I am doing a study into social cognitive theory, specifically in modeling. Here is a case study from my personal life:
My daughter, Sophia, is six years old and is learning to play the violin. She has been taking Suzuki Violin lessons since she had just turned five years old. The Suzuki Method of music training is what I liken to the Montessori Method of music. The premise is that every child can develop musical ability just like they learn their own mother tongue. Shinichi Suzuki, who developed the Suzuki Method, studied language acquisition and applied those basic principles to the learning of music. It is called the “mother-tongue” approach, and just like language acquisition, a child is immersed at a very young age into music, at first broadly, and then more formally around age three or four. They listen to music every day, especially those pieces that they will be learning, so they are familiar when the time comes to learn each piece. And just like learning language from parents, parental involvement is a necessity in Suzuki training. A parent becomes the designated “home instructor” and sits in on all Suzuki formal lessons, so what is learned in the lesson is reinforced all week long at home with positive encouragement and constant repetition. In this way it almost seems easy for a child to learn music, as they “pick it up” in the nearly the same way as they pick up language.
A large part of Suzuki training also includes group lessons, where children learn and perform together in a positive and encouraging environment. This gives children to the opportunity to perform from an early age, so they are accustomed to being in front of an audience, and the group aspect is the social learning environment, where they can see how more advanced children behave and perform the pieces they have heard so often.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Suzuki Method is that like language, children don’t practice exercises to learn to talk, but use language for its natural purpose of communication and self-expression. Pieces in the Suzuki repertoire are designed to present technical problems to be learned in the context of the music rather than through dry technical exercises. The Suzuki Method has a proven track record and has produced numerous famous musicians and child prodigies, including Hilary Hahn.
This case study focuses on a particular piece that Sophia was beginning to learn that incorporated a new rhythm that was not natural in her motor skills and was difficult for me to convey as the home instructor.
Suzuki training involves ten volumes of music that Shinichi Suzuki compiled in an order that teaches musical lessons in the context of the music itself. Sophia is in Book One and was just introduced to a new piece, “May Song.” The first measure began with a rhythm that was not coming naturally to Sophia with the associated bowing. In the formal lesson with her instructor, they began by clapping out the rhythm: one (clap) and two and (clap) three (clap) and four (clap). Once she picked up the clapping rhythm (which took a while), she tried it on her violin. It was only four notes with four full bow strokes, despite the fact that each note minus the last two were held for different lengths of time. Before this, Sophia had only used one bow length for a long note, and half a bow length for short notes. This was an entirely new concept to her to have full bow lengths for both short and long and even longer notes. Her instructor continued to work with her for the remainder of the half hour lesson, and it seemed as though she got it. At least until we tried it again at home.
We started the home practice session as usual with a warm-up and run through of a couple of other short pieces. Then we practice the new material. It was only four notes, and Sophia could play the notes themselves without issue, but she did not recall the rhythm. She played each note the same length of time, each with one full bow stroke. I attempted to review the clapping of the rhythm again, figuring it worked the first time, why not now? She eventually got the clapping rhythm, but it still seemed unnatural and didn’t quite flow. When we tried in on the violin, it was a miserable failure. She just played the four notes all with the same rhythm again.
Clearly I needed to find a solution to teach her this entirely new concept in a way that would have the most transference and go into her long term memory. The Suzuki Method in itself is a social cognitive learning environment that embodies situated cognition, as it includes knowledge as a lived practice (emulating the mother-tongue approach) and learning as participation in a community of practice (Driscoll, 2005). The solution to this problem would be to utilize an aspect of social cognitive theory: modeling.
1) Where is the disconnect between what was learned in Sophia’s formal lesson and her home practice session?
2) Why was this particular concept difficult for Sophia to grasp?
3) How could I convey this new concept in a way that would “click” with Sophia?
4) What is the best way to teach new rhythms and associated motor skills?
5) How can I embrace the foundations of social learning theory so rooted in Suzuki training to convey new motor skills to my daughter?
As I reflected on the differences that occurred between Sophia’s formal lesson and our home practice session, I had recalled that her teacher guided her bow while Sophia made the notes on her strings. Outside of that, I could not find anything that was different that I was doing (or not doing) to reinforce what had evidently not made it into long term memory. So I guided Sophia’s bow the same way her teacher had but still to no avail. My only thought as to what I could do to help Sophia learn this new rhythm, which was a combination of cognitive processes and motor skill acquisition, was to model it for her.
