• Liz Giannopoulos

Top Down Thinking for Teachers


I've come to the conclusion that the best ideas come with a glass of wine! The idea for this particular blog occurred over dinner with a former colleague. My friend told me about an important project she is developing at work. The project manager's urgent desire to agree a budget and timeline is pitted against my friend’s determination to understand the scope of the project before making any strategic commitments.


This immediately brought to mind the theory of Top Down Thinking that I was taught in my previous career in a management consultancy. And as I discussed it with my friend (fully supporting her approach over that of the PM, of course) I found myself likening the situation to teaching piano.


The theory of Top Down Thinking is based on the following SCQA steps:

· Situation

· Complication

· Question

· Answer


All too often, an answer is presented without a full understanding of the question, or indeed, what has prompted the question in the first place. This is known as Bottom Up Thinking and it rarely produces the ‘right’ answer. It's a common phenomenon and we, as piano teachers, are not above reproach. I’m sure we’ve all done it: we know the answer; we know how the piece of music should sound, we know the rhythmic patterns, we know the melodic shape, we know the tempo, the articulation, the dynamics. But the teacher knowing the answer does not help the student to reach the answer independently, nor does it help them - or us - to understand the problem, recognise it next time they see it and respond accordingly.


Let's take a simple musical example;

In a particular piece of music, we know how the tune goes and our student is not playing it correctly. The short answer is to play all the Bs as B-flats. However, for deeper, longer lasting learning we need to think from the Top Down:


· Situation: there is a Bb in the key signature

· Complication: the student has not noticed the key signature

· Question: can the student notice, identify and respond to the key signature?

· Answer: BEFORE the student starts to play any piece of music (not just this one!) encourage them to check and identify the key signature, play the scale and adjust the hand position accordingly.


And here's another example:

In a different piece, the student is playing with five beats in every second bar instead of four. The short answer is to play the quavers for half the value of the crotchets. However, for deeper, longer lasting learning we need to think from the Top Down:


· Situation: the piece is in 4/4 time with a mixture of crotchets and quavers

· Complication: the student is playing all the notes with equal time value

· Question: can the student notice, identify and respond to the different note values?

· Answer: BEFORE the student starts to play any piece of music (not just this one!) encourage them to count, tap and speak the rhythm.


The role of a piano teacher is not unlike that of a doctor: take the general well-being of the patient (situation), find out what's wrong (complication), make a diagnosis (question), recommend a treatment (answer). We certainly wouldn't turn up to a doctor's appointment expecting the prescription to be pre-written... neither should our students!

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