What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Connecting

Authors note: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Pano A. Panay

Connecting is multi-dimensional so there are many ways in which it can be defined. This post will look at three different lenses taken from Chapter 6 of the book Two Beats Ahead on how to apply connecting to education. These are connecting through performing, connecting through making it personal, and connecting through expression.

Panos and Hendrix start the chapter with the example of Freddie Mercury’s performance at Live Aid. In the concert video, you’ll see that the level of performance and connection is dynamic and energetic. As teachers, we obviously don’t “perform” to an audience of 100,000 live and almost 2 billion via television. However, ask any teacher how they see teaching, and many will say that it is a performance (this is one reason why I believe many musicians, dancers, and other performing artists end up booming teachers, but that is for another blog post).

Performance is an important tool in teaching because it demonstrates to the students that you have a passion and enthusiasm for your subject. John Hattie’s research on effect size shows that there is a high correlation between teacher knowledge of the subject they are teaching and student understanding.1 Bringing a performance mindset allows you to communicate the learning goals to learners in the best possible way. 

I want to pause here to discuss a possible misconception of the idea of “performing”. I can understand that some teachers’ response might be “What am I some sort of performing circus act here to do some song and dance for students to try and make them ‘get excited to learn?’”.

I want to be clear that as teachers we have an obligation to make learning exciting for students. Art does have an element of performance to it. Whether it’s painting, poetry, or pottery there is an art to how that creation is presented to an audience. As teachers when we are our true creative selves designing learning experiences, we are artists. We should take pride in what we have created and want to present that to our audience with enthusiasm.

Next is connecting through making it personal. The authors share the example of how musician Kiran Gandhi also known as Madame Gandhi connects with her fans. They say “the personal is political is professional; there is no separation.” I know from experience that this is a challenge for many educators. They either bring in too much of their personal life or none at all.

When I began teaching I preferred to keep my personal life personal and my professional life professional. I kept a wall up around who I was and my life outside of school. I had a job to do which was to teach this content, and I was going to do just that.

I soon realized that approach not only felt awkward, but it was not authentic to my true self either. I prefer to be myself, I can’t disconnect my “work” from who I am outside of the job. Primarily because teaching is not just a job to me, it is an embodiment of my truest self.

So what I started to do was share more about what I liked to do outside of class. I brought a guitar into the classroom and would play songs on it. I set up speakers in the classroom and made a playlist of my favorite songs. During lessons, I’d mention appropriate personal antidotes relevant to what was being taught.

This signaled to the students that I was a real person with real interests. It also created a space for them to share more about their likes and dislikes so I could connect with them much better. I love the example in the book of the bus driver who plays the hip-hop music station when taking the kids to school. Exposing the students to Nas and Lauren Hill gets them to learn more about what exists beyond their own sphere of influence.

In discussing Madame Gandhi the authors do provide some revealing advice–“Connection is not a one way street; she has to know her audience, what they want and how to reach them”. I observe that many teachers make the mistake of bringing too much of themselves, or the wrong parts of themselves into the classroom. We have to be self-aware enough to know that we are dealing with students of different ages with different backgrounds, and different experiences. A skilled performer knows their audience and knows what they need to do to effectively reach them.

I think a new generation of educator is emerging that is more comfortable with bringing their personality into the classroom. They are leveraging social media and other technologies to crate connection. This is similar to the observations Jimmy Iovine had about the music industry in 2001. More so post-pandemic as more teachers leave the industry and a newer crop of creative educators enter the space.

One final way of connecting is through expression. We can return to Madame Gandhi for this one–“I think people think they need to do things on a major scale, but I think the most important step is asking yourself, What is your sphere of influence?”. As the authors state, you will only be able to do this through “an awareness of your own personal strengths and a commitment to expressing what matters to you, to others.”

Learning, like music, has the ability to connect on a very personal level. Those who are lucky enough to have been taught by a teacher that has had a deep and impactful influence on their life will know what I am talking about. 

As teachers we work under a tremendous amount of constraints. From the curriculum we teach, to the length of time we have to teach, to the very dimensions of the space we are able to exist in–everything is given very strict guardrails. What you can do to get started on connecting is to introduce something that you can have control over. Bring in a 20% time, or passion hour into the school week. Have your students co-create an e-zine, or make a class painting on a big piece of butcher paper. 

Creating some space for expression can allow you to connect with your students and with yourself. All of these examples of connecting will lively up the teaching and learning and maybe open up your mind to new ways of designing learning experiences for your students.

1 https://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/

This is the sixth 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, part 2 on experimenting go here, part 3 on collaborating go here, part 4 on demoing go here, and part 5 on producing go here.