Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ten-Minute Sage on the Stage

A good idea poorly understood sometimes causes more damage than a bad idea well done. In the alternative education field I’ve been grazing in for some 40 years, there has been an ongoing visceral reaction to and disdain for the “sage on the stage” kind of education. That format, still alive and well in many universities nationwide, features the brilliant lecturer up on the podium with the adoring students frantically taking notes, hoping to catch even a small percentage of the nuggets of wisdom tossed their way. Knowledge is disembodied and the teacher-student relationship is unnecessary, and indeed, impossible in lecture halls filled with a few hundred students.

Enter the more democratic, hands-on, student-centered, experiential-based “guide on the side” model, with the teacher posing questions and problems for the students to solve and guiding them toward further questioning and their own solutions. The teacher’s job here is not to share what he or she knows, but to lead the students to the edge of their own discovery. Relationships between teacher and student, student and student, count high in this model and the children’s confidence in their own intelligence is spotlighted over the teacher’s brilliance.

(There also is a third model awaiting its catch phrase and articulate spokesperson—I keep trying but haven’t yet found the perfect combination of words. That is the “sing in the ring” model where the teacher is exploring with the students, participating in the active making of music (in my case) and combining both models above as the situation calls for it. But this is a matter for another posting.)

When push comes to shove, I lean heavily toward the discovery model, but worry about what gets tossed out with the bathwater when the lecture mode is considered obsolete. Fact is, I love to go to lectures and hear interesting people speak and never feel disappointed that they didn’t make us get into little groups and problem-solve. I’m a long time patron of the City Arts and Lecture Series in San Francisco, recently heard Dan Pink speak at the Jewish Community Center Series and go soon to hear Dave Barry. And apparently I have company. The houses are almost always full as people pay money and take time to sit and listen to someone talk on a stage.

Before radio, film and TV at the turn of the century, such lectures were part and parcel of our culture. People spoke at clubs, libraries, Universities, rented halls and even soapboxes in the local park. People traded in thoughts and ideas in diverse subjects ranging from science to art to politics to gardening. Early radio and even TV continued somewhat with the lecture format. But given a choice between chewing on the ramifications of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and watching the Keystone Cops hit each other over the head and run down the street in chase scenes with ragtime music, entertainment gained some ground over intellectual rumination. And today, the image, mostly laced with sex and violence, reigns supreme over public discourse and is the new coin of the realm.

And yet, the TED Video series, along with the live events described above, is enormously popular and mostly consist of people speaking for 20 minutes. A good speaker with a good idea still attracts us and holds our attention. Yes, extra credit if they’re funny and dynamic and good-looking, but it’s not required. I find that fascinating.

I gave my own TEDx talk today (TEDx is smaller audience and half the time) and though nervous about seeing the image of my receding TV-image glamour, I believe I spoke from the heart about what I know and what I believe and what I value and worked hard to make the connection with the audience, believing that they cared about the same things— in this case, a music education worthy of their children. No one rushed the stage as if I had scored the winning touchdown or threw money at my rock-star feet, but I received a few verbal appreciations at the end and more importantly, there now is a document that can travel further than my own physical body to join the chorus of concern that we’re failing our children when we don’t give them the opportunity for artistic expression.

So having officially joined the world of noble lecturers and had my 10 minutes as the Sage on the Stage, I’m ready to sit on the couch and watch a Marx Brothers movie.
I believe I earned it.

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