Sunday, November 18, 2012

Remembering What's Important

“I must say that I still feel a glow from your inspirational time here. When you get a real jolt to your sedentary ways, it's not because some high flyer flits through town with some new, over-hyped, revolutionary way of doing things. It's because someone like you came along and made us re-visit and reconsider the very core notions of our approaches to educating children. You helped us remember what’s important.”

This affirmation from a veteran teacher in Nova Scotia touched me to the core. My field of music teaching, like any worthy pursuit, has a complex sequence of details that must be mastered slowly over a long period of time. How to craft a lesson so that it flows with the precision and beauty of a Bach Partita. How to find the heart of a piece of material and start to chip away at it until its glorious form is revealed. How to connect all the notes between one lesson and the next so that the themes connect and develop like an emerging sonata. It’s a long list and a slow road to mastery.

But at the end of the matter, the driving force behind all the details, the true north that lets you know whether you’re on track or lost is as simple as this—remember what’s important. Begin with a vision, sharpen the focus of your guiding image, start each moment with the endgame in mind and all the rest will follow.

In the recent Orff Conference, I experimented with an emerging new format—the Living Lecture (tentative name for a new form of teaching I’m developing). It consists of playing a game or singing a song or doing a dance (in this case, a combination of all three with the song Shoo Fly) that poses a problem that needs to be quickly and collectively solved. We do the dance, the group identifies the problem (often more than one), suggests a solution (often more than one) and we try it. Then I speak a bit about the larger principle that sits behind the problem and its solution and then return to the dance with a new problem to be solved. Again a short talk on a new theme revealed that relates to all of education and the dance again, each time with a variation.

The potential negative of the approach is that the teacher in the workshop can’t wholly settle into one mode (the active doing) or the other (the reflective thinking). The potential positive is that when the framing idea is articulated, the mind is wide open, the heart open, the blood flowing, the brain oxygenated— in short, the participants are wholly ripe to listen and receive the idea. Then when they return to the next activity, the ideas sink down into the muscles until the next point of reflection. 

Still a work in progress, but many folks reported that they like it. Perhaps the next step would be a cooler and slower reflection at the end reviewing the main points and taking notes— an old-fashioned tried and tested way of absorbing and remembering information, but all of it more animated and sinking deeper because of the physical, social, emotional, imaginative and analytic experiences preceding it.

By the end, we touched on some of the following truths that can inform how we teach:

• We are problem solvers. That’s how we survived in a hostile world and that’s what we need to survive in the world to come. Create classes that offer problems.

• Every problem solved creates another problem. Each questioned answered generates the next question. Create activities that generate more inquiry.

• Boredom is the root of all creativity. The short-circuiting of boredom in children (and adults) through the instant gratification of machines is a grave danger. Give children some moments when things repeat often enough to start to feel boring and watch what happens.

• We are social creatures and social learners. Create a community of learners.

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake… The sun is but a morning star.” (Henry David Thoreau’s last lines in Walden.) Each class is an opportunity to awaken.

A little taste of remembering what’s important. So simple, so clear, so immensely difficult.

But a word of warning. The clearer the vision, the deeper the clarity, the stronger the commitment, then the less patience one has for crap, for ignorance, short-sightedness and narrow thinking. The radar that signals you to be aware and beware of the Sirens trying to sing you to the death of your passion operates at a high level. You may notice when the Emperor has no clothes, “flitting through town with some new, over-hyped, revolutionary way of doing things.” And amidst all the glories of the recent Conference (of which there were many and worthy of noting here), the naked Emperor moment came like a surprise attack on a sunny day in Central Park. That coming up (or not) in the next blog.

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