Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Building Performance Character (Part IV)

(originally published by Catapult Learning, LLC, at


For the past few months, I've been talking about the performance-related character values that significantly influence student success in school and in life. I’ve discussed the importance of persistence, precision, and questioning in detail. Today, I’d like to talk about collaboration and ownership of learning—what I’ve learned from the research, and what I learned last night, watching my children perform in a band camp concert. It wasn’t exactly a peer-reviewed journal study, but sometimes you need to sit still and enjoy a show for the thoughts in your head to coalesce and teach you something. More on that in a bit.

Working with Others

Collaboration is nothing new in our schools. “Group work” has always been part of our classroom practice, though its value has co-existed a little nervously and uncertainly with the idea of “doing your own work.” We are taught from a very young age that we are going to be assessed and judged on our ability to do things independently. From nursery school reports that say things like, “runs with scissors,” right up through our doctoral dissertations, it is our individual skills, applied independently, which are watched, assessed, rated, and communicated out to the world. We may, in our early years, be told that we “work well with others,” but the focus is still on each, individual one of us, not on what the group we work with has actually done, or how our effort has contributed to the success of the team.

In recent years, the ability of students to work effectively in groups or teams has received increased attention. The rise of STEM education has shined a new light on inquiry-based and project-based learning. Extracurricular organizations like Odyssey of the Mind and First Lego League  give students opportunities to work together on complex, long-term projects to solve real-world problems in creative and exciting ways. And The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which has driven so much of the debate about the changing workforce and how best to prepare for it, has identified collaboration as one of the most important things we need to teach our children.

The fact is, in the world beyond school, almost none of us work in isolation or are judged purely by the work we perform alone. Even the neurosurgeon possessing rarified skills has to work as part of a surgical team, and can undermine her effectiveness if she can’t work well as part of that team. In virtually every workplace, there are critical issues of communication, leadership, follower-ship, and the ability to assess the wisdom and importance of what other people say, issues that can make or break an organization. Lord knows, I’ve worked in plenty of organizations where managers have been expected to know what group leadership means, without ever having been given training in those skills. Follower-ship can just as important...and can receive just as little training. And in today’s workplace, with flattened hierarchical structures and distributed leadership, the lines between leader and led can be blurred and confusing; everyone is expected to participate in leading; everyone must spend some time pitching in and being led. But who is teaching us how to make it work?

Athletic coaches know how to bring individuals together into a team. The military knows how important unit cohesion and unified action can be. But in academics, it’s still every child for himself. When we place students in pairs or groups, do we know why we are doing it?  Is it just a way to vary our daily routine, or does collaboration really matter? If it does matter, in what ways does it matter? We have learning goals tied to the content of what we ask students to work on, but perhaps we should have objectives aligned to the way in which we ask students to work, as well. What collaboration skills are we trying to teach with a particular activity? What’s the best way to teach those skills? Do we have a picture in our heads of what “good” looks like—what it entails—at different grade levels?

Monitoring Progress and Embracing Learning

When we talk about “owning your own learning,” we have in mind a picture of active learning, intrinsic motivation, personal goal-setting…in short, a picture of someone becoming an independent, life-long learner. But it can be difficult to figure out how to make that picture become reality.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy for students to feel that school is something that happens to them, rather than something they do. After all, they don’t choose to attend school; they have to attend. They rarely get to select classes, topics, or even assignments. And far too often, they feel that grades and scores are arbitrary—gifts or punishments meted out by the teacher for inscrutable reasons.

Robert Marzano, in The Art and Science of Teaching, writes of the importance of using rubrics  or scales for major assignments to help students understand what is expected of them and to allow them to compare their work with exemplars. He makes it clear that such scales should be student tools as well as teacher tools. In fact, in Marzano’s teacher effectiveness framework, it’s clear that proficiency in “setting objectives and learning goals” requires students to see, know, and understand not only the daily or weekly objectives, but also the criteria by which they are going to be assessed. Those of us who have made a practice of sharing and discussing scoring rubrics with students at the start of a project know that it makes conversations much more interesting at the end of a project, when a student inevitably comes up and says, “Why’d you give me a C?”  “I didn’t give you anything,” the teacher is able to say. “You gave yourself a C.  Here’s how…”

Marzano also recommends creating progress reports that students can own and fill out from time to time, to evaluate and keep track of their progress towards longer-term goals.  A student who uses such a tool stops thinking of the semester as one-thing-after-another, and starts seeing the larger arc, shape, and purpose of the course. Of course, in order to accomplish this, the teacher needs to ensure that there is an arc, shape, and purpose to the course.

