What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Producing

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

Coach, facilitator, guide–all these terms have been proposed as we look to rethink the relationship between teacher and student. But what about “producer”? I don’t mean producer in the sense of one who makes things but in the sense of the film or music producer. This is the framework that the authors are working from in this chapter of their book.

“Producer” is derived from the Latin producere meaning “lead or bring forth, to draw out”.1 If we think of teaching as “producing learning” the terminology makes sense. My role is to “bring forth” or “draw out” the learning from the student.

Producing as bringing forth or drawing out is communicated in the subtitle to the chapter–”bring the best out of others”. And isn’t that what teaching is all about? Being a learning producer involves “Seeing all of the variables at any given moment, then nipping, tucking, pruning, grafting, molding, and sculpting that moment into its best form”. This is producing, this is where the educator can shift from the act of “teaching” to producing learning.

The example of Hank Shocklee’s work with rapper Slick Rick is a great example of how the teacher can shape the environment for learning. It’s my job to “create the space for her to succeed”. I am producing learning most effectively when I am nearly invisible.

To produce the seminal record The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, Shocklee used the following approach–”sitting with the artist, listening to her, removing obstacles of self-doubt that might get in the way, so she can tune in to her own inspiration, helping her explore ways to grow and do her best work”. This is a profound approach to collaborating with a creator, and hence why Shocklee was so successful at doing what others could not–bring forth the best of Slick Rick’s musical creativity.

In another section of the chapter Hendrix personalizes his own growth as a creator that mirrors mine as an educator. He shares how he shifted his leadership style from authoritarian to supportive. The following passage describes the new principles that emerged from this transformation– “asking questions more than giving answers, ensuring designers were taking care of themselves, helping colleagues pursue interests that fed their creativity and strengthened their art”. And then my favorite line, and imagine reading this replacing “associates” with “students”, “He (Hendrix) began seeing associates (students) as people first”.

Wow. Students as people, who woulda thought?!

The point the authors are making is that true leadership arises out of managing the environment, not the individual people. The application to education is profound. As a teacher tasked with producing learning, I need to focus on creating an environment in which students can unlock their deeper creative growth.

In their discussions with music producer T Bone Burnett, he repeats the word “trust” over and over. How can any of this be possible without trust, not only from teacher to student but student to teacher? This proposes a massive shift from the current paradigm that exists in our classrooms. Through an emphasis on compliance, students have lost faith in the teacher, the trust has been removed. They are all too aware of the arrangement at hand, one that devalues the student as an individual. So why would they trust me as their teacher?

It is only through a coordinated effort to build relationships with our students that a teacher has a chance to enter into a truly collaborative relationship. If we are to commit to this new framework of teaching as producing learning, we have to prioritize creating an environment where trust exists. Establish a student-teacher relationship in which the student feels safe to accept your offer to produce their learning for them.

One way to effectively do this is to take Burnett’s advice about being authentic through honesty. We can’t lie to our students, and we can’t hype them either. Much like the musician that Burnett describes, students are incredibly sensitive as well. I firmly believe that all children are natural creators. I can’t explain it any better than by using Burnett’s own words–”People will know the moment you’re hyping them. Even if they don’t consciously register it, they’ll feel it on a cellular level”.

The final part of this chapter shifts to an overarching theme that has been emerging in music, art, and business–that individuals and collaborative teams are more than experts in one given field. This can be applied to education as well and help us rethink how we can redesign our learning spaces. Rather than siloing learning into “math”, “language arts”, or “science”, we need to recreate our schools as places where students can incorporate two or three of these things at once.

Bringing the best out of others, focusing on the environment, and establishing trust all lead to more curious and creative learners. Curiosity and creativity are skills that will unlock more from our students than the current model allows them to show. This is the outcome that the musical mindset offers.

I could quote almost everything found in the last few pages of this chapter. I will encourage you to purchase the book for yourself rather than quote everything here. There are some profound insights about curiosity, creativity, and how we can solve the most pressing problems facing us. If you are an educator, or anyone in a place to have an impact on our youth, you will gain a lot by familiarizing yourself with the authors’ message.

I do want to leave you with one quote because it clearly articulates how much our current model of education is predicated on power, more specifically removing power from our students.

“To distrust people you’re working with disempowers them, but to trust them empowers them”.

Our system of compliance has left students powerless. Powerless against change, powerless against accessing the skills they need to succeed, powerless against developing themselves as healthy and whole individuals. And most importantly powerless from discovering their true self.

Let’s trust our students, let’s trust our teachers, let’s trust ourselves to apply the tools of the musical mindset and reimagine our work from teaching, to producing learning. It is through this process that we can rebuild the walls of trust that have been disassembled over the past decades.