Learning about pedagogy from art and kids

A few weeks ago, surfing around on YouTube, I came upon a video of a performance by the Sant Andreu Jazz Band, or maybe a small group drawn from it. Following it to other posts down the right side of the screen, I was hooked in ten minutes and didn’t surface for at least a couple of hours. This operation is an orchestra of six- [sic] to sixteen-year-olds, based in a music school in Barcelona and led by Joan Chamorro, who seems to be some kind of genius, or prophet. Listen for yourself; search YouTube for Chamorro or Sant Andreu. They have several CDs on Spotify, but watching their faces and body language is half the experience. I’m plugging this operation because I think it embodies value way beyond the performances.

It’s not your ordinary youth band, or even a jazz version of El Sistema [see below for more on this]. These kids don’t play like kids in organized programs, who often have amazing technical chops but tend to play the notes on the page without a lot of insight or musicality, let alone attend to each other the way jazz musicians do. They are obviously having a great time, and they swing, with none of the “frozen in aspic” quality of, say, early Stephanie Trick or the Lincoln Center Jazz Museum Orchestra. The band has generated a couple of soloists who have agendas and gigs (like Andrea Motis) and who also seem to play more than one instrument, and sing. Finally, girls are up front and central to the performances; they sing, but also play frontline, and solo on sax, trumpet, bass, etc.

They also play a lot of different kinds of music; straight-ahead pre-bebop, dixieland, and even Brazilian and jazz manouche. International jazz stars join them on stage. There is a documentary (PAL, so you can’t play it on a US TV, but it works fine on a computer) that is charming and illuminating, with look-ins to Chamorro’s pedagogy. Along the way, we get unexpected look-ins, like a trumpet player who appears to be about eight disassembling and cleaning her instrument, and all the kids splashing around in a swimming pool like, um, kids.

The most interesting aspect of the program is that Chamorro has the students pick up instruments and play before they get into notation, theory, transcription, solfege, etc., and they listen to a lot of recorded jazz. This way the musical machinery becomes solutions to problems the students have (or, better, tools with which to seize opportunities: jazz is an improvisatory form) rather than a new bunch of problems they don’t want.

So in addition to enjoying some great listening, I think I’m onto a source of insight-and, importantly, demonstrated efficacy-about teaching and learning. Theory C teaching is nothing new in the arts. Apprentice painters may have begun by grinding colors for their teacher, but that didn’t mean they learned anything useful about painting from the task; that was tuition payment, along with sweeping out the studio and making coffee. Art teaching has always been Theory C (for coaching), with three standard steps: (1) Assign students a task somewhat beyond their abilities (2) Students do the task (3) Everyone discusses what happened and how it could be even better. There’s a role for didactic telling, but it’s always responsive to the roadblock (or overlooked opportunity) the students have run aground on.

I have always been amazed at how high students-even college students whose courage has been squeezed out of them in twelve years of conventional education-will reach when invited to try new things. No, a roomful of grade schoolers will not discover all the theorems of statistics if just turned loose in a Montessori classroom; teachers are not chopped liver and structure is important. But we don’t learn to sail a boat by passing fluid mechanics courses about sails and keels first: we jump in a boat, sail it awkwardly, and struggle back to the dock with questions.

This model is the core of my current favorite teaching scheme, an elaboration of Theory C called PBL, for project-based learningPBL originated in K-12, but if we are creative and experimental, it translates to higher education, and Rick Reis’ indispensable Tomorrow’s Professor blog has a good riff on this coming up in the next edition. After all, the graduate education delivered to PhD students is PBL: “can we figure out why the mice who got oats for breakfast ran their mazes faster? Stephanie, go learn about oats and tell us what you find out and what we should do next; George, see what happens with rats; Eddie, you like birds, anything going on with oats and pigeons?”

I have learned from experience that PBL entitles students to learn things that are not only not in the syllabus, but which I don’t know. and if I can convince them that my ego is not as delicate as they fear, they will do it. Mark Moore used to ask colleagues, rhetorically, “what entitles you to hold the chalk?” and realizing that the answer is not that I know more than the students about the official course content, but that I know how to get them to (allow them to?) learn what they need to know is the beginning of wisdom. Not the same thing, not at all. It’s not irrelevant that jazz is different from classical music in an important sense: every one in a combo is expected not only to play from a chart and comp the soloist, and not to reflect exactly what Gershwin intended when he wrote “Summertime”, but bring his own take on the standard they are improvising from and take a solo of his own, with riffs and phrasing that have never been heard before, and from which the bass player can leap into another unexplored space.

I inquired at our music department; we teach performance and have several great ensembles to prove it, but we apparently have no faculty engaged in research about how to do it! This seems odd, because amateur musicians-and not just a bunch of guitar players-are the most promising source of the audiences all sorts of music needs, especially as music education in schools continues to atrophy. Maybe that’s a monopoly of the education school, watch this space. This can’t be left to Berklee and Juilliard.

In any case, I’m more and more convinced that a major cost of professors never watching each other work is that all of us who don’t teach arts practice, in whatever medium, are deprived of learning Stuff We Can Use, and Should. Colleagues, check out Chamorro’s operation and see what you think. The exploration is not only free but has negative cost, because you will hear some great stuff along the way.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

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