According to Schunk (2012), observational learning occurs through four processes: attention, retention, production and motivation. The first thing I needed to do was make sure I had Sophia’s attention. That was pretty easy, because she pays a good bit of attention during her practice session so she can finish it up and move on to something she perceives to be more fun. Retention was the more difficult process, as it requires cognitive organization, encoding and then transferring into long term memory. That is what we were working on and ultimately hoped to achieve. Rehearsal was important, as it helps encode the new skill. Practice in itself is rehearsal. Production is that process of translation or encoding into a new behavior, i.e. a new motor skill. Again, this was a goal of the practice session. The problem, as Schunk (2012) affirms, is that often information is not coded well-enough, and so it does not translate into a new motor skill. That is exactly what we were experiencing.
The final process in observational learning is naturally motivation, which also parallels self-efficacy. Sophia had learned violin thus far via the Suzuki Method which espouses the triadic reciprocality among behavior, the environment, and herself leading to an increased perception of self-efficacy (Schunk, 2012). Increasing self-efficacy is one of the foundations of Suzuki training, in that the child is always given positive reinforcement for the behavior of performing a musical instrument via clapping and positive remarks combined with ample opportunities to perform in front of a group. As with teaching anything to children, it is always an act of incredible patience. Despite the fact that I was annoyed at Sophia’s lackluster ability to grasp this new material, I put aside negativity and gave her positive remarks about what she had already done. Her motivation was multi-leveled and genuine. She wanted to please me, though I understand that this was not her ultimate goal, but it was a part of her motivation. She also wanted to learn the new song so she could learn the next song. Suzuki training is pretty good about instilling motivation in children in this regard. Sophia and I listen to her volume one music from my iPhone in the car, and she follows along in her book. She knows the names of all the songs in the book, even ones we won’t learn for many months. She gets excited about the prospect of learning these new pieces, and I encourage that with statements such as, “What a great song! I’m so excited that you get to learn this one later on! Aren’t you excited too?” And she is genuinely excited about the prospect. Truly though, at that moment in our practice session, her ultimate motivation is to end the session, so she can move on to something else, and she knows I won’t end the session unless she 1) plays to a standard I feel is adequate or 2) get so frustrated I send her on her way with no praise (not so Suzuki, but I am admittedly human with a lot on my plate and not always the most patient or perfect mother). She understandably prefers the first scenario, because number two is not always pretty. I actually learned about Suzuki through reading Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. While I am not that extreme, I value a lot of what she conveyed about raising children “the Chinese way.”
I decided to use cognitive modeling to demonstrate the rhythm and bowing to Sophia. Schunk (2012) emphasizes the importance of verbal explanations coinciding with modeling in order to produce the best results. That is exactly what I did. I demonstrated the bowing and rhythm by counting out loud, slowly, as I modeled the behavior I was trying to teach to Sophia. I did it two or three times, which by that point had sufficiently annoyed my daughter that she just wanted her violin back, so she could do it herself and most likely end the practice session. Her violin is an eighth of a full-sized violin, which is perfect for her, but very tiny for my hands, so I played the sounds atrociously. In order to mitigate the frustration and negative tone the practice session was taking, I took that opportunity to offer some positive reinforcement: “When you play it, it sounds so much prettier…” Sophia liked that, gladly accepted her violin back, and promptly played the correct rhythm. I was impressed, but I wanted to be sure it encoded and translated into long-term memory, so I had her repeat it a few more times while verbalizing herself the rhythm she was playing as she played it. We ended the practice session with a hug, and I told her she could go crazy on her violin. She likes to end her practice sessions with the ability to do whatever she wants and make the violin sound however she wants. This gives her back a sense of control over her situation, stimulates her creativity, increases her connection and love of her instrument, and helps her to discover new ways to interact with her violin and make sounds that she will actually learn about formally later on.
Reviewing social cognitive theory, situated cognition, observational learning, and cognitive modeling helped me to put into perspective how teaching and learning was happening in Suzuki violin training. I was able to see how Sophia’s instructor effectively taught her new musical concepts and motor skills via immersion into the culture of music, a community of practice. She also used positive reinforcement and modeling as ways to convey these new behaviors and help her retain them. These methods transferred over into what I did in the home learning environment, which rehearses the new materials and facilitates the encoding and transfer into long-term memory. Learning more about this theory has helped me to see this community of practice through a practically applicable lens.
Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.
Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.