Monday, 23 September 2013

In Search of Symphony

I’ve read a lot this summer. Most of the reading has been Canadian Aboriginal literature in preparation for some new courses I’ll be teaching in the fall. I’ve also been browsing through some other books including Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” which I first read about 5 years ago. Chapter Six in Pink’s book is titled “Symphony” and for some reason I was drawn to this particular chapter at this point in time. Pink’s book describes 6 skills he believes are essential for people to thrive in what he calls the "Conceptual Age".  Pink states that for centuries, Western society has been governed by “an approach to life that is narrowly reductive and deeply analytical” but now we are in a new age where a completely new set of skills is required. Pink argues that “Symphony” is one of those skills, and describes it as “the ability to put together the pieces...the capacity to synthesize rather than analyze; to see relationships between seemingly unrelated fields; to detect broad patterns rather than to deliver specific answers; and to invent something new by combining elements nobody else thought to pair.” I believe this concept is extremely relevant to education. 

The Importance of Community

I've written before about the importance of building community in the classroom.  I’ve often felt that the classroom teacher should consider themselves as more of a coach or a conductor than an individual instructor. Coaches and conductors have a responsibility to develop players individually, but their true strength is combining a collection of varied abilities and talents to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Individuals play different instruments and players have different positions based on their strengths. The coach/conductor’s responsibility is to unite the individual strengths into a collective experience where all individuals are are contributing to the overall performance of the group. As Pink describes: “symphonic thinking is the signature ability of composers and conductors, whose jobs involve corralling a diverse group of notes, instruments, and performers and producing a unified and pleasing sound.” Coaches and conductors have the benefit of expected events such as games and concerts where the players easily understand the necessity of working together. A classroom teacher must intentionally create these opportunities, or a student could easily go through his or her school career with only a focus on their individual contributions and assessment. A suggested way for a classroom teacher to achieve this is to design tasks or challenges (related to the curriculum of course) where all students must collectively contribute towards a finished product. One lesson in Literature 12 this year involved the students creating a collective recording of one of the core poems on the curriculum. Under the guidance of local musical master (and Princess Margaret graduate) Mike Treadway, all students contributed parts of the poem in the style that they chose. Mike was able to brilliantly combine the contributions of every student into a cohesive finished product that the students took pride in and that brought the class together. The clip below contains 45 seconds of the finished 6 minute recording. Keep in mind that every sound you hear was made with the human voice. I apologize that the poem (and therefore the music) is quite creepy. 


Pink writes that “people who hope to thrive in the Conceptual Age must understand the connections between diverse, and seemingly separate, disciplines. They must know how to link apparently unconnected elements to create something new". Some of my best lessons last year came from working with people who don’t teach in my subject area. One example was when we tried "Geocaching" in Literature 12. For those unfamiliar with the term, geocaching involves using a GPS device to navigate your way to hidden objects and locations. It’s kind of like a giant outdoor scavenger hunt. I learned about geocaching by going to a workshop put on by one of our math teachers Mike Cooke, and I then collaborated with our adventure tourism teacher John Buckley to figure out a way to apply it to my literature class. It was a very successful lesson that was perfect for our unit on Romantic poetry (which focuses on nature and the environment), but I never would have been exposed to the idea if I hadn’t sought out teachers beyond my English department. I believe the future of education will involve far more cross-curricular design and collaboration. Our industrial model of organizing students in “batches” (thanks Ken Robinson) and processing them through the factory of our education system needs to change.

Geocaching: Students designed "stations" based on the various poems in the unit.
I think Coleridge himself would have appreciated the "Ancient Mariner" station!
Holistic Education

As I mentioned earlier, much of my reading this summer has involved Aboriginal literature and texts. The more I study literature and culture from an Aboriginal perspective, the more complexity unfolds, but I have noticed some themes running through a number of texts that relate to the concept of “symphony”. In regards to views on education I've observed that for many Aboriginal communities, learning is not something that happens in isolation. Education begins at birth and continues throughout a person’s lifetime. It doesn’t start at 5 years old and end at 18, and it certainly doesn’t begin at 8:30 am and stop at 3.  Every aspect of life is a learning experience. The whole person is considered in aboriginal educational tradition as well, which means a student's physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual realities must be addressed. This is truly a shift from  our current education system (at the high school level at least) which puts almost all of its emphasis on a student’s intellectual development. Pink’s research would suggest that an education system that is much more aligned with this type of holistic perspective would be more beneficial in preparing our students for the challenges they will face in the future. 

According to Pink, the Conceptual Age demands that individuals develop their symphonic capabilities. Our students need to be able to make connections between seemingly unlike ideas, imagine how separate pieces fit together, and combine existing ideas in new ways. Skills such as collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking are truly more valuable than memorization and regurgitation. We are doing our students a disservice if we don’t figure out a way to re-design our education system to reflect what they will need. Short term solutions could involve getting teachers to consider themselves as community builders, creating more opportunities for cross-curricular collaboration, and incorporating more holistic perspectives and concepts into current practice. Long term solutions will require actually dissembling current structures and pedagogy and having the courage to navigate into a new era. 

I'll leave off with a wonderful TED talk that I never would have looked at if I hadn't re-read the chapter on "Symphony". It turned out to be relevant to education and leadership in many ways, but under normal circumstances I would have dismissed it.

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