The Chameleon Teacher: The Art of Adapting to Individual Learning Styles Part 1

Jennifer participates as an author on the Music Teacher’s Helper Blog site.  She writes an article once per month.  This article appeared on Dec. 3rd, 2008.

Have you ever noticed that you seem to be able to teach some students better than others?  While some students seem to instantly grasp your every instruction and leave your studio walking away on a cloud of enthusiasm, there are others for whom getting them to respond as well is much like trying to drink the last few marshmallows in your cup of hot cocoa:  You can’t reach them and the more you tip your cup up, the further away they move.

Perhaps for these seemingly impossible students, all they require is a teacher who understands their learning style, adapts to it, and communicates through it.  In other words, a teacher who is able to chameleonize.

How do you identify a student’s learning style?

I personally love the animal personality typing that Keith Golay presented In the Autumn 1990 edition of Keyboard Companion.  He identifies four main types of students/teacher learning styles:  The Ape, The Bear, The Dolphin, and The Owl.  I will summarize both the teacher and student personalities, and include the suggested teaching stradegy for each learning type.


The Ape

Teacher Characteristics: The Ape teacher is almost always enjoyable.  Will put on a great show and do a great deal of demonstration and hands-on activity.  Tends to de-emphasize mechanics, theory, and personal relationships, and focus instead on being spontaneous, and on “expressing” the music.  Want students to develop a grace, or a flair for playing.  They are the best at getting students to improvise.

Student Characteristics: Our little Apes are definitely hazards as students.  They don’t want to sit still, don’t want to practice scales, don’t want to pay attention.  All they want to do is play the piano, and they want you to show them playing which is stimulating and exciting.  Chances are that you won’t get many apes, but if you can handle them, you may find the opportunity to unleash extraordinary musical potential.

Teaching Stradegies:  Make playing the piano fun!  You must adapt to this student’s need to be great and to have fun here and now.  Model and demonstrate, then he or she will mimic.  Once the action is taken and found enjoyable the thirst for more information in order to pursue the fun will follow.  You may not have the kind of program that’s compatible with this student – find out early and don’t waste everybody’s time.


The Bear

Teacher Characteristics:  Tend to be traditionalists in music education.  Stick to the basics.  Get the mechanics down!  Their first objective is to make sure that every student they teach is a good citizen – that students sit quietly, follow the rules, pay attention, and practice diligently at home.  Strong believer in skill and drill.  Most likely, there will be a strong emphasis on memorization and on playing scales.  Spend the lesson sitting next to the student on the piano bench seeing to it that the student doesn’t skip a beat.  Teaching improvisation will be difficult for this teacher due to a strong reliance on structure and mechanics.

Student Characteristics: Bear students want to be prepared for their lessons, want to do as they are told, like to pay attention, like to do their scales, and are good at memorizing.  But if they have no real interest in learning music, they may be quite difficult to motivate.

Teaching Stradegies: The standard “skill and drill” approach will be very successful, but don’t overload.  Perceived failure will demonstrate in a big hurry.  Problems will also come when you are ready to have this student interpret or improvise.  Appreciate that such a student will find these activities stressful and show the way carefully.


The Dolphin

Teacher Characteristics: Live in another world.  They tend to be the progressives.  They want new ideas, new techniques.  And they want students to be creative and spontaneous.  They have a primary objective, too – to make sure that their students become better human beings and learn to enjoy expressing themselves through music.  This teacher strives for a personal relationship with each student, and seeks to develop the potential that resides deep within the student.  The emphasis will be more on the student gaining an understanding of music than on the mechanics.

Student Characteristics: Dolphins are well-motivated, high-acheivers too, but only to the degree that they have a good personal relationship with the teacher.  Also, rather than just a brilliant technical display, or exciting performance, they want to use the music as a form of self-expression to communicate their inner feelings to the world with music.

Teaching Stradegies: Recognition is very important.  These students love to perform if they get strokes for the effort, if they know that the teacher thinks they are something special.  But drilling bores them.  Show this Johnnie how to create his own music and he will soar.


The Owl

Teacher Characteristics: The Owl teacher is more cool in his/her approach.  The focus will be on how to analyze and interpret a piece of music, and on how to accurately express the intention of the composer.  The personal relationship with the student will be de-emphasized and replaced with the importance of gaining insight.

Student Characteristics: Owl students want to do more than just memorize.  They want to learn the theory behind what they are doing, and they want to perfect their skills to the highest degree possible.  They have an interest in gaining insight into the structure and function of a piece.  They will enjoy learning about the different compositional styles and impact these styles had on the development of music in culture.

Teaching Stradegies: The teaching should be theory-oriented, with the emphasis on musical structure and on music’s beautiful precision.  Great technical skill can be fostered in the exploration of its precise structure.  Be organized and be sure the student understands where he’s headed and why.

Understanding and exploring both yours and your students’ learning styles will help everyone get more out of lesson time and further progress.  Not to mention you will find yourself being able to tackle those “hard to teach” students with more confidence.

In Part II of this topic, I will go into other types of individual learning characteristics such as a student’s modality preference (Is he/she a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner?).


2 responses to “The Chameleon Teacher: The Art of Adapting to Individual Learning Styles Part 1

  1. Comments from the Music Teacher’s Helper Site:

    1.Awesome article! I mainly teach adults, and find that each is so different to teach, and I could relate to a bit of each of the above with my students. I can’t wait for the next installment!

    I know that many teachers out there have a set curriculum that they use, but if you can’t break out of the mould or think outside the square, then teaching becomes mundane as well – imagine how this is for your students! I like to expand my students to think in a little of all ways above, but mainly concentrate on their main personal goals and ways of learning.
    by Leah Coutts — Thu Dec 4, 2008 @ 5:11 am

    2.Great article! Lot’s of helpful information!
    by Michelle Payne — Wed Dec 10, 2008 @ 12:57 am

    3.I’ve been waiting for this! This is going to be excellent info for me. I can finally relate to my students better with these great ideas. Thanks again!
    by steve lord — Sat May 16, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  2. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment
    but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr…

    well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless,
    just wanted to say wonderful blog!

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