How do you get to work each day? I imagine the first few times you needed a map of sorts, had to study times-tables of buses or trains, looked into traffic patterns, talked to colleagues about their preferred routes. You needed to assess what time you should leave in order to arrive by the beginning of your work day. There was probably a period of trial-and-error to see what worked and how consistently and how reliably. You learned how to build in some wiggle room for the unexpected.
It’s good to have a plan. It’s also good to remember that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” The world is unpredictable and does not always march to your drummer. Buses run late, traffic jams abound, the car has trouble starting, the chain comes off of your bicycle. That’s when the flexible, problem-solving part of the brain kicks in, the part that’s capable of going beyond patterned thought and habit that’s able to react to the needs of the situation, make instantaneous adjustments, come up with Plans B, C and D. Indeed, it is that capacity to react to the needs of the moment and imagine an alternative solution that is the height of human thought and responsible for us being able to survive beyond weather disasters, military invasions, insect infestations and absurd presidential elections. It is precisely the kind of mind we need to cultivate in our education of young children, the one that will allow them to both survive and thrive in life’s changing conditions.
In my work as a music teacher, I’m responsible for a coherent curriculum. I need a plan for how to develop children’s musical intelligence over an 11-year span. I need a way to assess the success of the plan, a way to evaluate its effectiveness at each step of the way, a map with all destinations clearly marked and delineated. All well and good.
Following the model of many schools with their innumerable pages of Scope and Sequence, I could name all essential musical concepts, put each in a grid with a timetable and go to sleep peacefully knowing I’m going to teach 6/8 time in A minor on Tuesday, March 4th. When that glorious day came, I could begin the lesson announcing to the children that today they will learn 6/8 time in A minor and ask them questions at the end to make sure they learned 6/8 time in A minor. I can give them a written test to show how much they learned about 6/8 time in A minor and send it off to the central computer to correct. It would then mark down a number showing the extent to which they understood 6/8 time in A minor, which would be stored in their electronic file to show the world their precise level of musical intelligence. Many schools would commend me for my good teaching, for dotting all my I’s and crossing all my t’s and following the standard procedure of the latest models of proven effective teaching. I could do all of that.
But I would be a fool. Whose mind works like that? Whose life works like that? What child would love to come to a class like that? As teachers, we must be practical. We can have the best intentions and the best ideas of what we think kids need to learn and know, but none of it is worth a hill of beans until it passes through the minds, bodies and heart of actual children who are brought more fully to life by our efforts. If that excitement, joy, deep happiness comes that has children of all ages spontaneously thanking you at the end of class, leading them beyond even their own expectations of what they could do and understand, then it’s worth paying attention to. If you only understand corporate talk, let me put it like this: The children are our customers and our number one job is customer satisfaction.
So how does one organize the magic, house the mystery, sequence the joy? A starting point is to switch metaphors from the grid to the seed. A seed has a plan, the acorn holds the blueprint of the tree. But the actual growth of the plant has its own timetable and is at the mercy of the unknown forces of light and water and wind and competing plants and hungry animals. It’s a flexible plan, able to adapt and adjust naturally to surrounding conditions. Carl Orff once wrote:
Where does erosion occur in Nature? When the land is wrongly exploited; for instance, when the natural water supply is disturbed through too much cultivation or when, for utilitarian reasons, forests and hedges fall as victim of drawing-board mentality;’ in short, when the balance of the nature is lost by interference. We exposes ourselves to spiritual erosion if we estrange ourselves from our elementary essentials and thus lose our balance.
That’s deep. The grid is the drawing board mentality trying to squeeze the world into what humans think they need and felling whole forests in the process. The children are the ones who becomes spiritually eroded if we don’t pay attention to their essential nature and make them march to our industrial beat.
But between the lock-stepped drawing-board curriculum and “whatever” is a different kind of planning. First it requires a thorough sense of the territory, a deep familiarity with the landmarks and water sources and dangerous plants, a clear idea of where we want to walk with the children. Then we meticulously plan the first class, watch the children and reflect. How far could they walk? What did they need? Was the pace too slow or too fast, too much time spent here at the expense of there? How can we deal with those lagging in the back and those perpetually running ahead in the front?
And then we plan the second class. Repeat above. Plan, reflect, plan the next. And on we go until we arrive at some plateau in our journey where we can look back at what we accomplished before moving on to the next step. In music, that would be the performance, whether for ourselves, the people passing in the hall or the formal concert.
And the assessment? It’s happening every minute of every class, seeing what children can do and what they need help with and how happy they are working on mastery. And then again in the performance. No need to compare the triangle player with the violin player with the virtuosic cadenza. Only compare the journey from where they started to where they arrived and how they arrived and what they contributed to the group and what pleasure it gave their heart. That’s an assessment that is real and matters.
But all of this takes work, imagination and a thought process deeper than the grid fantasy. And so it is not popular in mainstream education, which prefers winning with the small things that it can feed into a computer to note success. But it’s a sham. Ask any kid who goes through that system and comes out flattened, squashed or falsely confident that they know something worthwhile.
The map is not the journey. The menu is not the meal. Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger. Let’s step out into the fresh air and begin the real journey, with happy children at our side.