Teaching musicians to stay inside the lines

Something to think about – Hickey (1997) makes an analogy between music and visual arts to demonstrate the exclusion of improvisation and composition in schools: In order to learn to paint, fifth grade students are given paint sets and are asked to paint only by numbers and to stay in the lines at all times. They would proceed to paint in this manner for their entire stay in arts education. She suggests that music education uses the same “by the numbers,” and “stay in the lines” method by relying too heavily on playing notated music.

Now, we would never consider teaching writing skills by having students laboriously copy, over and over, the exact text from a Shakespeare work. Even those dreary research reports are (supposed to be) original works. So how come we almost always teach music – all the way through college – by having them reproduce what’s already there on the page? We need to encourage creativity, exploration, original thinking and production, and so on. Society has moved far beyond the industrial/factory model of training workers to follow directions. We need thinkers and problem solvers, and perhaps music composition, arranging, and improvisation can help develop these skills no matter what career path students follow in life.

Studying and testing is not learning

After I emailed the latest weekly TeachingTip to faculty at my college, (Practice + feedback = learning. Testing + grading ≠ learning), someone sent me an article (To really learn, quit studying and take a test). The article states that students who took a recall test after reading some topic, as opposed to those who had several study sessions, “learned” the information better. The conclusion was that testing was more effective than studying. Of course taking an immediate test on a reading exercise will produce better results than studying…but this is missing the point entirely.

First, these results are obvious because the recall test requires them to actively try to remember what they read so they could answer the questions. Studying is more passive as you read, re-read, and so forth, so the brain is engaged in a very different way; the active processing does more to “pull it together”. But again, this is not the issue we should be focused on.

The problem is that we’re looking at a relatively low-level expectation – what we too often refer to as “learning”. The recall test was more effective for, guess what – recall, than was the studying. We have to adopt a different definition of what learning is. Learning is not memorization and recall of information. Learning is how to do things, with good guidance and support, running into some roadblocks along the way. Did you learn how to cook by memorizing for a test? Did you learn how to read by passing a test? Did you learn how to teach and do research by studying the textbook and passing a test? Of course not. You learn everything you do in life by doing it. You make mistakes. You think again and try it differently. You ask for help. Eventually you get it…all without taking a single test.

Learning requires active engagement in a real context to help the brain find effective ways to organize, connect, and have it stick. That’s the higher level goal of what we’re after. It’s developing a robust mental model that provides true understanding and the ability to do something useful with that information.

One more quick point. Research has shown that high school students intending to major in math and science in college don’t often really understand the principles of the field. They scored very well on their exams…but when you sit them down and have them explain certain theories, principles, or solve some problems, their mental models of the subject are inaccurate…in many cases completely wrong. Do not assume that if your students score well on your exams that they understand the material. Sit down with them, one on one, and ask them to explain things. Brace yourself – it will most likely freak you out.

Help kids find their purpose in life

Everybody – parents, teachers, and everybody else – needs to read Sir Ken Robinson’s latest book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. If nothing else, watch one of his short TED presentations on the subject of reforming education so we focus more on what gifts each individual has and how to help develop these. He gives numerous examples of individuals who became very successful in life, but perhaps discovered their “thing” at various stages – some quite late in life. I believe we have done a poor job of helping children explore to see what their true passions and gifts might be (frankly, it rarely involves algebra or diagramming sentences), and many kids only find out accidentally. Parents, do everything you can to let your children try different things and see what interests them. Encourage them, find opportunities for them, help them pursue what they enjoy. It’s a good bet this can lead to their direction in life. Got a kid who loves subways or train maps? They could become a transportation engineer or urban planner. Video game freak? They can design, program, or do graphic design for games. Does your kid love to analyze sports? People get paid a lot of money to follow, analyze, and report on athletics. The list goes on and on…so get started.