On Playing Guitar

Brian and Bryan Jam

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share some responses I had for a few questions one of the TALONS asked me as part of his own In-Depth Study Research.

1. How long have you been playing the guitar?

About thirteen years… I think.

2.At what age did you first start playing?

I first borrowed a friend’s guitar in the spring of 2003, I guess. So I would have been 22, or thereabouts.

3. Do you believe learning to play the guitar has benefited your life socially / physically / mentally?

Absolutely socially and mentally.

There are probably physical benefits – better hand-eye coordination or dexterity with my fingers and such – though I don’t know if these are beneficial other than in playing guitar.

As for socially, I’ve made a lot of great friends and shared a lot of interesting experiences with people I wouldn’t have found myself connected to if not for having been what can be called in some ways a musician. Beyond personalities, or senses of humour, or our unique interests, upbringings, or even the music we like, I’ve always found people who play music – whatever kind of music it is – easy to talk to, hang out with, and – naturally – play music with. I’ve played music with strangers on the street in Cuba, Croatia, and France, talked for hours about favourite guitars with friends of my parents, and spent weekends improvising with people I’d just met without so much as a word having to be spoken.

Even when I was just starting out, I’ve found that once you have enough skill to participate in communal music-making (even if it’s just plucking the same note or strumming the same chord along with a few friends), you have been allowed into some other plane of conversation with people – a conversation without words, but also a conversation without distinct points of view. In a verbal conversation, one person talks, then another, then the other again, and in doing so their unique perspectives are shared; but in music, the two ‘perspectives’ are essential components of the other, if that makes sense? My guitar solo cannot exist without the underlying chords, whose pacing and volume are reacting moment-by-moment to the energy, tones and volume of the solo. And that’s just with two people: as drums, or bass, or vocals or other instruments are added to the fray, this sense of a collective voice only becomes richer.

I think this sense of communication I’m trying to describe benefits both the social and the mental, though, because these experiences not only forge deep connections with the folks I’ve shared them with, but also have opened my mind to what it means to listen, and interact, and communicate with other people. Once you’ve experienced these sorts of things – an epic jam session, or a memorable performance, or just creating something out of nothing, even by yourself with your guitar – it is impossible to go back to having ‘un-experienced’ them; each leaves you fundamentally changed, however minimally, and changes the course you might take going into the future. I’ve left a lot of different sessions of playing with people thinking, “Why don’t I do *that* more?” And I always rededicate myself to finding more places and people to play with – it never stops.

4. What are some of the skills developed from playing guitar?

Listening is a big one, whether it’s to the people you’re playing with, or even songs you’re hearing for the first time or the millionth. It’s fun when you start to realize what’s going on ‘inside’ some of your favourite songs, and why it is you like them – a chord change, perhaps, or the way the lyrics fall across the rhythm of the song; and similarly, sometimes songs you thought were catchy fall apart when you learn how to play them, which can be disappointing, but leads you to other, more interesting music hopefully.

Beyond listening, I am also able to hear better, which is actually different than listening. I can hear subtle differences between notes and chords, can tell when things are out of tune – and even which string it is, generally – which I couldn’t do back when I began. I’m also able to distinguish what singers are saying now that I know how to breathe and sing and strum as the same time, and how the different instruments are interacting in ensembles.

5. How do these skills/benefits benefit/apply to your everyday life?

I think quite a few of these skills transfer over to everyday life, both in tangible, specific ways: I know a lot about different songs, how they are put together, and the people that made them, for instance, which finds its way into a lot of my work at school (and not just in guitar class); and my relationship with language has changed I think, as well, and I unconsciously try to make things more musical, direct, or poetic when I write or speak, perhaps.

But I think the benefit of playing music that most broadly transfers over into ‘real’ life is the sensibility that goes along with many different aspects of music. In looking over my answer to your third question, I like to think that this constructive sense of conversation or working with others influences every aspect of my life and relation to other people: everything one does with other people is an opportunity to build something – a conversation, a relationship, a professional project, or piece of art. And so because I know that these types of interactions are possible, I find myself approaching almost everything I do with the same sense of experimentation and expression.

