Tod Machover, me, Marvin Minsky

Tod Machover, me, Marvin Minsky at the MIT Media Lab 2013

I’m truly excited to be flying to Boston next week to participate in an amazing MIT event, “Deconstructing Beethoven’s Improvisations,” based on Marvin Minsky’s legendary paper, Music, Mind, and Meaning , and his love of Beethoven’s improvisations. A whole bunch of the world renowned pianists, musicologists, and scientists are on the 12+ hour program.

Some of you may not know that I studied music intensely through my mid-20s. I had four years of music theory in high school, studied music at Berklee College of Music, Rutgers, and William Paterson College, plus arranging with the great Frank Foster, Chico Mendoza, Andy Jaffe, and John Stubblefield. I “get” improvisation as an avid jazz fan who once aspired to be a professional jazz musician (before my considerable lack of talent caught up with me)

That said, my knowledge of Beethoven is infinitesimal and my music analysis skills are quite rusty. I’m really looking forward to burning up some brain cells at this event.

I’m busy downloading the pre-homework for the event and will be doing some serious cramming of the following materials suggested by the event organizers.

SUGGESTIONS FROM OUR PRESENTERS

Jonathan Biss

  • Listen: Beethoven Fantasy, op. 77, Serkin Recording – YouTube
  • Listen: Beethoven Fantasy, op. 77, Schnabel Recording – YouTube

“The Serkin and Schnabel recordings are both excellent. Probably as close to Beethoven’s actual improvisations as anything we have on paper.”

Robert Levin

Marvin Minsky

  • Read: “Music, Mind, and Meaning” – website version
  • Watch: Marvin with Hockenberry for the Media Lab h2.0 conference, 5 min – view or download video
  • Listen: Marvin Minsky BBC Radio interview about Beethoven’s 9th, 20 min – listen to MP3
  • Listen: Marvin Minsky,Nursery Rhyme Suite, 1960’s, recently digitized from reel-to-reel collection – download MP3

Stephen Prutsman

Listen: Shadows, by Stephen Prutsman, 9 min – listen to MP3

Frederic Rzewski

Listen: Hammerklavier Sonata – YouTube

Jan Swafford

Read: Ludwig Rules: A Guide for Studying Beethoven, by Jan Swafford – PDF

SUGGESTIONS FROM OUR HOSTS

Tod Machover

Jonathan Berger

  • Read: Composing Your Thoughts web article
  • Read: Listener Correlation PDF
  • “All deeply influenced and inspired by Marvin”
  • Listen:Visitations website

ARCHIVE

Don’t give up on schools, there is still much to be done

By Gary Stager

District Administration, Aug 2006

Dear Mr. Gates:

I write with great admiration and appreciation of your remarkable philanthropic efforts on behalf of health, poverty and education. Changing the world is a spectacular goal. Congratulations on your plans to dedicate more of your time to charity and on Warren Buffett’s enormous contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts.

I know nothing about infectious diseases, vaccines or sustainable agriculture. I defer to you and other experts on those topics. A recent Business Week cover story, Bill Gates Gets Schooled, was eye opening. That article reports the mixed success of your foundation’s efforts in public school reform and your candid admission of disappointing results. It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt. I humbly share the following recommendations to help guide your future initiatives.

Decide what you believe

You and all your advisors should read Seymour Sarason’s book, What Do YOU Mean by Learning? Sarason makes what should be an obvious observation that discussions of learning, teaching and school reform often fail to discuss what the stakeholders mean by learning. Without such a serious ongoing discussion, failure is predictable.

With all due respect, the Gates Foundation needs to decide what it means by learning and stop funding competing organizations. Investing in the Met Schools (see “Radical Reformer,” November 2005, page 46) and Achieve, Inc., simultaneously is like funding both sides of a war.

Apparently it is rocket science

The Business Week article tells the story of a Denver High School that received Gates Foundation funds. The school was broken up into four smaller schools in an attempt to make schooling more personal and have fewer students fall through the cracks. However, the school’s award-winning choir, a perennial source of pride and excellence, crumbled when students were dispersed to four different schools within the building. Surely, some smart adult could have figured out a plan to move children from one corner of a school to another for choir practice?

It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt.

Schools are complex organisms full of unintended consequences

A recent Los Angeles Times article chronicled how the noble goal of breaking large high schools into small, more personal, learning communities does foster school pride. However, it also may cause those communities to become tribes hostile to one another and result in limited elective options for students.

The impossible is easy, the easy is often impossible

This is my axiom to explain the chaotic nature of schools. It may indeed be easier to build a residential campus in Paris for New York City ninth graders than to hire a French teacher for their neighborhood school.

When seeking clarity, ask yourself a simple question: “Would I proudly send my child to this school?”

Drop the business metaphors

Stop talking about schools as businesses and using terms like efficiency, productivity, supply chain and measurable outcomes. Such metaphors are weak and create needless tension among your “partners” in education.

Drop the school metaphors

The clich?s used by educators to describe their practices and objectives can prove just as stifling and counterproductive as business metaphors. Reflexive mantras like “Sage on the stage” and “You must invest in professional development” fail to acknowledge the complexities of education and provide alibis for failure.

Stop talking about results

Such short-term language may be appropriate for quarterly profit statements, but not education. Learning is messy, individual and natural. Schools do not manufacture widgets, but create an environment in which children and teachers may grow.

