Gary Stager on Lifelong Learning

Gary Stager on Lifelong Learning

Picking up lessons for schools in three-quarter time

Lifelong learning. I decided to try it. So, I packed up the car and drove to Palo Alto to participate in the annual Stanford Jazz Residency. This immersive institute welcomes adults and talented teens to spend a week playing, studying and listening to jazz.

This was no fantasy camp. Everyone was treated as a jazz musician and faced with the responsibilities commensurate with that honor. Musicians, ages 15-82, from all over the world formed a powerful learning community. There was perfect attendance, no age segregation, no discipline problems, intergenerational collaboration and achievement unlinked to grades.

A mother younger than I am yelled "Nice job!" to me across a parking lot, as if I had just kicked a goal in peewee soccer.

Each 15-hour day consisted of a theory class, an instrumental master class, an assortment of fascinating guest lectures, combo rehearsals and an evening concert followed by two late-night jam sessions. I went from not playing the trumpet in 15 years to four straight hours daily.

Although I'm still grappling with all I learned, here are a few lessons for schools.

Rethinking Tracking

The success of the residency caused me to rethink my long held position against educational tracking. After all, don't combos need to be comprised of musicians with similar talents? How can you teach a group of musicians with different levels of ability?

My combo was comprised of two 15-year-old saxophonists, a young bass player, the father of another residency student on guitar and a teenage refugee of the White Stripes Fan Club on drums. While similarly talented, homogeneity remained an elusive fantasy.

Despite the range of attitude and experience present in the combo, you might still be able to make the case for tracking. However, I was in another group as well. The Latin Ensemble had no audition requirements and was open to any student. Everyone played a selection of compositions and improvised on each song.

From my perspective both the educational process and the product (the concert) of the "open enrollment" Latin Band was every bit as good as the combo. In fact, one could argue that playing with musicians better than yourself might provide just the spark needed to advance to one's playing to the next level.

The Critical Role of Expertise

Regardless of ability, all Stanford jazz students did the real work of musicians for the week.

There are ample opportunities for young children to be mathematicians, engineers, historians or artists. The dogma of sequential curriculum needs to be challenged.

There is much written about the social nature of learning and how it best occurs in a community of practice. Schools have done much to embrace this concept. This residency was distinguished by the quality and quantity of world-renowned expertise available to enthusiastic amateurs. Legendary musicians spent the week teaching classes, leading combos performing nightly in spectacular concerts, sitting-in at jam sessions and just hanging out with students.

Access to experts inspires, enlightens and challenges the members of a learning community. The gifted faculty possessed a remarkable ability to articulate their thought processes and make "just-in-time" recommendations specific to each student. These experts were reflective, passionate and driven.

Regardless of the expert's personality or approach, the students wanted to learn from them, play like them and be close to them. Tacit and explicit knowledge was gained by proximity to genuine expertise.

Since the beginning of time, the richest learning experiences have come through apprenticeship--working with and alongside the master. Too few teachers have experienced such joyful learning and fewer students are in the midst of experts. Even when teachers are expert in "teaching" they too rarely welcome students into their deliberations or think out-loud. Without such transparency, the expertise is invisible to students.

Schools must do everything possible to make demonstrable expertise available to students. The subject of the expertise is less critical.

I wish that every teacher and student could have such an intense learning experience at least once.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.


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