6. Any other habits/effects that came from guitar?

The guitar is a dangerous tool for relaxation and procrastination, so not all of the habits and effects it yields are necessarily positive! I’m sure there are plenty of things I could or should have done some days than play guitar for half an hour (or three hours), and that’s not always the best thing to do. But I am glad every day that I stuck out those first few months (or years, if you ask my roommates or family members who heard me back then), until guitar became the thing I wanted to do when I got home from school or work. Once it became The Thing I wanted to do to unwind, or have fun, or challenge myself, I don’t think I could have ever gone back to being someone who doesn’t play guitar.

Hopefully you find the same soon enough.

Identifying a Research Problem

Research Query

Identifying a research problem consists of specifying an issue to study, developing a justification for studying it, and suggesting the importance of the study for select audiences that will read the report. 

John W. Creswell

While it acknowledges that “Participating in elections is the essential starting point of any democratic system,” Elections Canada’s own working paper on the Electoral Participation of Young Canadians cites a characterization of the nation’s youth as “political dropouts,” building on the depressing findings of Ottilia Chareka and Alan Sears, that even though

“Youth understand voting as a key element of democratic governance, a hard won democratic right, and a duty of democratic citizenship […], most indicate they do not plan to vote because voting does not make a difference.”

Additionally, the perils of such a disinterest threaten the creation of a trend Gilens and Page have identified in the United States as having transformed the country [back] into an oligarchy, wherein “mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Taken together the two ideas present the nexus of an area of research my recent work and experience lead me to consider, as it offers a unique insight into a vital phenomenon. As the author of the Elections Canada working paper, Paul Howe observes that “a lower voting level among the young could simply represent an increase in the number of intermittent non-voters and/or a decrease in the incidence of voting among young, intermittent non-voters.”MA Doodles

He adds,

“The notion that today’s young people need particular support and encouragement to take up the habit of voting is an important one. To better understand these processes, further research focusing on political socialization dynamics in late adolescence (when young people are approaching or reaching voting age) would be valuable.”

In the last many months, I have considered the problem of my upcoming graduate inquiry as an opportunity to explore this application of public education, sensing the intersection (though perhaps collision would be more appropriate) of Canada’s democratic traditions with the lauded Digital Age and the school curriculum itself. Working as I have (and continue to) with various unique cohorts in blended digital and face-to-face environments, as well as beyond formal instruction in a variety of informal or extra-curricular settings, my spheres of interaction with young people presents what Howe describes as an area for future research:

“Conducting research in the high school setting has the advantage of providing access to all segments of youth society, including the most marginalized, indifferent and/or disaffected, who often cannot be effectively targeted once they have left school.”

Something I’ve quoted often as a guiding principle in my work over the last many years is Gert Biesta’s notion that

“Young people learn at least as much about democracy and citizenship – including their own citizenship – through their participation in a range of different practices that make up their lives, as they learn from that which is officially prescribed and formally taught.”

In his graduate work [highlighted recently on CBC’s IdeasDavid Moscrop highlights a problem in applying the workings of the “lizard brain” to the complexities of modern democracy: “It’s about messaging and name familiarity. And it reflects our MA Doodlesown vulnerability to being manipulated — which is why attack ads work and sound bites work.” Such a revelation echoes Habermas, who described a degraded public sphere as one co-opted by media and political elites who manipulate public opinion to their own ends.

In confronting this emerging civic reality, my own interest in curriculum adjoins the prospect of critical pedagogy as a means of instilling young people with an emancipatory praxis that allows them to enact and create their own freedom. This tradition of scholarship includes the likes of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, as well as Michel Foucault and Gregory Bateson, but also recent the recent theorizing of Stephen Downes, Bonnie Stewart, Jesse Stommel and Gardner Campbell.

Following from Freire, a critical perspective on one’s “generative theme” is central to an emancipatory education:

“To investigate the generative theme is to investigate the people’s thinking about reality an people’s action upon reality, which is their praxis. For precisely this reason, the methodology proposed requires that the investigators and the people (who would normally be considered objects of that investigation) should act as co-investigators. The more active an attitude men and women take in regard to the exploration of their thematics, the more they deepen their critical awareness of reality and, in spelling out those thematics, take possession of that reality.”

