Prodigy of nurture as well as nature

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Today's anniversary of Mozart's birth makes Don Skinner reflect on the wisdom of curriculum reform

ozart, born 250 years ago today, was an extraordinary genius who never went to school. It is not obvious, therefore, how this "prodigy of nature" can shed light on A Curriculum for Excellence.

Yet education plays a crucial role in developing excellence, even in a genius. Mozart studies increasingly question the Romantic picture of the Wunderkind composing effortlessly without tuition.

Psychologists such as Michael Howe (in Genius Explained) and Howard Gardner (in Extraordinary Minds) argue that Mozart's dazzling progress reflects sustained, intensive and focused practice, strong family support, young Wolfgang's response to highly stimulating and challenging opportunities, and the astute pedagogy of his father Leopold, a violin teacher of repute across Europe.

Howe calculates that, by age six, Mozart had spent 3,500 hours at the keyboard, in contrast to typically 1,000 hours for today's musically gifted child. No wonder his playing astonished. Leopold organised experiences such as European tours, noting that, by age eight, Wolfgang had gained the knowledge and experience "one would expect from a man of 40".

Writing minuets at five, sonatas at seven, symphonies at nine, concertos at 11, and an opera at 12 becomes almost half credible - as massively accelerated development. In short, Mozart was a prodigy of nurture as well as nature, and his case can make us more deeply aware of what achieving excellence entails.

A Curriculum for Excellence gave the green light to decluttering the curriculum and encouraging depth of learning, creativity and ambition, while the Additional Support for Learning Act imposes specific duties in response to very able pupils, so Scotland appears well placed for excellence to flourish.

We did not succeed previously, either through John Knox's decree that "yf thei be fund apt then may thei... not be permittit to reject learnyng ...

but continew their studie sa that the commonwealthe may have some comfort by them", or through the much-vaunted but largely mythical "lad o' pairts"

tradition which too rarely enabled crofters' gifted sons (or daughters) to fulfil early educational promise through community funding.

Obstacles still abound. The IQ legacy ingrained ideas that persist, despite research demolishing the validity of "general ability" as a guide to teaching. SNAP, the able pupils' network, still reports underachievement of able children and "cut them down to size" attitudes. They face pressure not to fail or make mistakes (a key to learning), and are assumed not to need detailed advice or criticism.

Yet, unlike England and elsewhere, Scotland has sensibly refused to cream off 5 per cent of "gifted and talented" pupils for special classes. Most Scots have reacted with dismay to current English reform moves, suspicious of anything that smacks of elitism, and the national debate on education showed a consensus on prioritising the disadvantaged.

We are right not to see gifted pupils as separate, but to focus on excellence for all via an inclusive framework with a wide view of ability and educational needs.

Individualisation is untenable. Schools need an uncomplicated organisation, with reasonable workloads. Surely only a radical transformation and recasting of teaching roles, building on collaboration with colleagues, researchers, parents and outside agencies, will suffice.

To be serious about A Curriculum for Excellence, we need to take excellence seriously and to understand its complexity. This means spreading awareness of relevant research, and a willingness to learn from practices elsewhere.

Another potent source of the kind of understanding of excellence all educators require is biography - of musicians, yes, but also of excellent athletes, scientists, writers, chefs, entrepreneurs. Where are these on reading lists for initial teacher education?

Many fear a focus on particular abilities will inhibit balanced development. Yet, excellence in one field and rounded personal development are perfectly compatible. Research reviews show "hothousing" concerns are largely groundless and the picture of Mozart as one-sided is false.

Mozart actually emerges as a model learner for A Curriculum for Excellence: passionate about all learning, with high self-esteem, a clear focus and strong personal resilience.

Brigid Brophy highlights Mozart's dramatic insight and talent for language:

"Had he not been a great composer, Mozart would have been a great writer, if his aptitude for drawing had not made him a great comic draughtsman."

Mozart also was fascinated by arithmetic, loved dancing and was a dab hand at billiards.

Genius does not guarantee saintliness and Mozart had his share of human weaknesses, but author Robert Gutman uncovers someone "witty, winsome, generous to friends, a stern moralist in the Catholic tradition" and a deep intellect, committed to the Enlightenment.

Yet who can explain Mozart? What still compels so many experts to speak in other-worldly terms about his music's origin and meaning? Just what enabled Mozart to write arias and adagios of such melting beauty, to conceive the mind-blowing majesty of the Jupiter symphony, the possessive power of Don Giovanni, the chamber works, the transcendence of The Magic Flute, or the exquisite musical expression of understanding and forgiveness in The Marriage of Figaro?

Mozart acknowledged that his creations had required "long and laborious study". This is why, for anyone uncertain about the pursuit of excellence in Scottish education, the best advice, in this celebratory year, is to take the evening off to read the life and listen to the music of the man who embodied excellence par excellence - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Don Skinner is academic co-ordinator for education courses at Moray House School of Education, Edinburgh University.

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