Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

In my week off between courses in my DMA program, I began reading Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools by Ira Socol, Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff. Little did I know that the work these three are doing is just down the road from me! Ira is the former Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, and Pam, the former Superintendent for Albemarle County Public Schools. Both spearheaded the creation of Albemarle Tech: The Center for Creativity and Invention which opened to seniors this year. Chad is the current principal of Albemarle Lab Schools. They want learning to be timeless: Are we helping students engage in lifelong learning or merely regurgitate specific content? To change schools, they ask us to begin at zero: Zero-Based Thinking asks:

What might it look like if we’d never seen a school, but needed to bring our children from age 4 to age 18, or age 22? What would we do? What would we ask? What should the childhood experience be? What should the adolescent experience be? What do we want our students to understand as they grow? (p. 248)

Their book seeks to answer the question, how do people best learn? And in light of the answers, looks to transform how we think of and do school to best support lifelong learning in our students.

I began detailing some of my learning in the Twitter thread to the left. In the first two tweets you see references to the final paper of my Foundations of Music Ed I: Philosophy and History course; conversations I’ve had with my friend and colleague, Nick Covington; blog posts by Mr. McGrain about his journey to stop grading in his social studies classes; articles and podcasts from the Human Restoration Project that tie in with the learning I have been doing in my course and from Timeless Learning.

Much of my learning from the Foundations I course can be summed up in a quote from Thomas Regelski’s article, Ethical Dimensions of School-Based Education in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy in Music Education:

[T]he ethical virtue of school music is not a matter of simply claiming to have implemented a “good music program” (e.g., highly practiced select ensembles, a generous schedule of music classes, abundant resources) but is seen in (a) what that “program” actually does to enhance the musical functioning of the individual students for whom it exists and (b) its functional impact on the changing world of music in a rapidly changing society. (p. 286)

What are our school music programs doing to enhance our individual students’ musical functioning? How are our students and programs impacting the world of music and society as a whole? In my final paper for the Foundations I course, I said I believe our programs provide individual students with some music literacy. I say some because I believe that literacy is limited to their instrument and the literature we choose to study. How many of our students are using that music literacy outside/after our programs? How many of our students are impacting the world of music or society? How many students in our schools are not reached by our current school music programs?

Timeless Learning asks similar questions as Regelski. To paraphrase both: What are our schools doing to enhance individual students’ learning? How are our students and schools impacting their communities? Our current paradigm of schooling is a factory model, using divisions of time, age, and content to produce a well-behaved, educated workforce. Our current paradigm of school music education produces technically accurate musicians. Sure, education has improved on this factory model first developed in the late 1800s, but knowing what we know about learning, we are not adequately preparing our students to be lifelong learners and contributors to society.

This is another large premise of the book: the current way we “do” school is not in the best interest of learning. Timeless Learning provides a lot of history in how our current paradigm of schooling has evolved that can be summed up in terms of efficiency. We divide the day up by arbitrary amounts of time, divide the students up by age, and use these divisions to deliver pre-determined content. The authors find this factory model to kill creativity and inquiry, large drivers of learning. How can we design school so that it most effectively nurtures learning?

The penultimate tweet in that thread is a great summary of the argument Timeless Learning lays out. Clicking that link will take you to the tweet so you can view larger images of the argument. The first image lays out the questions the book is seeking to answer:

  • What is the utility of school given what learners want in a learning world?

  • What do we need school to be?

  • What type of society do we want to have, and what are the problems within it right now that we must address?

  • What is the relationship between our work to educate young people and the challenges faced by local communities and the world?

We (the authors and I) want school to be communities of learners: people who want to learn, want to learn how to learn, and figure out what they need to learn in society. The authors have found that making engages community members together in learning.