When broadened to include the evolution of the public sphere presented by the burgeoning Digital Age, the means by which these themes and power-relationships are forged has expanded beyond traditional print and broadcast media to include a panoply of personal publishing technologies that continues to mediate power relationships in new and daunting ways. It is a time fraught with both possibility and peril.

So we can see that as Gardner Campbell posits the creation of personal cyberinfrastructure, Audrey Watters wonders about the peril of bringing our face-to-face cultural inequalities online:

“What percentage of education technologists are men? What percentage of “education technology leaders” are men? What percentage of education technology consultants? What percentage of those on the education technology speaking circuit? What percentage of education CIOs and CTOs; what percentage of ed-tech CEOs?

“Again: How do these bodies — in turn, their privileges, ideologies, expectations, values — influence our education technologies?”

In my work with young people I strive to create learning opportunities meant to instill a reflective critical praxis emblematic of the type of citizenship engagement necessary for democracy to exist. Many of these learning opportunities are conducted in a blended digital and face-to-face environment, and utilize open digital practices intended to leverage the participatory practices essential to both the success of the web, as well as democracy itself.

MA Doodles

In two cohorts of identified gifted learners in the Coquitlam School District’s T.A.L.O.N.S. Program, each of our 56 students charts the course of their development in an experiential, interdisciplinary learning environment through an individual blog, and a variety of digital artifacts shared and archived across a class-wide network of posts.

For the last three years, I have taught a Philosophy 12 class which has operated as an open online course for non-credit participants that have variously contributed to the course community by submitting their own assignments, offering feedback or dialogue in the form of comments on the course site, or by extending the reach of the class’ discussions on social media.

In each of these communities, the creation of learning artifacts on class sites provides the current students the opportunity for reflection and synthesis of their learning, as well as a lasting example of socially documented inquiry for future cohorts, and those beyond the community itself on the open web. This principle comes into clearer relief in an Introduction to Guitar 11 course I’ve taught for several years that has evolved over time to provide an opportunity for open online participants to join and contribute to and learn along with a class of musical beginners. It is, in the words of open online stalwart Alan Levine “not a class that teaches guitar, but one where you can learn guitar.”

By examining the generative themes brought about through the reflective practices afforded in these various learning spaces, I am hopeful that my inquiry might offer a meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge concerning young people’s emergent sense of their own citizenship and agency in our democracy.

Teachers and Ritual Power

Notable class of 2012

Andrew B. Watt struck me appropriately on the Sunday night before Night of the Notables with a post – you would do well to read in its entirety here – that makes a great many points that each are deserving of attention and reflection. But there are a few that I want to highlight here.

 I had an unexpected bonus conversation with my friend C.T. today, which revolved around some of my favorite topics: magic and the ability to change consciousness; the passion for creating art; the mysteries of saints; and the power of teachers.  During this last part of the conversation, we segued to a discussion of the challenge that some teachers put forward — which is that, in an effort to advance their own work and career and power, they wind up trampling on the capacities and capabilities of their students. Indeed, the teachers reap the rewards of the students’ labor, and the students take on the negative consequences of the teacher’s own bad work.

I’ve long admired Andrew’s blogging and the breadth of knowledge and opinions he brings to a range of mutual topics of passion like history, politics, teaching, philosophy, as well as an often fearless interrogation of his practice. He was one of the first people whose blog I subscribed to, and someone who I’ve kept in loose touch with online over the past four years, reading one another’s blogs, offering the odd comment, and feeling sometimes like he’s a colleague who merely works down the hall (if that hallway reached Connecticut). 

This year we discovered that we shared a birthday, and Andrew spent it tweeting me pictures and commentary from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City while I hosted a barbecue in my Port Moody backyard.

Andrew B. Watt is all kinds of awesome, if you didn’t already know.

And so the point that Andrew’s raising is something that I consider seriously, and one I’ve considered alongside Klout scores and notions of celebrity in the era of the blogged classroom. But he takes it a level (or several) deeper:

We were talking about it in a magical/spiritual context. We’d both read a book recently in which a magical society’s inner circle of adepts was teaching rituals to their outer members which made the members feel powerful, but was in fact transferring power to the adepts… and shifting a lack-of-power onto the the students… not merely lack-of-power, but in fact negative-power.  A learned helplessness.

