Finding Your Groove: the Art of Teaching Through Jazz

It’s been a looooong time…. I took a hiatus from blogging, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes, and from social media in general, to regroup; to spend some time thinking about what I want to do and how. What I’ve learned, re-affirmed, is — I love “educating.” Facilitating the learning process by encouraging smart conversations really energizes and delights me. I enjoy knowing what people think, how they process information and make sense of the world. Given all the outrageous, heartbreaking, problematic, and frightfully topical news coverage of late — I am more committed to educating than ever.

We need to think deeply, creatively and critically (not for the uninteresting sake of being critical). We need to listen to one another and be smarter. We need to engage thoughtfully. We need to be like jazz musicians in our thinking, interacting, and problem solving.

On Tuesday, June 30th, I’ll be at NYC’s legendary Cornelia Street Cafe with my colleague, Bassist and Principal of Jazz Impact Michael Gold, offering a workshop, “Finding Your Groove: the Art of Teaching Through Jazz.”

Michael Gold 2

JJM by Frrank Stewart

We’ll address three main questions:

  • Why is it hard to “hear” new ideas?
  • How do great teachers teach critical thinking?
  • How do we cultivate curiosity?

This is part of what I’ll be doing to help make a difference. If you’re in NYC, or can be, join us and “BE” in our incredible creative space for learning. Let’s make a difference. Spread the word and Find YOUR Groove….

Tuesday, June 30th — 6-7:30PM

The Cornelia Street Cafe — 29 Cornelia Street, NYC 10014

CALL 212-989-9319

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‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!

Disconnect

Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash to swing.

 

SeminArts: cultural education

Cheating is a pervasive in our educational system; ok, yes, and in so many other areas of recent angst such as finance and banking/loans. But for now…

As the US tries to find new ways to emulate the Chinese system of educating, we’d do well to keep in mind the outcome of such efforts. When a sole test is the primary determinant for admission to college – which students are told is mandatory if they are to lead meaningful lives as middle-class citizens – then, we should expect a high incidence of cheating. Sal Bommarito’s suggestion that we teach ethics courses in school is just fine but is inadequate in combating the systemic problem of cheating. We have a cultural problem. Integrity is not learned in one class or even in a series of classes. It is cultivated over time and should be integrated into every aspect of learning, in the classroom and beyond its walls.

There is no way to “cheat” on a musical jury. There is no way to fake your way through an audition for acting, dance, or voice. There is simply no way to hide your inadequacies in sculpting, paining or design. Live performance requires authenticity. Our blind quest to mass produce education via standardized tests administered to swaths of students holed up in testing centers, leaves us ill prepared to identify the fakers in our midst. Artists practice integrity every day.

Matt Schiavenza notes that China’s educational system reflects “ancient Confucian principles” and “places an overwhelming emphasis on “memorization, recitation, and examination.” This makes sense because Confucius is so important in Chinese culture. Shouldn’t we value our own culture? The fierce independent spirit and innovation associated with being American should be at the core of our educational endeavors, impact pedagogy and guide policy decisions. Our obsessive and rather mindless obsession with testing illuminates the very worst parts of US culture; namely, our obsession with consumerism and this undermines our global legitimacy – it always has.

One reason jazz is so often associated with democracy is that the music is egalitarian. This means, anyone who desires to play jazz can participate. French horns, bassoons, saxophones, drums of any sort, Middle Eastern instruments, foot stomping, hand clapping, singing, humming and the like can all be used to perform jazz. The prerequisite for participation is a basic understanding of the instrument you choose to articulate your voice. It seems to me that our system of educating should also be egalitarian and reflect our democracy and culture of innovation.

So, here are some questions to consider: How do we honor our culture through education? Who is important in US culture and what aspects of their importance do we want to model? How might we transfer the best aspects of our culture into our pedagogy? How can we restructure, influence and so reshape our educational policies to be more in line with the richness of our culture? SeminArts and SeminArts LIVE!!! will explore these questions and more. Stay tuned…