When a child or adult creates something, actualizing it so it matters in their own context, and perhaps what they’ve made also might have some sort of impact on society, … they share what they’ve made with their maker community, a learning community… Making changes not just the utility of schooling but the purpose of school, moving school culture from one of compliance in learning and behavior to one in which a diversity of ideas and solutions is valued and behavior is less focused on compliance norms and more focused on responsiveness to community norms. When young people show what they can make or create in authentic ways, not just what they know in decontextualized tests, all of a sudden they take a much greater level of pride in what they’re doing and in sharing their expertise with others. (p. 111)

Timeless Learning points out that there is not a particular, scripted way to implement making in your school because it will evolve differently based on your communities’ needs. The only structure the authors provide is what they call YELP:

  1. Get to Yes. Find ways (administrators?) to approve these projects. Not “no” or “yes, but…” Trusting in teachers and students.

  2. Engagement of Team. Who else might want to join to make this happen? Who can we recruit? How do we add diversity?

  3. Leveraging Resources. Finding funding and other resources may require creative means. What does the school and district have available? This is further enhanced by the engagement of the team.

  4. Prototyping Change. Start with small projects. This way, failure is just part of experimentation.


So where am I, twelve pages of notes and almost three hundred pages of reading later? I’m thinking that this book hit me at the right time in my learning. Much of our reading in the Foundations I course pointed to the lack of cultural relevance of our current music education paradigms, and much of Timeless Learning points to the ineffectiveness of our current teaching practices. While reading for the course, I found myself agreeing with the need for school music education to broaden beyond our current methods but struggling to articulate how that should happen. Similarly, my conversations with Nick (referenced above) revolving around current teaching practices, Mr. McGrain’s ungrading proccess, and the Human Restoration Project have helped frame some of that thinking. In addition, this past week I have been substitute teaching in a local Engineering classroom that functions as a maker space for the students in the high school.

You can see from my Twitter thread above that I started to think about what making might look like in the context of music education. In my previous school’s media center, the teacher librarian has built the KCHS Music Studio—a lab for students to explore creating and recording music including an iMac, keyboard, electronic drum kit, guitar, electric bass, microphones, amplifiers, and a growing collection of other instruments. Down the road from our new house is the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center (CATEC), a community school partnering with post-secondary institutions and employers. CATEC has a program for Music Industry Technology. Down a different from our house are the Albemarle Lab Schools which have courses in Audio Production.

Perhaps the closest thing I have done to a maker space in my own teaching has been our Ensemble Project: students divide up into small ensembles of 2-6 students then select, rehearse, and perform literature for their peers. The only guidelines for the students are the number of people in the ensemble and the duration of the piece. Students have about a month to select and prepare their literature with varying amounts of time devoted to the project in rehearsals leading up to the performance. While this works as an excellent end-of-year project (state concert band festival and final concert are over with roughly 2-4 weeks of school remaining), I don’t know how feasible it would be to do something like this more frequently throughout the year.

Going back to the YELP method of implementation from above, some of the prototypes I have thought of include:

Performance Combos. Take the idea of the Ensemble Project (students creating a group and selecting, rehearsing, and performing literature) and my Tuesday Night Club Master’s Project (students creating arrangements of jazz standards in small combos) to ask small groups of students to “form a band”: form a group, select and rehearse a “set” of literature, find a public performance space, advertise to build an audience, and perform! Other team members might include business and art teachers. We would likely have most of the resources for students to rehearse and perform; we would just need to help them find transportation.

Music Production. Leveraging the Media Center’s KCHS Studio and the equipment in our programs and auditorium, allowing students to record and master performances. This could also be used in conjunction with the Drama Department, music ensembles, or other events in and outside of the school providing sound reinforcement. The Music Industry Technology program at CATEC references a career opportunity as an Audio/Visual Technician incorporating sound reinforcement with light design and video production. This would also be an area of learning for me (and likely other music educators), which is encouraged by Timeless Learning.

 

“Modern” Instruments. In our Foundations I course, this is how we referred to courses where students learned guitar, piano, bass, and drum set. Can we provide a creative space for students to learn how to play these instruments? This could integrate well with the Performance Combos above. I’m also not necessarily thinking in the traditional sense of reading notation. Some students may be interested in learning tabs or learning by ear. Why limit them to how we were trained? This would definitely be an area of learning for me.

