spelling or grammar or perfect drawing, they only asked for the student's reaction, interpretation, or expression. 

Expression and technique. We tend to think of them on opposite sides. Are they? When do we insist on one or another? And when we do insist, are we teaching or coaching?

The context matters. If it is a class that the student has chosen freely, where no grades are given, the teacher just has to be sensitive to the student's needs and interests. If it is a graded course, a certain amount of technique is expected, a certain amount of creativity desired as well. But a sensitive teacher can only be helpful if s/he gains the student's trust. It's a reciprocal arrangement: the teacher must trust the student and the student must trust the teacher.

For a long time I did not comment on the content of my students' work. When you talk about content you are getting closer to personal feelings and taste, subjectivity, and risk. (A 2012 post about different kinds of students is here.If the student is fearful, feels vulnerable, or not interested, it may be that all a teacher can do is present technical steps. Technique is objective, and it can be defined, achieved, and measured; these terms are often used as business goals. The questions from the student's point of view are: What do I do? How might I do it? And how will you know?

Sollisch compares learning to a sport and writes, "You practice and then you learn. More accurately, you learn while doing." This is a reiteration of what artist, teacher, and color theorist Josef Albers wrote in his 1963 book, Interaction of ColorAlbers wrote that experience is the best way to learn, that practice comes before theory, theory being "the conclusion of practice" (Introduction. 1.). While true, practicing and learning only work if you are open to practicing and learning in the first place. Sometimes what you are practicing is not what you want to be learning, generally because it is assigned and is outside of you. And certain approaches to and kinds of practice will help you learn more than others. Albers encouraged radical experimentation in order to learn. While a good teacher is also a coach, a good teacher is primarily a guide. A good teacher is a guide to seeing, a synonym for understanding.

Ultimately, in all my teaching, graded or not, I was able to find a way to meet each student where they were. I could see when a student had trouble measuring or gluing or couldn't get their corners to align. I would either give pointers when asked or suggest other approaches. If they realized that books didn't seem to be what they wanted to do, I made accommodations and let them do a different project. To experiment as they needed. These students often had much to say and/or were extremely creative. Because creativity needs room to keep growing, I tended to be looser on my technical requirements for them. (A 2012 post about working with the personal and the painful is here.)

On the flip side, I also frequently had (primarily graphic design) students who were used to assignments—just as they would be if they had specifications from a client—and they were not comfortable expressing themselves as themselves at all. Sometimes they wouldn't even sign their work. Generally, these students were excited to hone their technique. I would press a little toward incorporating something personal, something that wasn't entirely comfortable to them, but I would not insist.

As we teach ourselves, I suspect we go back and forth between honing our technical abilities and nurturing our creativity. Give and take. Accept or push further. In some projects, technique may be stronger, in others, creativity may soar higher. Jackpot if we get both at once.

The word "teacher" can mean a variety of things. Perhaps in the beginning a person starts out as a teacher but becomes a coach. But another way of looking at it is that a teacher, through practice and experience, can emerge as a better teacher.