If you do wish to focus on results, be honest about what works. Education is notorious for having ideology trump evidence. Your talk of “more rigorous curriculum” and scores directly contradicts research funded by your foundation. The Met/Big Picture schools are wildly successful despite the complete absence of any traditional notion of curriculum. If you want results, build a lot more schools like the Met and let go of the fantasy of one-size-fits-all magical curricula.

You need to meddle

If you pay the bills, then you have a right and responsibility to run the school. A hands-off approach to schools you fund creates confusion among the stakeholders. Your support, insight, expertise and clear expectations must be apparent and consistent.

Work with the living and do no harm

You have acknowledged that it is easier and more effective to build new schools than fix some existing ones. Keep creating great schools where children can flourish and building models others can follow.

Solve the college readiness problem

If you find that preparing poor, urban, rural and minority students for college is too difficult, then build some colleges with open enrollment in those communities to offer opportunities students would otherwise be deprived of.

Admit that math education is a disaster

Almost nothing done in the past 50 years has helped students be more numerate. Work with Seymour Papert to invent a mathematics curricula that students could love, rather than coming up with tricks to help a few more memorize algorithms irrelevant to their lives and the complex world in which they learn. Computers have a clear role to play in learning about such sciences of complexity.

Show some courage

You are the richest man in the world. That’s like having tenure. You may work without fear! You and Oprah spent two hours on television alerting the public that too many schools are failing too many children. However, you seem reluctant to discuss the underlying causes of poverty, inequitable funding formulas and the resegregation of our nation’s public schools. The Gates-funded Manual Arts High School in Denver that has now closed was destroyed by the resegregation of the school. Civil rights are critical for students and you need to lend your voice to that struggle.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings likes to say, “Schools are the same as they were 25 years ago.” That is demonstrably false. I graduated high school 25 years ago and enjoyed a full-range of electives, three music classes per day, great bands, fabulous plays, no AP courses, little tracking and teachers did not soil themselves over the need to raise scores on deeply flawed standardized tests. The climate of fear, name-calling and punishment paralyzing schools today is a recent phenomena produced by those professing to help.

We will have achieved success when all schools are demonstrably great places where children prefer to be and authentic learning exceeds our expectations. I wish you well in your quest to create such a reality.

Gary Stager on International Ed Comparisons

John Dewey is Ours!

By Gary Stager

District Administration, Apr 2005

Put on your dunce caps! It’s international education comparison season again. I know. I know… Eritrea is kicking our butt in long division. If we don’t get tough quickly, all of our best fast-food jobs will be outsourced overseas.

During this somber season of atonement, assorted windbags take to the airwaves to decry the callous incompetence of American teachers and to label our students as fat, lazy and stupid. We learn that country X focuses on the basics; country Y spends more time on fewer topics; while country Z has a longer school year. Don’t you just love how after careful review of the data, the prescription for American public schools is always more testing, increased sanctions, louder name-calling and longer seat-time?

 While there are always lessons to be learned from beyond our daily context, educational innovations abound in classrooms across America. Yet we ignore them. The cynical political forces that scare the populace with annual Sputnik hysteria play upon an unhealthy fear of foreigners and a neurotic national identity.

We know that simplistic proclamations about superior schools far away are incomplete at best, yet we continue to wring our hands about our inferiority. Japan is one of the favorite pedagogical bogeymen, but on a trip to Tokyo I witnessed four people employed to complete every retail transaction and two women required to operate an automatic elevator. I suspect that the four people making change at every department store checkout counter or the two women piloting one elevator did not succeed in calculus class. Like in Houston, students who might lower the average must just disappear.

While others can challenge their validity, the greatest risk posed by the international education comparisons is the underlying assumption that learning is (or should be) uniform. This premise is absurd and destructive for every state engaged in the standardized arms race. No human endeavor can or should be standardized. This is especially true across different cultures with dissimilar needs, goals, motivations, resources and belief systems.

The Stager Perspective
My work in public and private schools across a dozen or so countries entitles me to proclaim myself a scholar on global educational comparisons. My experience and humble analysis leads me to the following conclusion. Schools stink everywhere!

As long as citizens around the world strive to embrace the following myths and practices schools will continue to lose relevance and offer fewer benefits to children.

Artificial curricular hierarchy
The notion that a committee of bureaucrats can prescribe a specific sequence of curricular topics and skills for all learners defies everything we know about learning theory and will always lag behind societal shifts.

Assuming knowledge is static
Just as every learner is different, the nature of knowledge is fluid. Educational success is not measured by recitation and recall.

Testing is not teaching and teaching is not learning
Until we abandon the obsession with quantifying knowledge without even engaging a discussion of, “what we mean by learning,” schools will continue to treat children as rounding errors.

Barbaric conditions
Rows of uncomfortable desks nailed to the floor, bells, grades, age segregation, decontextualized content, sorting by similar levels of incompetence and zero-tolerance policies must give way to more flexible learning environments.

Communication is weak
Parents, still largely unwelcome educational partners, find it increasingly difficult to receive timely answers to simple questions despite enormous investments in data aggregation and school-to-home accountability systems.

It doesn’t ultimately matter if you agree with my hypothesis about the ill-health of schools and schooling. What you must celebrate is that the American ideal is for every child to enjoy a free and excellent K-12 education, followed by unparalleled opportunities for higher education. While our practice does not always measure up to our rhetoric, our democratic ideals are noble and our schools have served many children well. Rather than waste our energy worrying about global competition we should rededicate ourselves to helping every child reach their potential as a well-rounded human with a thirst for knowledge and creative expression.