Music Composition. Our school already provides an AP and a non-AP music theory course, but both focus heavily on the understanding of how music is written with only a small portion of students writing themselves. I’m not envisioning a course limited to writing for our traditional paradigms, but rather, what is out there for students to create music? Students could explore traditional notation software, online notation, looping, and more. This prototype would integrate well with Performance Combos and Music Production as students develop composition.

 

Beginning Band. What if this were different? My impression of the current paradigm is that in fifth or sixth grade, students are introduced to the standard band instrumentation (flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, baritone, percussion; maybe oboe, bassoon, horn, tuba), evaluated on their ability to make basic sounds, and asked to choose an instrument based on their own personal preference informed by a teacher recommendation. Students then (hopefully) continue to study that instrument through the rest of their secondary school career. Their beginning band class may be homogenous by family (brass/woodwinds/percussion), grouped in lessons (by instrument or ability), or heterogeneous. What if, instead, students spent six weeks in this beginning band class on different instruments?

  1. First six weeks on mallet percussion to reinforce music literacy on a fixed pitch instrument.

  2. Second six weeks on flute to transfer treble clef literacy and build finger dexterity.

  3. Third six weeks on clarinet, focusing on new embouchure, but similar finger dexterity and treble clef literacy.

  4. Fourth six weeks on baritone to develop brass embouchure and bass clef literacy.

  5. Fifth six weeks on trumpet, focusing on different brass embouchure and treble clef literacy with similar finger dexterity.

  6. Final six weeks on student’s choice. Students who were successful on clarinet or baritone could be considered for saxophone or trombone/tuba, respectively.

 

To implement any of these changes would require structural changes to how the day (and likely the school) are laid out. For example, below are my schedule from my previous school and a schedule from a band director in a local Virginia high school.

My Schedule

  1. Marching Band/Jazz Band
  2. 10th/11-12th Grade Band
  3. 8th Grade Band
  4. 7th/9th Grade Band
  5. 6th Grade Band
  6. 7th Grade Band
  7. 6th Grade Band
  8. 7th Grade Band
  9. 6th Grade Band/Music Theory
 

Virginia Schedule

  1. Marching Band/Jazz Band
  2. Symphonic Band Woodwinds
  3. Symphonic Band Brass
  4. Plan
  5. Plan
  6. Wind Ensemble
  7. Percussion
  8. Plan

Reminder: the only courses I was teaching or co-teaching were Marching Band, Jazz Band, 10th Grade Band, and Music Theory. For the remaining courses, I was providing individual or small-group lessons to that particular grade level, all as part of a team of six teachers. The Virginia director’s schedule may be different, as I was substitute teaching on a particular day. That particular schedule could potentially allow a place for some of the above prototypes, but why limit students to an arbitrary amount of time and specific context for a specific content?


I am definitely in agreement that our current paradigm of school is not effective in helping students become lifelong learners. However, I fear some of the changes Timeless Learning puts forward. Is making really the answer to producing lifelong learners? What does that look like? How does music play a part? How does this work in a school of 1,000+ students? The authors tell me (and I agree) that I need support in answering these questions and taking these risks. I am lucky in that so many of these people and implementations are within an easy driving distance of me, and I am eager to reach out and explore. I am also lucky in that my only obligations right now are substitute teaching (which is flexible) and my doctoral program (one class every eight weeks), so I am able to reach out and explore.

To answer the music question, I received the following responses from @TimelessLrng and @PamMoran to the tweet below:

And I agree. Music is the vehicle through which we teach. Music is how I can help people experience the world. I believe there is a place for our current large ensemble paradigms, if they are fitting into a different context of developing lifelong learners. That context should include opportunities for all students to experience and learn from music. Hopefully my doctoral work and continued learning help me refine what that looks like.

At the end of each chapter, Timeless Learning provides sections for your own learning. These include questions for provocation, inquiry, reflection, and action. As I continue to process this book and explore the community of makers, I may look to answer some of these questions in future posts.

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Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.