I wasn’t a great student in school. In fact, my Kindergarten teacher suggested retaining me in Kindergarten because “something wasn’t quite right”. I imagine she would be shocked to find out that I managed to earn three college degrees and have a successful career in education. Luckily, my dad stood up to her and I progressed to first grade without delay. What my teacher meant was that I wasn’t too great at “schooling” which was etched in my memory and led me to believe that I wasn’t a capable learner.
Thankfully, I started playing the trumpet in sixth grade and had private teachers and band directors who believed in me and encouraged me. I excelled at music and loved going to band in high school to escape the rest of the day. I loved it so much that I went to Florida State University where I earned a music education degree and began my career as a middle school band director. My career as an educator has shown me that what I experienced in my band classroom was learning and what I experienced in many of my other classes was “schooling”. My background as a musician taught me much about authentic learning and I’d like to share the following five principles.
- Practice doesn’t make perfect…it only makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Traditional schooling flys in the face of this truth. Teachers assign homework, often equating it to rigor, and assume that repetition will magically erase the lack of conceptual understanding. Assigning practice to a student without understanding only reinforces the errors that they are making.
- The key to performing well under pressure is to silence your inner critic and negative self-talk.
Schools often focus on teaching test-taking strategies and the skills to be successful on the “big test”. Administrators and teachers project our anxiety to our students fueling underperformance in a high-pressure situation. I often had to perform as a musician and would struggle with anxiety about a specific “high note” and would be anxious about whether or not I would hit it from the beginning of the performance. I was given a book called “The Inner Game of Tennis” which helped me understand how my thoughts and doubts were impeding my performance. This ability to silence my mind and take deep breaths has served me well in countless situations throughout my life. We need to spend more time teaching our kids how to deal with stressful situations so that they can elevate their performance and get out of their own way.
- Break complex tasks into smaller chunks.
Complex pieces of music have to be broken down into small achievable parts and then slowly assembled into the larger context. Great educators teach students how to assess their ability to complete a complex task and then break it down into the bite-sized building blocks that are appropriate for their current level of skill. These smaller chunks are then slowly assembled to allow the student the ability to master the complex task. The important skill here is the ability to break down a complex task into simpler parts. No one scaffolds a task for us in the real world, but successful people have learned how to do it for themselves.
- You can’t just play a collection of notes…you have to make music.
Skill development is important for a musician but it will never substitute for making music. Schools often teach students skills and never teach students how those skills fit into the larger picture. Teaching technical skills without context and the ability to apply those skills is an exercise in futility. We have to know what we want students to ultimately be able to do in the end before starting the skill-building process and teach them how to apply these skills.
- Each individual is unique and requires a unique and individualized set of equipment to produce the desired result.
An orchestral trumpet player requires different equipment than a jazz player. The musician first has to know the sound they are trying to produce and then find the best equipment combination in order to get them there. Students all come with various intellectual abilities, beliefs, and preparedness levels when they walk through our doors. We have to help them recognize what they ultimately want out of their education and then help them get there by identifying the specialized set of courses, support mechanisms, and .authentic experiences to achieve their desired outcome.