Another aspect of self-monitoring and self-correcting is the ability to hear and act on critical feedback. Far too many students receive numerical or letter grades with little or no feedback (positive or negative) on their work. Even when it’s based on a detailed scale or rubric, the only thing a single grade can do is reinforce or challenge a student’s preconceptions. To encourage the kind of growth mindset we’ve spoken of in the past few months, teachers must provide specific, timely, and understandable feedback on student work at regular intervals—feedback that can help students analyze their work in progress and make improvements along the way.

What I Learned at Band Camp

So, what does all of this have to do with watching my 9 and 13 year old boys play in their end-of-band-camp concert? Quite a lot, as it turns out.  To start with, watch this video from the 1955 movie, The Dam Busters, and look for the little epiphany at 1:22.  That was me, last night.

The Vienna Band Camp program in Northern Virginia is in its 35th year, and it’s a fantastic program. Children from early elementary school through high school spend four hours a day in the program, five days a week, for a whole month. They take a variety of classes and rehearse every day as part of an ensemble. Watching the beginning band perform at the end of the program is always shocking. Many of the students start the program as complete novices, never having touched a musical instrument before. At the end, four weeks later, they are playing music. Not random, horrible noise; music. They’re not experts, by any means, but they know their instruments. They know how to read their music. They know how to keep time with each other. They are a team. Watching the beginning band at the end of the summer, you really start to understand what things like “deep practice,” and “10 years or 10,000 hours” really means. You see growth, right before your eyes.

As I sat there and watched the concert, so much of what I’d been thinking about in terms of “performance character” came together in my mind, just as the converging spotlights bring the strands of a problem together in Wing Commander Gibson’s mind, in The Dam Busters.

Obviously, a band is a collaborative effort. But think about what the camp needs to do to form a band. Students spend time each morning simply working on their instruments—building their individual skills and honing their technique. They work with a particular teacher who is an expert on that instrument, and they meet in groups composed only of the players of that instrument—players who are all more or less at the same level of proficiency. This model of instruction should sound familiar—it’s the way most of us teach our students in traditional classrooms.

However, later in the day, students meet in very different configurations. They meet with their ability-level band mates—a combination of all the instruments—and they work with a different teacher. This teacher is not a specialist in violin, or oboe, or trumpet; she is a conductor, and her specialty is…well…project work. Interdisciplinary teamwork. Her job is to teach students how to use their instruments along with other instruments: how to play together at tempo; how to listen to each other and adjust; how to watch the leader for instructions; how to work as a team toward a common goal. Those are clearly collaboration skills. But the conductor also works with students on other “performance character” skills. There’s precision—the understanding that there is a right way and a wrong way to play a note or a phrase. There’s perseverance—the understanding that each student has a responsibility (to himself and to the group) to work and work and work until he gets it right. Built into that one, as we discussed earlier, is resilience—the ability to take criticism and manage stress and frustration. There’s questioning—the understanding that you, the student, have a responsibility to stop things and ask for help or clarification where necessary, and not just keep your head down and hope nobody notices. Finally, there’s the owning of your own learning—monitoring your progress, caring about your growth, and seeing what you’re doing as part of a life-long love of music and enrichment of life. It’s all in there.

If you needed an argument for why the arts must be supported and paid for in our schools, why they are not luxuries or frills, look no further. If we include team athletics in our schools because we value what they teach about sportsmanship, competition, perseverance, and teamwork, then team musicianship should be valued no less. There are values and skills we want every single child to learn, practice, and make part of their lives, and if we truly believe that children are different, we need to provide different ways for them to learn those things. Neither of my children took to team sports. (Big surprise.) Both of them have flourished and grown doing team music.

Finally, what can band camp teach us about how we conduct our classrooms and our schools? The comparison is interesting. We are obviously “techniques” teachers; we develop the core skills. But look what’s missing.  Who brings students together to learn how to “play” with those skills?  Who even defines or communicates what it means to play with the skills we’re teaching them? I’m not talking about music, or sports, or studio art; I’m talking about academics. The stuff we teach in our “techniques” classes. Whose job is it to bring math, and science, and history, and language arts together, and teach students how people actually use those things, all mixed up together, to make “music” with each other in the real world? Who is the bandleader, selecting the pieces to play and leading students from the first, squeaky rehearsal to something worth sharing with parents and grandparents? Where is the opportunity for our students to perform what they know, academically, and to receive the applause they deserve?

If the answer to all of the above is “no one,” think about what that means. We aren’t simply depriving our children of a chance for Grandma to applaud and take pictures. It’s much bigger than that. Our students will eventually graduate. They will move off into higher education or the working world. They will take their seats in the symphony orchestra of adult life. Someone will step up to the podium and tap their baton on the music stand, expecting everyone to sit up straight, lift their instruments, and be ready. Something important is about to begin. Will the young people we taught be ready? Will they even know what they’re supposed to be ready for?