Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Change at the Synaptic Level

And I sit across the table from three Japanese preschool teachers drinking green tea. In five minutes, I will be giving a music class to their 25 five-year olds. I’ve been asked to explain my what I’m going to do and the philosophy behind it. They’ve never heard of Orff-Schulwerk and only agreed to this out of curiosity (or politeness to the organizers).

I’m reasonably confident about my powers of articulation, especially when it comes to music education, but there’s a lot working against me here. For one thing, I prefer to talk after the class, when there’s a context for the ideas. For another, I have my gloves on, working through a translator. But always up for a challenge, I dive in and try to come up with some reasonable thoughts the teachers of five-year old might relate to. I check their faces for comprehension and here’s what I imagine they’re thinking: “What planet is this guy from?! I don’t get a single thing he is saying!!”

Luckily, the time runs out, the kids show up and off we go. One hour and fifteen minutes later, the kids reluctant to leave and showering me with warm goodbyes, the teachers and I return to the table and more green tea. I asked them what they observed and now it was a whole different story. Their faces were animated and their comments astute, talking about how long the kids paid attention, how some of the “troubled kids” did so well, how some kids had trouble understanding the activity, but eventually figured it out, how surprised they were how you could teach so much music and dance using paper plates, how happy everybody was. In short, they got it.

Why? Because they saw it in action, experienced it themselves as they joined the kids in the circle, felt the energy and excitement in the air. The talk before the class was like showing paintings of cakes—or worse yet, describing paintings of cakes with words. The class itself was the real meal and now they all were much more interested in the recipe.

I have had another book almost wholly written for over two years now, but am hung up by an unsatisfying title: Do It First! No matter what the subject, do something first, discuss it next and then do it again with some vocabulary and classified ideas. The practice comes first, the explanation next—and here best if the kids try to explain it guided by the teacher. Then marry the practice and theory and you have just joined the axon and dendrite until death do them part.

To put this all another way: the only real learning, the only real change or transformation, occurs at the synaptic level in the brain. The only way axons and dendrites connect across the synapses is through experience—and repeated experience at that. We simply can’t know what we haven’t experienced. If someone tries to describe it to us, we can try to compare it to something we do know and take a leaping guess, but we will inevitably fall short of any useful or authentic understanding.

Though I see more and more people sitting in chairs looking at Powerpoint Presentations at the national Orff Conferences, in general, Orff is far ahead of the field—and has been for over half-a-century— in understanding how vital direct experience is. Get up out of your chair, close your i-Pad, come join the dancing circle and fling youself body and soul into the activity. Then sit down, jot down a few notes and reflect on the what, how and why of what you’ve just done.

After the kids’ class, I went on to the next workshop with 20 Japanese preschool teachers. Usually Orff workshops attract a mixture of folks— some who have been coming to workshops for decades and some who are coming for the first time, with everyone else in-between. But here was a case of twenty absolute beginners who knew absolutely nothing about what to expect. With a translator.

So off we went! Three hours later, they left all aglow and buzzing. The organizers read some of the comments on the evaluation forms and they were moving: people talking about how alive they felt, how their brains were working hard, but everything was fun, how they got exercise, soulful connection and food for thought all at once and on and on. They had begun the journey of change at the synaptic level.

This transformative work is a long, slow process, changing the world one synapse at a time. No short cuts, no way to communicate wholly through books, online programs or Youtube. Just workshop after workshop of 10 to 50 people. With some 7 billion people on the planet, I guess I have to work a little harder. 

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