This is something that I think my TALONS colleagues and I are constantly in negotiation with: trying to figure out where to draw the line between at various times leading, supporting, facilitating, or merely observing the learning in our classroom, and interjecting ourselves too much into the process. If the outright goal isn’t to graduate participants in the program capable of owning their own goals and the action required to attain them, it is to at least introduce them to the ways in which such ownership can be attained.

This involves the difficult notion of ‘letting go,’ of occasionally allowing kids to fail, and then to frame these experiences as opportunities for future growth.

As much as parents or teacher/facilitators can position themselves to aid in the learner’s success, in the end the impetus for success rests in their hands. School should be about the creation of opportunities for students to realize and seize their own opportunities, and I look forward to the pillars of the TALONS program as treasured rituals of passage in the life cycle of the class: the Fall Retreat, Night of the Notables, cultural outings, the Adventure Trip, In Depth.

There is the artifice of tradition, and the singularity of the present moment in time, crystalized between the held gazes of the current participants.

But Andrew frames the question in an interesting way to consider:

 One of the things that magical teachers do (which exoteric/ordinary teachers like myself and many of my readers do not do) is give their students rituals to perform for their empowerment and spiritual growth.  C.T. had attended a workshop in which one of the presenters pointed out that some of these rituals do what they say they do — they empower the performers of the rituals so that they experience spiritual growth.  But, C.T. said that the presenter also warned about the opposite — rituals that disempower those who perform them, such that they think they’ve made spiritual progress, but in fact they have actually inflated their egos and empowered the teacher who has given them nothing of real value.  Meanwhile, the teacher gains power from the ritual performed — they get a toehold in the mental and emotional framework of the student, and the student is more inclined to treat further ‘empowerments’ as worthwhile and valuable, even as they are disempowered to seek further growth elsewhere.  Insidious.

Only mildly crushed by the prospect of not being considered a ‘magical’ teacher, I am keenly interested to think about how to bring about rituals that ’empower the performers of the ritual so that they experience spiritual growth,’ how to put the choice to act – or not – in the learner’s hands and see what meaning they can make of the experience.

How is it that we go about creating learning that is magical and transformative?

Whether growth is spiritual, intellectual, social, or emotional is, if the experience is crafted just right, up to the participant in the moment itself; where the teacher should find themselves in all of this a precarious balance, I think, and indeed, “one of those deep imponderables that can really roil the soul of a teacher and make them question the validity of their career.”

And perhaps, it is the one deep imponderable that drives all of the others.

“Overhauling how we teach science…”

blood sample overview

A colleague of mine sent me an email that I thought I would attempt to crowd-source some responses to in advance of our conversation sometime in the next week.

I would enjoy talking to you about how you think science classes could be taught differently, especially biology. I ask my students to refrain from asking questions that Google could answer, yet, I’m teaching content that they could Google for themselves. I’m not sure if I can re-vamp my system to keep them busy for a semester though. I think that Chem and Physics are pretty much dialed in because you need to go through the process of problem-solving with the students but in Biology, it’s so much memorization. What do you think?    


And, really: what do you think? How would you revamp / rebuild / and revolutionize a biology classroom? How have you moved away from the Google-able, and delved into higher levels of thinking beyond memorization?

We would greatly appreciate any love and input you might offer in the comments.

 

 

Music and a math problem

In watching the attached video, you can hear the lunch bell ring at the end of period two about a minute (or so) into the song.

Kyle, who we can assume left Ms. Jung’s foods classroom as the bell was ringing, makes it to his place behind the drum kit sometime later (arrival time will be indicated in the player bar at the bottom).

I’m not a math teacher, but can see the problem solving involved at interpreting every level of this scenario:

  • How far is it from Ms. Jung’s class to mine?
  • How quickly do students fill the hallways following the lunch bell?
  • How fast is Kyle travelling, if he knows there are drums waiting to be played somewhere in the school?
  • As a hallway becomes more crowded (and at what rate does this happen?), how does the flow of traffic affect a traveller (and does their direction of travel matter)?

