What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Experimenting

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

“Dare to suck.” – Justin Timberlake

Experimenting can be a controversial topic in education. The model of teaching and learning that has dominated our schools for the past 100-500 years is based on the idea of a curriculum, which is essentially a planned sequence of study. In fact, some research suggests that the term “curriculum” was introduced by Calvinists in the 16th century to produce more structure and order to the educational system.1

Considering that the word “curriculum” is borrowed from Latin for a “course” (as in a route you follow), it makes sense that education is often thought of as a linear progression through a series of content-driven learning experiences.

The musical mind operates much differently than this prescribed, route-focused framework. Authors Hendrix and Panos start this chapter with anecdotes from their discussions with Justin Timberlake. To describing his schooling in songwriting Timberlake shares an idea he learned from early mentor Max Martin, “there weren’t any rules, but there were guidelines.” What a revelation for the innovative educator!

As a musician, I am very comfortable with this approach that Timberlake describes. It is one that I bring into my teaching everytime I design a learning experience. Throughout the process of designing learning, I have to keep testing, and trying. I need evidence of what works so I can keep it, and what doesn’t work so I can throw it away. As the authors state this takes “relentless commitment”.

At first, I was worried about the impact I was having on the students with this experimental approach. What if what I try doesn’t work? Am I corrupting the students by trying something new? Is the students’ learning going to be negatively impacted by a failed idea?

I was able to discard these fears and continue to be grounded in experimentation. We know our current models of education are broken. Students need to experience their learning in new ways in order to have the tools that they will need to excel. So in fact, I am negatively impacting their learning by not experimenting. As Hendrix and Panay say “musical experimentation doesn’t start with a research plan and a fixed method. The more options an artist tries, the more likely she is to discover an idea worth building upon.”

For me as an educator, my best insights into designing learning have been through these experiments. From how I model assessment and design reflective opportunities for students to how I design the space in my classroom and co-create rubrics with students–all of these ideas have come through experimenting in the classroom.

Based on the evidence from the Finnish model of education, play is being brought back into the students’ school experience. So it should be for teachers as well. Where will these innovative learning experiences come from if we are asked to deliver the same failed curricula year after year? Much like musician/producer Imogen Heap, we have to take on the things that scare us a little bit. We need to lean into those moments that tell us “I can’t do that”.

When I first had the idea to not give students zeros, to accept homework submitted past arbitrary deadlines, to not grade any quizzes, to allow all students to use their notes on all tests, it scared me. Is it OK that I do this? Am I allowed to do this? Will I get in trouble? What will parents say? On the contrary, in embracing these ideas, I was able to transform my teaching and redesign the learning experiences for my students.

This type of experimenting is not done as a one-off attempt to try and disrupt the status quo. There is an art to continual curiosity. You have to pay attention and be reflective. You have to incorporate the skill of listening–to yourself, and to others. In the final section on experimenting Panos and Hendrix profile Colin Raney and TJ Parker, Start-Ups in Residence at IDEO. Raney says:

“When you build a culture of experimentation, you create constant curiosity around how things could improve. Teams start to approach problems differently. You accept there are no silver bullets and that some ideas will fail, but you’ll learn from the failure.”

I propose that we shift the role of the educator from designing a curriculum to designing an experimentum. Moving from a fixed course of learning, towards a series of trials and experiments in which we can unlock learning solutions that best support the needs of our students.

The critical insights into how we can do this as educators come from our peers in the musical space. Their constant experimentations are evidence of how we can take risks and potentially uncover an insight that can transform the way we conduct teaching and learning in our schools.


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