What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Listening

I recently started the book “Two Beats Ahead” by Panos A. Panay and R. Michael Hendrix. This book examines what musical minds teach us about innovation. It has been on my radar since I first heard Hendrix mention these ideas in a podcast with IDEO about a year and a half ago. Since then I haven’t been able to get these ideas out of my head. I have been waiting for this book with anticipation. I was excited to finally have a settled moment to sit with the first chapter last night.

I want to capture my thinking about what I just read, and hopefully the subsequent chapters as well if I can. I also want to do this through the lens of education and teaching, which is my domain. As a musician and songwriter, I connect deeply with the premise of the book. It is something I have thought about, but have not been able to articulate. I feel that the book has unlocked ideas that have been floating around in my subconscious for years.

The first chapter is titled “Listening: The Space Between the Notes.” The opening quote is by Björk: “The most powerful thing is often the thing which lies slumbering in the silence.”

As educators, we need to develop the skill of having an awareness of the things that are not there. In teaching we have a tendency to get too focused on the deliverables–content is king. Too many educators make the standards and the content that the students need to learn the sole focus of their teaching.

But what are we missing when we put so much emphasis on this? We are missing out on relationships. We are losing sight of the human part of learning. An important part of designing learning experiences is to create the conditions that allow for full immersion. When we develop an awareness of our students’ human experience and listen for the gaps in their experience, we can build upon the relationships that are so important for effective instruction.

A second type of listening that Hendrix and Panay discuss is listening to ourselves. They introduce the term emotional due diligence. How often do we as educators really do emotional due diligence? How can we, as designers of these educational experiences, deliver if we have not found our own voice?

Teaching and learning are very personal and intimate experiences. It involves a lot of trust, compassion, empathy, and communication. To do this effectively we need to know what our own individual style is. We are not just classically trained musicians playing notes off of a score, or delivering content from a curriculum. We need to take our individual experiences and edit them together into a mosaic that is our own unique voice.

The process of getting to this point is through self-analysis and emotional due diligence. Take the time to look inside. What drives you, why are you doing this, what is your purpose of dedicating yourself to the craft of teaching and learning?

In the book the authors use a quote from Pharrell Williams that I won’t reproduce here (go get the book!), but essentially he advises to have a healthy amount of delusion. Much like an artist, you have to be somewhat delusional to get into teaching. To think that you can deliver learning to young people is somewhat a delusional premise. That’s a good thing. As Pharrell says, don’t talk yourself out of doing something amazing.

The last part of this first chapter in listening is to remove the ego. As educators this is essential. While it is healthy to have a certain amount of delusion, don’t allow that thought to prevent you from getting your ego out of the way. When we remove our ego we are open to shifting our practice. We invite change and understand that it is a healthy part of the evolution of our craft.

Panos and Hendrix share that it is easy to recast failures as pivots, as stepping stones on the road to success. The true aim, they share, is to ground these pivots in “listening for opportunities and finding new alignments.” The way to do this is to “open yourself up, be aware and watchful, be listening.” The “failures” we endure as educators are more than just opportunities for a pivot, they are moments of the ego dissolving. It is a key moment in which you have the opportunity to listen to yourself and trust your thinking to take you on a new path.

As educators, we work in dynamic and shifting spaces. We cannot enter into these spaces with a fixed mindset of how things are and how they should be. We need to listen for the silence. This takes practice. This is a discipline that takes a focused effort. But I do believe it can be taught and learned. We can look to musicians for these lessons and learn from them. Again as Panos and Hendrix so eloquently share at the conclusion of the chapter: “Listen, notice, feel. Anticipate the possibilities that come from silence”.

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