Robert Schenck

Robert Schenck, flautist and long-time teacher at the Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden, identifies some key elements shared by coaching approaches and Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, and considers his experience of working with new approaches to teaching and feedback. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

On working with new approaches to teaching and feedback at the Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden

Until my retirement from the Academy of Music and Drama in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2014, I worked intensively for a number of years with students and staff on applying coaching techniques and on the Critical Response Process (CRP) in various contexts of teaching and administrating. My experimentation not only provided me with specific tools and forms to facilitate what was, for many at the conservatoire, a radically new approach to teaching, communicating and learning, it also raised crucial issues concerning pedagogy and communication both at an institution of learning and in life in general. In other words, the value of my work lay not only in the acquisition of specific, powerful forms of teaching and feedback facilitation. The experimentation also awoke key educational issues, especially relevant at a conservatoire.

The following annotated list sheds light on some of the shared principles behind a coaching approach and in CRP. The understanding of these principles is essential for the Process. In my experience, these principles are also invaluable parameters to have at hand when teaching or facilitating in any context.

Receptivity (on the part of the feedback recipient)

We teachers can be very proud of ourselves and feel we’ve earned our pay when we say wise things and give what we believe to be constructive criticism, but what use is all that if nothing or little is taken in by students? Encouraging and enabling receptivity is an essential foundation.

Awareness-raising (on the part of the feedback recipient)

Ownership (The feedback recipient sets the agenda and owns the solutions.)

These two key factors are at the heart of Coaching for Performance by John Whitmore (Nicholas Brealey, London, 1992, 2007). As in many Eastern philosophies, awareness is enough to facilitate improvement. How strange that can feel to us teachers sometimes, we who love to provide solutions. Student ownership of the agenda and solutions proves to be an extremely powerful learning tool. That makes sense, but ownership is not always easy for us teachers to relinquish.

Potential (of the feedback recipient)

There is great potential in our students that following the CRP provides space for – exciting questions, thoughts, ideas, suggestions, etc…

Being nonjudgmental

The more nonjudgmental we are, the more accurately we perceive and remember our performances. The nonjudgmental approach also increases receptivity. Again, those familiar with certain Eastern philosophies will recognize this age-old principle. Being nonjudgmental entails commenting on or perceiving an action without attaching a value judgment (for example, “good” or “bad”). Being nonjudgmental is a lifetime project of its own. It is crucial, but can seem very foreign as most of us are brought up to believe that all constructive criticism and learning must include an assessment of what has been “bad” and what has been “good”. I recommend The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey and quote from the book here:

“… the errors we make can be seen as an important part of the developing process…. The first step is to see your strokes as they are. They must be perceived clearly. This can be done only when personal judgment is absent.”

Pluralism

There are different points of view and opinions that are sometimes contradictory. This is natural and becomes constructive within the Process.

Focus on the material, the message

We often forget that the purpose of our performance is to impart something to our audience and to move our listeners. Focusing feedback on the material and the message is therefore very relevant and meaningful.

Constructive questioning

It is a challenge to formulate questions that evoke maximum awareness and reflection.

In coaching, there is a clear distinction between closed and open questions. A closed question elicits only “yes” or “no” as an answer. (“Have you thought about…?”) An open question challenges and can be a powerful awareness-raiser. (What are your thoughts about…?”)

  • In steps two and three of the CRP, Liz Lerman stresses the following:

– Your question may be based on an opinion, but ask a neutral question that does not contain the opinion and still addresses the subject.

– Avoid starting a question with “why”, as this tends to raise defensiveness.

– Listen to the reply you receive and instead of being tempted to enter into polemics, ask a further question if you wish to pursue the subject.

– When replying, stick to the question at hand.

Reformulating questions according to the above criteria is not always so straightforward but it is an extremely useful exercise. It hones skills that are beneficial in all forms of pedagogy and communication.

Improving listening and communicating

Everyone in the room, responders and artists alike, is part of the learning experience and practices listening and communication skills.

Improving self-assessment

How we express ourselves to others affects how we express ourselves to ourselves, and vice versa. Being part of the CRP improves our ability to self-assess.

A democratic process

Using CRP minimizes the built-in hierarchy in the teacher-student relationship, thus improving receptivity, ownership, etc. It also reduces the feeling of “responsibility” on the part of the teacher, creating a healthier learning environment.

Structure

The Process helps everyone to stick to important and desired points, and minimizes rambling.

One thing is for sure: a coaching approach and the CRP are not appropriate in all contexts, and I have never heard anyone claim that they are. After years of experimentation, though, I believe that with a flexible attitude, almost any teaching situation will benefit from a CRP and coaching awareness. Many situations will profit greatly from the proposed forms being utilized to the letter. (Indeed, when starting out I highly recommend adhering strictly to the forms; this is necessary to grasp their potential and wide applicability.) In other situations, however, mere awareness on the part of the teacher/facilitator of some basic ideologies and principles will improve learning, enjoyment and results for students and teachers alike.

Perhaps Greta K. Nagel, in her book The Tao of Teaching (Primus, New York, 1994), hit the nail on the head when she wrote:

“I am therefore, I suppose, a yin/yang teacher. I am an advocate and practitioner of alternative pedagogies, yet I am confident that organized presentations of information can be successful in the context of other teaching and learning strategies…. I am a teacher-facilitator who doesn’t mind doing some old-fashioned telling now and then.”

Further training courses at my University in specific coaching skills and ideologies, and intensive work as one of the team of artistic directors of the Innovative Conservatoire, gave me invaluable inspiration, knowledge and practice. Then, when running further training seminars for the staff at the Academy in Gothenburg, I presented the beginning of the list of key issues I have identified. As we worked, we expanded the above list together to its present length.

The value of the list is not only to raise motivation and general awareness on the part of the facilitators, responders and artists. What the list is most important for is to remind us of why we are following specific rules and forms, and why we are asked to express ourselves in a certain way. In the CRP, for instance, it can feel strange at times to ask a question in the prescribed way, or to limit ourselves strictly to answering the question at hand, or to always express ourselves in a positive spirit in Step 1. When and if it feels awkward, then it is easy to refer to one or more of the key points in the list above. For example, if it is clear to all that two of the main points of Step 1 are to increase receptivity on the part of the artists during the entire process, and to address the foremost purpose of what performance is all about – creating meaningful experience – then it will be easier to understand and follow the rules of the game.

It is difficult to believe that, at conservatoires all over the world, we have been teaching in basically the same manner for the past couple of hundred years or so. Undoubtedly, there have been many fine results along the way but why should we miss out on the extensive renewal and many innovations that have permeated the teaching profession the past approximate hundred years? Certainly, we, too, have much to gain by renewing.

Good luck to all. Your work should be inspiring and rewarding. Then you know you’re on the right track!

Robert Schenck

January, 2015

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