What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Reinventing


Author’s note
: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay.

David Bowie and teaching? Really, there’s a connection? Yes, there most certainly is.

This chapter on reinventing starts off with a detailed description of how Bowie used the idea of change throughout his career spanning twenty-six studio albums. This impacted countless musicians most notably Madonna and Lady Gaga who took a similar approach to their artistry.

Gaga is very clear that without the impact of Bowie in her life things would have been very different. Immersing herself in the album Aladdin Sane she describes how that experience changed everything for her. Gaga says, “I started to be more free with my choices. I started to have more fun”.

This idea of being free with our choices and having fun is what I would like my educator peers to walk away with as I come to the end of my exploration of this book. The primary idea that musical minds can teach us a lot about innovation in education is that through self-knowledge, we are capable of radical reinvention. As Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar relates using one of Bowie’s favorite sayings, “Let go, or be dragged.”

In this chapter the authors cycle through a number of examples from the business world about companies reinventing themselves as the times changed. Nintendo went from a playing card company to making game machines. Nokia shifted from wood pulp to phones to 5G networks. Fujifilm went from film photography to skin-care products. You can add Netflix, Slack, and Twitter to that list as well. By knowing their capabilities, strengths, and purpose these companies were able to embrace change and survive where others faltered and failed.

Education as an industry is experiencing similar shifts. This is where the section titled “Making It Personal” applies so well. The story of musician Jen Trynin is a great example of someone navigating change to come out the other side as a more full and authentic individual. So is the story of Dr. Kristen Ellard (formally known as grunge musician Kristen Barry). As the authors say these artists “took time to understand themselves and leveraged what they learned to navigate their careers”.

Approaching life from the outside is a common thread in these examples. Dr. Ellard says, “I think I’m able to do that because of the way I have approached music. I was always on the outside, I’ve never played by the rules, and that gives me an incredible freedom to constantly be questioning”. I’d encourage all educators to do the same.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a situation in which weʻve had to reinvent out of necessity across all industries. The authors address this head-on in this chapter. The phrase “reinventing in the moment” is a great way to describe how we as teachers have had to approach this past year.

The musical example from the book is that of Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen who lost his arm in a car accident. Out of necessity, he was able to work with a friend to design a drumkit that incorporated electronic foot pedals. Reflecting on the experience Allen says: “I suppose it had a lot to do with the strength of those around me. They really didnʻt give me a choice; I had to stick around and deal with it”.

The result was a new invention and a new way of approaching drumming. I have seen myself and my teaching peers do similar things as we have had to navigate the challenge of instructing in this new world. Old systems failed, and new strategies were required. Much like Allen we didnʻt have the choice to not deal with it. We had to persevere and figure out how to solve new problems in the moment. For me my background and experience as a musician was a tremendous help in these situations.

The message of the book comes full circle in final section of this chapter titled “Busting at the Seams”. Iʻd like to print out this entire section and hand it to every educator that I encounter. Here is where I find the secret sauce. I’ll quote the authors, “At some point, you have to let go, trusting your own voice and your unique understanding of the world that is always unfolding around us.”

This is the mindset that is not taught in education degree programs. Music is a gateway to an art-centered outlook on how to approach the creative act of designing learning experiences. As the authors state, “Being open to new possibilities and capable of exploring and adapting to them with a musicianʻs mindset. When you do, you’ll find that not only can it open new doors for you, it becomes a way of life”.

Musician Pharell Williams takes it to another level, “There are a lot of people who focus on one thing singularly and that works for them. But for a lot of us, a lot of people in this generation and lot of people in the audience today, we’re pluralists. We need multiple outlets. We need to be able to express ourselves in different ways”.

And maybe thatʻs what this book was all about for me. As an aspiring musician who was starting to dip his toes into the education space, I wanted to do both. I saw the beauty in each and the creative outlet they offered. I saw them as being perfect compliments to each other and I wasnʻt willing to give either up to pursue the other.

This book is an apt summation of that plurality that I was searching for. But it is a plurality that can work for many of us. The musical mind is a lens we can all use to explore that fundamental question of who we are. And as educators, we cannot guide our students to make that discovery for themselves unless we have taken that journey ourself.

This is the nineth 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, part 5 on producing go here, part 6 on connecting go here, part 7 on remixing go here, and part 8 on sensing go here.

What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Sensing

Author’s note: This post is based on the ideas from the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay.

Teachers across the country are hard at work getting their classroom spaces set up for another start to the school year. While going through this annual ritual I wonder how many are stopping to consider the impact that sound has on learning in their spaces. Chapter 8 on sensing from the book Two Beats Ahead provides educators with a lot to consider about the role of music can have on learning.

