Hear from Paul Harris as he revisits Unconditional Teaching...


It’s a little over a year since Unconditional Teaching was published and I’m really touched by the impact it’s had so far. There’s no disputing that we live in uncertain times and the need for more unconditional thinking seems to be paramount if we’re to continue moving forward – especially in education. And even more so in music education.


Of course, there are many conditions which are essential in life. Conditions which protect or allow things to happen for example.


And conditions play a huge part in shaping us as human beings. Inevitably, we are very conditional in our behavior. Whether or not we’re aware of it, deep down our decisions are almost always based on our deeply held (and often deeply hidden) beliefs and values… and fears too. These instincts – these conditions – shape most of what we do; and they shape who we are. It’s so often a case of ‘I’ll do this if…’


In Unconditional Teaching I outline many of these conditions. Some are fairly obvious; others may be buried deep in our subconsciousness. Some are important, others less so.   Some are necessary, but many might end up blocking the flow of effective teaching and learning.


It might go something like this: I’m happy, would prefer it, and will invest more effort into my teaching, if…

  • I’m teaching in a nice room
  • My pupils practise
  • My pupils try hard
  • My pupils rise to my expectations
  • My pupils bring their books and music with them
  • My pupil is interested
  • My pupil is respectful
  • My pupil is learning
  • My pupil is musical

… and there are many more! Unconditional Teaching explores each of these conditions in detail and shows how they might indeed block the flow of teaching and learning, and then how we can either eliminate them, or, at least, manage them.


Since writing the book I have been asked many times to speak on the subject at conferences, workshops and other events. The reactions and responses have always been very thoughtful and very positive. Also, since writing, and having done many of these sessions, new conditions have become apparent.


One of the most interesting is the condition of potential. I’ll teach pupils as long as they show potential. Otherwise, isn’t it a waste of my time? 


The list of eminent folk who either showed little potential as youngsters or were late (sometimes very late) developers is surprisingly long! Picasso and van Gogh were considered ‘slow’ as children; Brahms was a late developer, Janáček didn’t receive much serious recognition until he was in his 60s. Agatha Christie was weak at both handwriting and spelling at school. What a poorer place the world would be if her English teacher had told her that she really wasn’t cut out for writing!


What do we understand by potential? And how much a part might it play in our thoughts regarding our pupils? What would a pupil have to demonstrate to cause us to think this one has potential?


The problem is there are no clear answers to these questions. But if we’ve decided a pupil does lack potential, do they stand much of a chance? Minds develop at wildly different speeds. Brains process at wildly different speeds. And people change. If a pupil comes to a lesson and wants to be there, wants to have a go, it’s very important that we don’t play the potential card.  We teach for the moment – not for the future.


The Virtuoso Teacher is able to create as many steps as it requires to get from each A to each B – indeed each of those steps is a mini A to B in itself. So, in the best traditions of Simultaneous Leaning, there is always progress taking place. Existential potential (whatever that is) is not a factor. As top teachers we create potential. We develop it and nurture it. Why not think that all our pupils have potential? Potential can come in a great many shapes and sizes. As long as we don’t have a cut and dried concept of what ‘potential’ looks like, then everyone can have it. And everyone can make progress.


I wonder if more conditions are becoming apparent in your mind? They are certainly coming into mine as I continue to try to think more unconditionally, and I shall write about another new idea in my next blog.