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Anchoring and its relevance on learning
(i) How often does Jupiter orbit around the sun - more or less than once every 837 days?
(ii) What is your estimate of the time it takes for Jupiter to orbit the sun?
(a) Is the population of Budapest greater or less than 10 million?
(b) What is your estimate of the population of Budapest?
In the above sets of questions, you may find that your answer to the second question slightly influenced by the first. How? When you are encountering new experiences, one where your mind tries to establish a sense of order, it is likely to draw on past experiences as a starting point. In the above case, the first number plants a suggestion in your mind, and with this sort of rough estimation hovering in your mind, it is likely you adjusted the second figure with the first in mind.
For the record, there are an estimated 1.7 million inhabitants in Budapest. Jupiter orbits the sun once every 4330 Earth days.
This sort of procedure is so widespread in daily life, sometimes unconsciously used, that it has even got a term for it. Psychologists call this the anchoring effect. One common question used to illustrate this was as follows:
Was Gandhi more or less than 114 years when he died?
How old do you think Gandhi was when he died?
Studies have shown that when the anchor age in the question was 114, the responses given were closer to that number.
If the anchor age was given as 35, then respondents gave a lower number.
Supermarkets and outlets recognise and use this tactic to their advantage. Type a search term into a shopping catalogue, and you are presented with items which purport to be "Best Match" based on the search terms you entered. The only catch is that they are usually pretty pricey.
Adjust the results to display based on "Price: Low to High", and suddenly the products you see look cheaper based on comparison with your mental figure, to induce you to buy. The lowest price is never given in any initial display, otherwise everything would look expensive in comparison and you wouldn't purchase. Go on, try it at eBay, or Argos, or John Lewis, and see the psychology of anchoring in action.
You may, on other occasions, visit a department store and see a sign that states, for example, that a particular item is limited, and that you can buy no more than a certain limit: "Maximum 6 per person". What happens?
The first thought that instantly comes to mind is that this item must be fairly popular and hence valuable if its sales are being monitored, and you'd best buy as close to the limit as you can. If you had no pre-existing knowledge of what it costs, then you instinctively reason that the price on offer is a good deal. In the absence of experience, suggestion is a powerful anchor.
If you visit a bazaar and want to buy a rug without any knowledge of what it really costs, you may accept the price quoted to you by the merchant as a rough guide, and after doing the dance of negotiation, come to a final sum close to what was quoted. (Unless of course the word "bazaar" triggers preconceived ideas you have about being ripped off.)
Anchoring. It is giving you an initial idea, and your subsequent experiences are guided unconsciously by it.
What is anchoring and what relevance does it have on learning?
If you encounter a learning situation without having any prior experience, then your experience of that particular situation becomes an anchor, a reference point for future experiences.
It is hence important to have good positive experiences in any learning situation.
In the context of a piano lesson, how do we create positive experiences, and equally importantly, how do we avoid creating negative ones?
Playing the piano involves translating visual symbols into actions that must be performed using variances in speed and strength, relying on a kinaesthetic awareness of the positions of keys, while keeping to a pulse. It is akin to driving a car on the road while navigating from a book, observing road signs and being mindful of the human and vehicular traffic around you.
The difficulty of starting the piano at the initial stages can be harsh enough a reality to put people off after a couple of lessons, especially if they have unrealistic expectations of what is involved. Carelessly managed, it can turn into a negative anchor.
So how can learning the piano be positively managed?
Many traditional forms of instruction have been along the lines of "throw it at them and see what sticks". In other words, exposing the student to as much information as possible, and putting the onus of information retention on them.
And if they didn't progress? In such situations students are often subsequently told they didn't work hard enough, or if they did, then they didn't really have the aptitude for that subject.
It is a sort of knowledge acquisition by filtration - hope something gets sieved out the first time around, and then continually return the liquid solution back to the filter and hope eventually all of the original remains in the filter.
That kind of method is unnecessarily effortful, and doesn't really result in knowledge that is meaningfully established in the brain, but acquired only through familiarity with the presentation of the particular material.
What happens when we come across an inspirational song on television or radio? Maybe you are inspired by Ludovico Einaudi playing Primavera. A common initial reaction is to get the music score, hack away at it, bar by bar, and if you get stuck, watch a video of someone playing the song, memorise the notes by trial and error, or watch a Synaethesia video.
(If you are unfamiliar with the latter, it is a video of bricks falling onto a keyboard which show which notes to play.)
Or perhaps you have an exam piece to learn. You start with the right hand, then the left hand, then - whoa! - both hands together, moving on bar by bar. It may be manageable for easier pieces but as the difficulty increases, suddenly with playing two hands there is sometimes a big gulf to cross.
In all the above instances, you will find it more time consuming and less rewarding as the difficulty of the music increases, if you've always learnt primarily by methods such as repetition, playing by ear, plugging away at music, or going mainly by the feel of the keys. There comes a point when you realise those methods cannot take you further past a certain stage.
How can we make piano playing a positively reinforcing process?
Start from something that is mentally manageable and extend yourself from there. You start with the learning the melody, then adding the bass note, then all the other details of the music like non-harmony notes. You don't necessarily have to play it the way it is printed, because if the music is difficult and you spend too much time on it without getting much reward, it becomes the onset of a negative experience.
There are other ways to make learning positive which involve having a correct mindset to learning.
Be prepared to go over the difficult sections in isolation, or start practising from various points in the music. Don't always start the piece from bar 1 and venture from there because it soon gets boring if you don't have any variety in practice.
Work slowly, at a pace that allows you to manage the simultaneous tasks of deciphering visual symbols and translating them into action. As the music you learn gets more complicated, resist the urge to go fast and to replicate the original immediately, hoping that maybe one day after many chance repetitions you might hit the correct notes. Practising too fast means you will make mistakes, and you will end up playing ten wrong versions of a section of music to get it right once. It will all end up being negative and unrewarding at some point.
So seek positive experiences in practising the piano from the outset because they influence subsequent ones. Build difficult sections of music up in layers rather than just going through them repetitively. Practice slowly so you can incorporate as many elements as possible in the music fluently at a slower pace. This gives you a good return of progress for the amount of time you spend practising.
In doing so, you will make practice a positive experience, and one that keeps motivating you to try. And make time to try. And improve.
For more information about piano lessons in and around Finsbury Park, Turnpike Lane, Crouch End, please visit http://www.pianoworks.co.uk.