The chapter begins by looking at how sound can impact our experiences in hospitals. Musician Yoko Sen examined this through the lens of the following question–”What is the last sound you want to hear before you die?”. Using this provocation and her own experience in a hospital, she interviewed nurses and medical practitioners. Through this process she discovered that the typical sounds found in hospitals–machines, beeping, monitor rings, etc… contributed to stress and negative well-being for patients.

In reading this I thought about the sounds that we expose students to in our learning spaces. In schools students are vulnerable to the startling ring of clock bells, the hum of fluorescent lights, the squeak of shoes on floors, loud voices echoing off of narrow hallways, even the loud-speaking voice of teachers. All of these can negatively impact our students’ ability to engage in learning in a healthy and safe manner.

My hope is that Sen Sound, the enterprise created by Yoko to transfer the soundscape of medical facilities, can be applied to schools as well. There is ample medical evidence that noise can cause stress. As we shift conversations in our school around well-being and mental health, I would like to see healthy audio environments be part of this conversation.

In closing the section about Yoko the authors mention the idea of “democratizing sound design”. In imagining how we can implement audio solutions to support healthy learning spaces we should involve students, teachers, and families in the process. By putting them at the center of this conversation we can ensure that those who are impacted by sound in their learning spaces have input.

In considered this, reflect on the follwoing passage from the book about the relationship between how our body senses and communication: “Think about a time you were frustrated and your hands clenched, almost involuntarily. Or you were scared, and your ears seemed dialed into every tiny sound. Or you felt happy, and suddenly the day seemed brighter, smells seemed crisper. Our bodies follow their own kind of truth: the way we physically interact with the world shapes our feelings and vice versa.”

In the next part of the chapter the authors cover some of the ways that music can impact our bodily senses. How pop songs at 120 BPMs align with the natural rhythm of our 60 BPM heartbeats. Hearing songs like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” can get our blood to rise, our head bobbing, and putting us in the groove. Or on the opposite end, how the guitar sounds of My Bloody Valentine can feel disorienting through their use of frequency boosting.

Failing to consider how sound can impact our students, we are allowing them to be unknowingly influenced by the ambient sounds around them. Instead, we can design our spaces to have a positive impact on stduents’ learning by intentionally incorporating sound into how we design our spaces.

Due to their location in the Boston area both authors have access to people interested in examining the relationship between music, body, and mind. In the section titled “Science of Sensing” they review some of the emerging fields of study in this area. They summarize a series of questions that are being explored by these scientists: Does music help fire neurons that go otherwise domrant? Is music medecine? Can it be prescribed? Might doctors someday recommend personalized diet of music based on a person’s biometrics? How might virtual immersive experiences aid in unlocking the power of music on the mind?

I believe that by exploring these questions it will result in a much deeper understanding of the role that music and sensing can have in learning. As we shift our focus in education to creative and collaborative learning spaces, we also need to invest in things that will create an environment to support this type of learning.

The authors point us back to a previous chapter with Bjork and Audur Capital in which they explored “emotional due diligence”. The following quote is so impactful–”And now that there is wisdom in letting out actual , literal nodies guide our creativity and our communication, it’s time to bring in the science.” Wow!

One final thing discussed in this section is research done by George Lakoff at University of California–Berkely as well as a study conducted at Yale. Lakoff’s research looked at how metaphors are a reflection of our human experience. The studies at Yale built upon this by examining how these metaphors actually can shape our reality. Through these studies we can see how warmth can be associated with happiness, or as Lakoff called it “a metaphor we can live by”.

Are we creating “warm” spaces in our schools for children to learn in? Or do they feel more cold, distant, and sterile? Are we best supporting students through creating spaces where they feel welcomed, safe, and inspired? What is the role of music in creating this sense of warmth that we know humans associate with a happy and soothing sensation?

At this point we have more questions than answers. But as an educator I believe that these are important areas for us to explore as we look at how we can innovate learning in our schools.

The last part of the chapter summaries the work of musician and producer Brain Eno. The authors explain how his Oblique Strategies* cards have a number of prompts that focus on physical recommendations–Breathe more deeply, Mute and continue, Put in earplugs.

Eno shares “We’re used to the idea that the great triumph of humans is their ability to control. What we’re not so used to is the idea that another great gift we have is the talent to surrender. To be able to surrender is to know when to stop trying to control.”

This leads into the gardening versus architecture metaphor. As creative individuals we need to be thinking of our works as an act of gardening, not an act of architecture. Yoko Sen builds on this metaphor with her own thinking: “I think the joy of my work was removing me out of the picture. It’s about other people and it’s OK that I don’t yet know what the answer will be. My role is to bridge the divide so people get to have voice.”

