Paul Harris: Unconditional Teaching

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Many readers will already have benefitted from Paul Harris’s numerous and superb teaching and learning resources, and perhaps also read one or more of his best-sellers written to support teachers. His seminal The Virtuoso Teacher, Improve Your Teaching! and Simultaneous Learning books have established themselves as essential modern classics.

New from Faber Music, and presented in a similar format to those previous books, Harris’s latest publication is called Unconditional Teaching. And it is undoubtedly one of his most provocative and thought-provoking yet…

What is ‘Unconditional Teaching’?

Introducing this new title, the publishers tell us:

These are bold claims for a book that has just 64 pages, but those familiar with Harris’s writing will know that he has a brilliant way of condensing deep ideas into simple, even terse language. And here, the ideas simply pour forth, encapsulated in eleven short chapters as follows:

  • A moment for reflection
  • A few words about some words
  • What does it mean to be unconditional?
  • What are our own conditions?
  • What are lessons for?
  • Changing our mindsets
  • “I’ll teach you on the condition that you’re learning”
  • Group teaching
  • Do learners have conditions?
  • Moving forward
  • Looking inwards

The first two of these chapters are brief indeed, essentially introductory in their nature and intent.

With the third chapter, Harris begins to grapple with the bigger ideas of his book, explaining that we need certain conditions in order to teach, for example those that protect our safety, comply with legal requirements, or are necessary for practical or transactional reasons.

But what about the less overt, but no less powerful, conditions we place on our teaching? Harris suggests:

Chapters 4 to 6 get properly to the heart of this, an inner trilogy at the core of Harris’s book which begins with an invitation to identify and reflect upon our own preconditions for delivering our best teaching, whether articulated or otherwise. Again, the emphasis is on seeking out those which are unhelpful:

Harris goes on to identify thirteen of the common preconditions that he has noted over the course of his distinguished career in music education, as well as probing our “hidden” conditions and unconscious biases, assessing their likely impact on learning.

Interestingly, Harris doesn’t specifically include the age of the student among these thirteen. I have met a number of teachers who won’t teach adults, and others who refuse to teach children; what about the youngest infants whose parents propose lessons? Our preconditions here may help to define our niche in the music education workforce, but I would still have welcomed Harris’s insights on the maturity of the student as a condition for teaching.

After a short discussion considering the purpose of lessons (chapter five), the sixth chapter is by far the longest of the book, and one that I suspect many teachers will find themselves repeatedly returning to.

Here, Harris revisits the thirteen conditions he has previously identified and offers in-depth advice for each of them, a plethora of positive suggestions that will undoubtedly help teachers to put aside (or at least manage) the conditions we impose, so that they no longer represent an impediment to pupil progress.

In his Chapter 7, Harris considers the more thorny condition, “I’ll teach you on the condition that you’re learning”, countering with the related question “how do we know?” and outlining some of the useful models of learning developed by Maslow, Broadwell, Meyer and Land. This is a brilliant exposition, and worth the price of the book alone.

Further chapters encourage an ongoing reflective practice, and explore how Harris’s suggestions for unconditional teaching can be adapted to the particular challenges encountered in group teaching contexts, and how they relate to his Simultaneous Learning model.

Chapter 9, “Do learners have conditions” is especially fascinating and vital; based on pupil responses to a questionnaire Harris sent out, there are some significant points here which teachers will want to ponder at length.

A time for reflection…

For a book that raises and grapples with so many big questions, and which offers such a rich feast of advice, it is remarkable that the publication itself is so slim a volume. This is largely a testament to Harris’s forensic precision and the clarity of his writing.

Praise, too, for Faber Music, whose design team have again delivered an attractive presentation which is a breeze to navigate and a joy to read.

I would caution against skim reading the book in an afternoon though: there is enough material here to mull over for months to come. Nor does Harris leave us short of references to follow up and research. This is a book to read, to read again, and to reflect on at great length.

When it comes to adjusting attitudes and adapting behaviour, as Tolstoy put it, “the two most powerful warriors are patience and time”. For effective use as a workbook for self- or professional improvement, we must undoubtedly live with Harris’s wisdom for the longer haul, applying our learning with grace and positivity, and without self-condemnation.

Harris’s ideas, like any, are to be chewed over rather than swallowed whole. You probably won’t agree with everything he writes; nor do I suspect this is his aim. Personally, I don’t share his critical view of (as he calls it) “reactive” teaching, and wonder whether “responsive” would be a more generous and helpful turn of phrase?

In any case, if it is Harris’s intent to provoke thought, reflection, and perhaps occasional discomfort, he certainly does so with considerable panache. As the eminent educator and historian Sir Anthony Sheldon writes in his Foreword to Unconditional Teaching,

Unconditional Teaching is in my view one of those potentially transformative “best books about teaching”, and I would encourage every instrumental teacher to make a priority of reading it.

A miniature masterpiece, a profoundly rewarding read: I quite simply cannot recommend Unconditional Teaching highly enough!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.