There are plenty of other metrics and statistics that can be applied to this fragment of recorded data that we have in the Youtube video that makes me wonder what would happen if our school’s various math classes were assigned to calculate Kyle’s average speed, and set out to discover the other resultant facts about the world we inhabit intimately every day.

There would need to be field researchers to look into the variables associated with gathering crowds, theorists to devise formulae, groups to brainstorm the various ways to interpret the available truths in the documented evidence, and innumerable other ways that reveal the hidden numerical, statistical machinery that lies behind things, and in this manner so to reveal the essence of mathematics.

In a matter of weeks, the fundamental elements that drive high school math could go about involving a hundred students, and more than a few teachers in statistically, probabilistically, and mathematically recreating Kyle’s mad dash between the foods and choir classrooms.

This too closely reminds me of when I briefly introduced the theory of plate tectonics to a group of Humanities 9 students setting out to discover the geography of North America. I told them that what is now British Columbia, and much of the Western continental shelf had originally been a part of Asia, and had drifted across the Pacific before colliding with Alberta, Idaho, Colorado, and creating the impact residue we know as the Rocky Mountains. After I had let this idea sink in, I happened to be standing behind two fourteen year old boys who marvelled at one another:

Can you imagine if you were standing there, when that first happened?!

It can be said that neither of the two young gentlemen in question were particularly successful in my course – and were likely not prized math scholars either. But they were excited about this: the idea of finding out what happened when our continent was formed. This characterization pleased a friend of mine, who is working toward his PhD in Geology, and spends the majority of his working year applying mathematics to the history of our continent.

“Basically,” he said, when I told him about the boys being keen to get back to that initial moment of impact. “That’s what I do.”

And what Reid does is math.

It all kind of makes me wish that our school’s didn’t have bells, or walls dividing subjects.

To be clear, I’m no math teacher – and even took Math 12 twice, earning 80% each time. But even with as much as I know about Pythagorean theorems and sin waves, I don’t find myself wondering about how far away a hot air balloon is all that much from day to day (in fact, chances are that if I had a friend in that hot air balloon, our phones could tell us our distances in elevation, the vertical ground between us, one another, Paris, France… the list goes on).

But I want to know about this.

Do you?

What can you tell me about Kyle’s run for the drums?

Ten Big Questions for Education

Crowds.Brian Kuhn has shared an opportunity with me that offers another means of our class – and others who might find this post – entering into the discourse on shaping the future of education. To echo Andrew B. Watt’s call for students to enter the EduBlogosphere and tell us how we’re doing, this project – which began yesterday – could find the TALONS engaging in a truly global endeavor!

A well known educator / traveling speaker Will Richardson has crowd sourced the 10 big questions for education.  If you’re not familiar with crowd sourcing, it’s a recent phenomenon made possible by social networking tools on the Internet like Twitter.  Will asked people in his professional network to post what they felt the most important questions are for education today.  Basically people in his network spread the message to their networks and the crowd grew as the message spread around the world, literally.  Then Will asked “the crowd” to vote on the questions so that he could come up with a top 10 list.  To facilitate a mass collaborative write for these questions, Will has created a wiki and offered people the opportunity to collaboratively write / share their thoughts and ideas for each question. The end goal I believe, is to produce a free online resource, perhaps a free published “e” book, from this work. This is a great opportunity for you to participate in a global shared writing project.  I have volunteered to moderate and promote question #1 “What is the purpose of school?”  Please click through to this question if you would like to contribute your ideas or to read others ideas. Here are the 10 questions; you can click on the link for a question you’re interested in to go to the separate page for editing.
1. What is the purpose of school? 2. What is the changing role of the teacher, and how do we support that new role? 3. How do we help students discover their passions? 4. What is the essential learning that schools impart to students? 5. How do we adapt our curriculum to the technologies that kids are already using? 6. What does an educated person look like today? 7. How do we change policy to support more flexible time and place learning? 8. What are the essential practices of teachers in a system where students are learning outside of school? 9. How do we ensure those without privilege have equal access to quality education and opportunity? 10. How do we evaluate and validate the informal, self-directed learning that happens outside of school?

Welcome to the crowd!