I can think of no better way to summarize my approach to teaching and learning! This chapter has really forced me to rethink and to consider more deeply the role that music and sound can play in an innovative learning environment. As I move more and more into the background and increase student agency, music will enter as an important element of this paradigm shift.

This was truly a transformative chapter for me as I think about what musical minds can teach us about innovation in education. Too often we focus on the details of curriculum, policy, learning targets and goals, and not enough about the actual spaces the learning will happen in. This chapter is an invitation to further explore how we design our learning spaces and the role of music in designing that space.

There is some literature on the role of music in learning. Much of it focuses on how to use music to improve learning, not on how music can improve the environment to support learning. I am hopeful that new advances in brain science and a renewed interest in sound can help push this research to a new frontier that can transform what learning looks like for our next generation.

*The Oblique Strategies cards are a series of 3- by 3.5-inch cards containing a prompt to be used as a way to explore a dilemma in a working situation.

This is the eighth 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, part 5 on producing go here, part 6 on connecting go here, and part 7 on remixing go here.

What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Remixing


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

In the spirit of this chapter on remixing, this blog post is a remix of Greta Thunberg’s infamous speech at the U.N. Climate Action Summit in 2019. To compose this post I took the transcript of her speech and remixed it replacing her ideas on climate change and actions with CO2 levels with some ideas on education and actions with technology. The full transcript of her speech along with the video can be accessed here.

I’d also like to note that this entire series of blog posts serve as a remix of the ideas from Two Beats Ahead. So my message to educators is to remix the ideas that you encounter in the world and reimagine how they can be applied to improve teaching and learning in our schools. Step outside of the education literature and seek other information to help you understand how you can improve your practice.

Below you will find my remix of Thunberg’s speech beginning with her response to a question about the message she has for world leaders.

“My message is that we’ll be watching you.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be playing outside in the dirt on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. Students are suffering. Students are dying. Entire school districts are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction of knowledge and critical thinking, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal testing of students. How dare you!

“For more than 30 years, the research has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.

“You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.

“The popular idea of adding more technology into our classroom over the coming years is only a small part of a broader solution to the current irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Adding more computers into our classroom, increasing access to computer-based applications, introducing cameras and other student surveillance software may be acceptable to you. But those things do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, and additional negative impacts on teaching and learning hidden by structural inefficiencies, content-centered instruction, or the aspects of access and equity. They also rely on my generation blindly adhering to the introduction of data mining with technologies that barely exist.

“So the technological solutions are simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.

“How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual and some technical solutions? With today’s use of surveillance technology and data mining our individual identities and freedoms will be entirely gone in the near future.

“There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with what I am presenting here today, because the truth is too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.

“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.

“We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.

“Thank you.”

This is the seventh 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, part 5 on producing go here, and part 6 on connecting go here.

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 Panos 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.

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.

1https://www.etymonline.com/word/produce?ref=etymonline_crossreference#etymonline_v_2617

What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation In Education: Demoing

This is the fourth 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, and part 3 on collaborating, go here.

Connected to experimenting, demoing as a mindset is an invitation to get dirty, reflect, fail, and iterate. And much like experimenting, it is a part of teaching and learning that is not appropriately valued in designing educational experiences.

The authors of Two Beats Ahead provide an in-depth look into the process of demoing. It is a critical part of the musical process and one that offers tremendous value in education. Its application centers around the idea of the educator as a creator, in contrast to the deliverer of knowledge that she has traditionally been limited to.

This also reveals the central thesis of my use of musical mindsets for innovation in education–as educators, we are designers, creators, and artists. It also leads me to a follow-up question. What exactly are we designing? Rather than something tangible like a chair or an iPhone, educators design learning experiences. And the same principles of demoing apply to how one should approach this design process.

As it relates to demoing, the first idea proposed in the book is that it is dirty. Making a demo is a rough sketch of your idea. It is meant to be put together quickly. The example they use is the demo of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. In education, this can mean taking photographs of something that can be used as a provocation for discussion. It could be a short video of an observation you made that will be used to craft lesson objective.

Here is an example of how I used this recently. I was at the supermarket and saw some different prices of cooking oil for different sizes. I took some pictures and used these to design a lesson on ratios and unit rates.

I had to build this lesson out a little further to get a workable prototype, but these pictures served as the foundation of an effective lesson connecting to our topic of study. As a designer/creator I have to be open to these moments of inspiration and capture them for use later on.

Authors Panos and Hendrix interviewed producer Dr. Susan Rogers who worked with Prince. She shared how Prince’s ideas came so fast that he had to carry a boombox around and record them. This is an example of the type of musical mindset that all educators need to carry with them in order to create innovative learning experiences.

