blissed out

My youngest son loves to jump around the room to Van Halen. (I have no idea where THAT came from.) He’s got air guitar grokked too, and headbangs right there with the best of us. We don’t do it frequently, but usually take advantage of moments when we have the house to ourselves to crank the stereo and fully commit to these exercises. This morning involved a lovely session.

I should not be surprised he’s got an itch that’s so completely scratched by VH’s potent / stoopid mix of four-on-the-floor bass bombs, drums like trash cans, and boogie guitar shuffle (I understand Eddie plays lead too, but for me he’s the consummate rhythm player first and foremost). My son is attuned to music in his world like a woolly worm to the coming winter. It’s baked into him (into both of them – my eldest only missed the rock-out because he was at a sleepover). I recognize some of my own connection to music as I watch them. How they can’t tune out the incidental music that saturates our life, for good or ill, grooving to a well-placed XM soul station in Old Navy or cringing to…well, honestly we don’t cringe to much. Katy Perry, Gaga, Taio Cruz, even Disney pap like Lemonade Mouth. People like us believe there is beauty in the rhythmic undulation of a dragging muffler, if you hear it with the right ears.

I’m previewing Sir Ken Robinson’s terrific The Element this week, and need to celebrate his simple message. We don’t seem to have heard it yet.

You probably know SKR without knowing you know. If you saw a video about education last year, it was probably this one: a whiteboard animation of a speech he tossed off on education’s misshapen priorities that went viral. It touched a nerve among the inhabitants of 2011 school-land in this country, just like last year’s other viral hit of Matt Damon going off on a libertarian reporter. It made sense, but it wasn’t a kind of sense many people in power have been talking lately.

Here’s SKR’s message, in his book: we’re all different, and there’s a place in all of us where something we can do exquisitely well intersects with something we love almost more than breathing.

Finding that sweet spot should be the life’s quest; it should be education’s main perseveration, regardless of socioeconomic status or funding level or lack of time or any of the other issues that get in its way. And especially regardless of the claim that, actually, the only way to a happy and productive life is development of a small set of measurable proficiencies, mastery of which will ensure individual and national prosperity and happiness.

Sir Ken disposes of that construct deftly, noting that the world’s needs (and therefore, jobs) are changing faster than any present view of the training they require can handle. I’ll let him break it down:

The only way to prepare for the future is to make the most out of ourselves on the assumption that doing so will make us flexible and productive as possible.

Many of the people you meet in this book didn’t pursue their passions simply because of the promise of a paycheck. They pursued them because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else with their lives. They found the things they were made to do, and they invested considerably in mastering the permutations of these professions. If the world were to turn upside down tomorrow, they’d figure out a way to evolve their talents to accommodate these changes. They would find a way to continue to do the things that put them in their Element, because they would have an organic understanding of how their talents fit into a new environment (p. 20).

This insight has game-changing implications for how best to prepare kids for the future (though not completely novel ones). It means that first and foremost, we need to support them in engaging fully in their present.

I really don’t see the point of fancying this up. Its truth and value lays in its simplicity. People in touch with what makes them go will go harder and farther than anyone else, and will love the journey. Our job as educators is to enable that discovery by sustaining conditions that foster it, or at minimum not to impede it.

And our job as advocates for social justice in education: to resist the common sense that gives these conditions to better-off schools and buries low-income schools in measurable basic skills work only. Fairtest noted a few years back the deep source of this attitude:

…a view of learning in which one first gets “basics” and then later learns to “think.” Extensive research shows how flawed this approach is. However, it still dominates in schools serving lower income students: they are much more apt to get drill and kill instruction geared toward tests. Instruction which would engage them and help them learn “basics” and to think in a subject is usually absent (emphasis mine).

As if the power and importance of helping our students discover how they love the world is the province of those who can afford it. Yet another injustice rooted in socioeconomic disparity – the deepest problem, as Dr. King noted; the one it takes the most courage to address (“there is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will”). Schooling models that support some in finding their reason to be here and deny that opportunity to others are injust. We must have the vision and nerve to connect the dots, and work to right that wrong in whatever corner of the vineyard it’s ours to tend. Curriculum, for me, and working to shape how tomorrow’s teachers understand the profession they’ll inherit.

This afternoon, my son sits at the piano, hammering out C-major triads with both hands in in alternating rhythm and rocking back and forth. A few minutes later, he suspends them – moving all but the roots one note to the right – and his head snaps back, eyes closed, blissed out at the effect of the modulation on his deepest sense of pleasure and balance and rightness. When he finally stops, he doesn’t look up, but while studying the keys for his next assay states, “Daddy, I really love the piano.”

Yes you do, sir. Yes you do.

Image from the New Netherland Institute. Who knew how hard the Dutch rocked?

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