Sometime back I wrote a blog titled “Keep It Real” that got some 1300 reads in one day. My recent one, “Enticing Beginnings,” came close to that number.
This is not good news. It means that so many music teachers—and teachers in general—are suffering from the mandate to parrot top-down scripts of “the perfect lesson.” I’m very happy to try to find the words to name the feelings, but that doesn’t change educational policy. And yet I find myself still searching for the appropriate response when teachers are required to begin each lesson with “Here’s what you will learn today” and end each lesson with “Here’s what you learned today.”
And don’t misunderstand me—there are times when that’s perfectly fine. If I tell my 8th graders, “Today we’re going to work on the 12-bar blues form and by the end I expect you to get a grasp of the harmonic pattern,” some will be quite happy to know what lies ahead. And at the end, “Show me what you understand now about that harmonic pattern” is equally a fine way to close the loop of the lesson. But the same strategy for the three-year olds would be a disaster. The same strategy for teaching 8th graders about minstrelsy would short-circuit the interest generated in showing Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” and asking them what they think is going on.
We need to widen the conversation to include multiple points of view. Below are three points worth considering to begin that needed conversation.
• Educational policy must be based on what actually works. We teachers are enormously practical people. We have to be. Day after day with kids means that we can’t afford to mess around with things that don’t work well and don’t connect with us and don’t connect with the kids. Every decision we make in our lessons— both the ones we make ourselves and the ones others suggest or insist we make—must be based on our observations of how the kids respond and what actually works to engage them, motivate them, excite them, teach them. And as any real teacher will tell you, that’s a constantly moving target, a perpetual question in search of the answer-du-jour.
• Nothing works all the time. Even our best idea will just be one of hundreds of strategies we will need in the real classroom. It may work with one group of kids and not with another. It may work today and not tomorrow. It may work with this age but not with that age. It may work with this temperament but not with that one. It may work with this cultural background but not with that one. It may work with this subject but not with that one. (NOTE: Particularly important in the arts, which have different criteria for what a successful lesson looks and feels like.)
By trying to apply one standard to all kids of all ages of all backgrounds in all subjects in all schools, we are living a lie. Education cannot, never has been and never can be, reduced to an efficient formula that works like a well-oiled machine with all new parts. It involves messy, complicated, fickle, difficult creatures known as human beings and even more of the above when they’re kids. I know that’s disturbing to certain temperaments who like all their clothes neatly pressed, folded and labeled, but those temperaments should keep out of education.
• Autonomy is important for children and teachers. Time and again, great teachers show that giving some degree of choice in a lesson reaps a greater investment from the student. Kids—and all people—work harder at things that interest them. You can assign something to the kids, but embed a choice and the results will be noteworthy.
“Everyone must read a book by Friday, but you can choose which one.”
“You all will do a report on Ella Fitzgerald, but you can choose the medium—a poem, a painting, a game, a film, etc.”
“Show your understanding of Dorian mode by composing a piece in that mode.”
Giving kids choices sends a meta-message that you respect their interests, trust their capacity to come up with something interesting, care who they are and how they think.
And guess what? The same is true for teachers. If you’re hiring me to teach, show me you trust my passion and my relentless search to come up with lesson plans that fit my way of thinking while still getting the job done. And you’ll also discover I’ll get more than the job done because I’ll infect the kids with my enthusiasm and cultivate their own.
Autonomy is one of the three drives that Daniel Pink has shown motivates people to do outstanding work. (See his book Drive). If you’re serious about giving kids an extraordinary education, you will have to trust—and help nurture—teachers who have the passion to think, imagine and craft memorable lessons. None of this can be accomplished by formulaic procedures required for all teachers at all times.
In short, real education that gets the job done—and here I speak as a veteran teacher of a school that has been getting that job done splendidly for 50 years—is based on keen observation of what all children and what each child needs and the constant adjusting and re-adjusting to attempt to give it to them. It is based on multiple strategies that can never be reduced to one or two simple foolproof formulas. It is based on trusting teachers to find their autonomous path to inspired teaching, which includes helping children find their autonomous path to inspired learning.
That’s the conversations we should be having. May we start, please?