Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hustle and Flow--and Alfie Kohn

When reformers claim that education scholar Alfie Kohn doesn’t live in the real world, I usually mention the intense Japanese focus, in elementary school, on cohesive and cooperative groups. Since Japan is not only in the real world, but one of our chief national competitors, this is generally a conversation-stopper. It’s not that competition is an American thing, per se—witness countless World Cup uprisings—but that our teachers automatically assume that there’s no learning or conduct that can’t be enhanced by a contest or reward. It’s habitual— young educators come pre-programmed to embrace B. F. Skinner, modifying classroom behaviors through a little low-rent psychology.

In my first 15 years as a middle school band teacher, I used all the competitive schemes, including a chairs and challenges system familiar to anyone who’s played in a school instrumental group: Teacher publicly ranks kids by playing ability. Kids challenge each other in teacher-judged playoffs to move up and down the “chair” pecking order. First chair players are designated leaders, getting solos and more interesting parts. Kids at the bottom of the ladder don’t get much beyond the opportunity to go after their classmates. The theory is that all kids will practice more, and thus improve. The reality is that most challenges and chair-hopping occur at the top of the heap; the kids down below slog along listlessly. And then drop out. 

I wish I could say I ended the challenge system because my eyes were opened to its pedagogical inefficiency and questionable morality. Actually, I just got sick of having flute players crying in my office and drummers hiding their competitor's sticks to prevent last-minute cramming before a challenge. No chairs any more, I said. From now on, you’ll have assigned seats.  I sat kids in mixed-ability groups and rotated the melody and harmony parts. If there were solos, anyone could try out, and we voted. Our new goals were pursuing excellence and playing amazing music. 

Almost immediately, several things happened: My band program got larger, as fewer kids quit. The kids with weaker skills improved, sitting next to stronger players and playing more challenging parts. And, in turn, my bands got better, as performance quality was more even across the group—allowing us to choose increasingly difficult and rewarding music. Kids who might have been last chair under the old system didn’t realize they were the weakest link, and signed up for solo festival, building even more personal proficiency.

And, of course, I had some complaints, from parents of former first chairs. The complaints lasted  exactly as long as it took to flush the memory of chairs and challenges out of the system. And from then on—mixed seating was the norm.

That’s another thing I learned from Alfie Kohn. The principle under most competitions is: Cui bono—who benefits? Whose ox will be gored if we stop competing? And whose star might rise? When chairs disappeared from my classroom—when there was no longer a list on the wall rank-ordering my clarinet players for everyone to see—kids were free to concentrate on becoming a music-making community. 

It’s odd that these competitive routines are so entrenched in school music programs. The party line on the benefits of music education is all about creativity, artistic expression and teamwork. Most music teachers, whose own fortunes in music school rose and fell on the chair system, are well aware of how uncomfortable it is to be worried about the person above or below you hawking your mistakes. It’s easy to forget about the power and pleasure of music, lost in guarding your position. 

In all creative arts, the ideal is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”—that place where you stop thinking consciously about performance and are fully lost in the beauty and delight. Veteran jazz musicians depend on flow, a result of their deep knowledge and experience, to trigger inspiring improvisation. Flow doesn’t often happen when you’re 12 years old, but I have witnessed student musicians lose themselves in peak experiences, awestruck after a glorious final massed chord, or closing their eyes to put a little more feeling into a passage. Why would we want to distract them from something as important as that?


Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this. Alfie Kohn's message changed my career! I too look back on some of the things I used to do as a teacher - and I shutter.

Kohn's books Punished by Rewards and Schools Our Children Deserve are the first books I loan out to my teacher colleagues.

It sounds like you and I might be on the same page when it comes to education. Check out my blog, if you like:

Elizabeth Shepherd said...

Thank you for the post. As a band director about to re-enter the work force you have given me much needed food for thought. I say if reform is going to start in my district it should start with me!

Anonymous said...

Thank You.. Thank you for writing this blog....

Anthony Davis

Carly UKEssays said...

That was a truely interesting and inspiring post - 'crying flute players' lol.

I'm very glad the kids benefited from the new system - it's easy with hindsight to see why! You were very brave to try out the new system, especially with the potential adversity from the parents!

Ooo Zot! said...

I am in college to be a teacher and it is pretty true that Skinner's theories are crammed in students heads.... luckily my teacher is receptive to my views (My teaching will embrace Kohn's methods as best as they can).