Do you want to understand your students better? RSS

Teaching / 15/08/2017
Do you want to understand your students better?

It's almost a silly question, isn't it? 

Teachers want to understand their students better so that they can build a stronger relationship with them, communicate more clearly, teach more effectively and promote better learning outcomes for each of them. If we know our students well, we can understand what motivates them and adapt our teaching accordingly.

The TAT Test  

A few years ago I came across this fascinating technique, the Thematic Apperception Test, or TAT. The TAT was developed in the 1930s by the American psychologist, Henry A. Murray and lay psychoanalyst, Christiana D. Morgan. It's simple, insightful and fun to do. Underlying motives can be revealed, concerns expressed and views aired in a non-confrontational way. The original TAT test offered a choice from a set of thirty-two picture cards and the subject was asked to tell a story for each picture presented, to include the following details:

 • what has led up to the event shown

 • what is happening at the moment

 • what the characters are feeling and thinking

 • what the outcome of the story was

To apply this test in your teaching situation, all you have to do is show the child a relevant but emotionally ambiguous picture of a child of around their age, with the instrument they play (or a child singing) and ask them to make a story up about it. Your role is to listen and to move the story forward, if necessary, using gentle questioning. The technique is amazingly effective with children, in terms of helping them to express emotions and thoughts about their learning and their lessons with you that they may otherwise feel unable to voice.

A word of caution 

Some children may make up stories about how they would like to feel or about the person they wish they could be. More seriously, we are not attempting a scientific evaluation here or acting as a psychoanalyst - student problems arising from a serious psychological condition or an adverse home situation should be dealt with by an appropriate professional.

Motivating music practice

A number of years ago I taught piano part-time at a preparatory school. I was concerned about the progress and attitude of a certain pupil, Edward, aged six years. Below is a conversation with Edward as he studied a picture of a boy sitting at a piano.

Me: What is the boy in the picture thinking? Can you make up a story about him?

Edward: He's feeling sad because he has to do his practice and his prep so he never gets to play with his friends.

Me: Does he like playing the piano?

Edward: Yes and he wants to play well ... He might like to have a year of playing and then a year off. He might ask his mum if he can do that.

Me: Then, would he have to practise even more, to make up for forgetting a lot in the year off?

Edward: Oh I hadn't thought of that.

Me: What advice would you give to this boy?

Edward: Probably he could see his friends on some days and practise on others.

Me: Does he have any friends who play?

Edward: Yes - his friend, George plays.

Me: Would he like it if George came into some of his practices every week?

Edward: Ooh yes!

Me: They could make up some music together and play duets.

The outcome

It turned out that Edward really did have a friend called George, who was also my piano student. I was able to facilitate Edward and George occasionally attending each other's lessons. They began sharing some of their allocated practice times and started playing duets together. Both boys made much better progress, they enjoyed practising and were even more enthusiastic about their lessons. A happy outcome for all concerned!

Sandy Holland

Photography: Clarke Young
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