Another example is Austin-based songwriter Daniel Johnston, known for his simple lo-fi home recordings. The beauty in these songs is that they were released essentially as demos. Jeff Tweedy from Wilco said, “There’s so much potential in his songs, but it’s rarely fully realized, and that’s kind of the beauty of it”. As educators, we are not often given the space to bring demo versions of our lessons into the classroom. We are expected to always deliver something that’s been fully realized. How are we to innovate if we are limited to only presenting something that’s in its final form?

I know some people will say, you can’t do that, it’s not fair to students to not have something that’s been fully fleshed out and complete. If you believe as I do, that education needs to be rethought, and that the old models are not working anymore, then I am doing no detriment to the students in my classroom by demoing an idea that I have.

In fact, I am doing them a service, because by bringing a prototype of my lesson into the classroom and I am able to get feedback from students, make adjustments, and co-create alongside them to make something that is better than what I could have made on my own. In addition, we will be co-creating something that is significantly better than the boxed outdated curriculum that many teachers are asked to deliver.

That last point brings me to the section in this chapter titled “Can I Ask Me a Question?”. I’ll quote another Tweedy, this time Jeff’s son Spencer to explain:

“I think there’s a parallel process between writing a song and designing a project. Both start with one bit of inspiration, pretty much completely unconscious, and then move into a more interactive, more conscious process of allowing yourself to edit.”

We can replace “designing a project” with “designing learning” and the effect is the same. An example I have from my own teaching is an activity I did in which students sketched the process for making toast as part of a lesson introducing project design. It was a simple activity that only requires some paper and pens, but I have been able to refine this activity into a full week-long lesson on design and planning.

Here’s a picture of some student work for some context:

The next part of the chapter covers iteration and failure. The example from the Eames Office design studio demonstrates how every idea is made up of ten different parts, and each of those ten parts is made of ten additional individual parts. This exponential multiplication of parts shows the complexity of each idea.

Rather than overwhelm, this is a great approach to bring into the classroom. It allows you as an educational designer to break concepts down into their smallest parts.

I do this when looking at my learning objectives for a lesson. I take those and break them into smaller pieces as learning targets. Those are then broken down even further as success criteria. I write these in simple language (or even better often co-write them with students). I make these criteria transparent and use this language to contextualize the concepts we are learning. This is hgihly effective in mathematics where the topics can be abstract and difficult to understand. Through this process students are able to see the smaller skills that they need to develop. In putting these individual skills together students are then able to solve complex problems.

Failure as a musical mindset is not understood by non-musicians. Songwriting and music-making can appear mysterious and magical to the outsider. It seems to be that it is in a moment of pure inspiration that a song suddenly births itself from the ether. Quite the contrary, music is a discipline that takes consistent attention, reflection, and care.

To demonstrate this the authors delve into Radiohead and their album OK Computer. To create this musical masterpiece the members of Radiohead had to try, fail, iterate, fail again, reflect, and try again. This is a great example that ties us back to the idea of experiencing which is a crucial part of the demoing process. I really hope educators of the future can tap into this creative mindset. As a result, potentially begin to redesign how we deliver learning to a new generation of learners who need the necessary tools to navigate a complex and changing world.

The final section of the chapter is “Everything is Beta”. Again, this is an idea that is too often unjustly shunned from education. This is a grave error and one that is done at the expense of true innovation. All the innovative technologies in our lives–iPhone, Twitter, Uber, or Airbnb all look drastically different from their initial prototypes. And that’s the point.

I would encourage all my peers in the education space to take some inspiration from these musical examples. The quote that closes the chapter is a great mantra to hold onto as you transition into this new mindset: “We thrive when we know that when it comes to prototyping, demoing, iterating, and testing, there is no finish line”.

So pick up a copy of the book and dig a little deeper. Or a good place to start is to take a listen to the demo of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or some other demos of your favorite song. In fact, Panos and Hendrix were kind enough to make an entire Spotify playlist of them.

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 Panos 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, Beyoncé’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.

Going All In

I recently delivered a talk as part of the Speak Hawai’i educator storytelling event. My talk was titled “Going All In” and was inspired by the book Two Beats Ahead by R. Michael Hendrix and Panos A. Panay. You can listen to the talk by clicking on the YouTube below. Enjoy!

Learn more about the book at this link https://twobeatsahead.com

Learn more about the event and join the mailing list at this link http://bit.ly/speakhawaiisite

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.

1https://www.google.com/books/edition/Towards_a_Theory_of_Schooling_Routledge/wZTcAAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA55&printsec=frontcov

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”.