What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Collaborating

This is the third part in a series connecting the ideas from “Two Beats Ahead” by R. Michael Hendrix and Pano A. Panay to education. To read part 1 on listening, go here and part 2 on experimenting, go here.

The musical mindset most severely lacking in education is collaboration. I am not speaking about collaboration as two teachers writing a lesson plan together, or giving each other feedback on their instruction. Those examples are important components of developing yourself as a professional but don’t get at the heart of how collaboration functions from the musical perspective.

In their book, Hendricks and Panay take the reader through a few different examples of musical collaboration. One example, BeyoncĂ©’s work developing her album Lemonade, focuses on how a community of musicians can come together to express the artistic vision of an individual. Another example is Pharrell Williams and his ability to apply his innovative musical mindset to collaborate in other fields such as fashion and brand development.

And of course no discussion on musical collaboration wouldn’t be complete without referencing songwriting partners Lennon and McCartney (you may have heard of them). What made their collaboration effective was their shared vision and purpose and passion for rock music. Eventually their respective egos stood in the way of any lasting collaboration and eventually led to their demise.

It is the section on Roger Brown, president of the Berklee College of Music, that really stood out to me. It is a real-life example of how the musical mindset can be applied to education. For all the innovation happening in the education space, the structures holding them up still suffer from being a relic of a past that no longer exists in our world today. The most effective models that are emerging are replacing the structured, predictable, and certain hierarchies. New models are being designed to address a world that is volatile, complex, and ambivalent.

The authors take us through how Brown is able to structure an educational institution that embraces freedom and responsibility. Through a decentralized approach that is currently being used by cutting edge companies in the tech space, Berklee is able to position itself as being an innovator in effective leadership models.

So where did Brown come up with this approach to organizational structure? Music of course! In the book, he explains how his career as a drummer in bands helped him understand effective decision-making. That it can be run leaderlessly and done collectively. This is in contrast to the traditional hierarchy that puts someone in primary control–the conductor if you will.

Having people in your organization that can shift roles, operate with a collaborative mindset, and perform with autonomy allows for increased innovation. Brown’s experience shows how the intimate experience of working in a band is a way to develop this humble approach to collaboration. Applying this in the education space requires a complete restructuring of the previous models that were based on strict hierarchies. A more flexible and agile approach that gives stakeholders autonomy must be considered.

This can work because teachers are wired to observe and sense opportunity. Effective instruction relies on the ability to observe what is working well and ask how to do more of that thing, or how to eliminate what isn’t working. Instead, the current model forces the teacher to observe what’s working or not working and pass it on up the line. Then hope someone from above will initiate change.

Brown mentions that less than 10 percent of the students from Berklee will end up becoming professional musicians. I think if some of the remaining 90 percent enter the education field, we might have a shot at turning around the systems that are hindering learning opportunities for our kids.

Another person from the Berklee College of Music, David Mash, shares “In any area of life, leadership boils down to how you get people to see your vision. If you’re a guitar player in a band and you’ve written a piece that needs bass and drums and you have an idea in your head for how it should sound, you have to convince the players to hear it in their heads and pull it out of their fingers. You have to share that vision and inspire them to get excited about it. Learning to lead in that way prepares you so much in this world.”

That is a fitting way to describe how we can apply the musical mindset for innovation in education, particularly in the much-needed area of collaboration.

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