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.

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