The Lessons of American Idol (August 2003)

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Eight or nine nights each week for the past several months my family and were caught up in the American Idol phenomena. 38 million Americans watched the show’s season finale. I am encouraged that it is still possible to bring generations together around a wholesome event. In addition to being wildly entertaining, American Idol offers many lessons for educators.

All sorts of kids have talents we have yet to discover
The extraordinary drive and talent of the young adults participating in American Idol should remind us of the untapped potential in our students.

Hard work pays off
The American Idol contestants worked their tails off to prepare for each week’s show. Teachers involved in the performing arts know how hard children will work to prepare for a performance and similar opportunities need to become the norm in other subject areas.

Learning occurs best with an audience
An audience for one’s work gives that effort greater purpose. It not only motivates the learner, but also provides occasions for authentic assessment.

You need to be well-rounded
American Idol contestants needed to sing, dance and speak articulately. Only folks possessing the whole package would advance.

Cooperation is valuable
Nothing is learned in isolation. While American Idol was a competition, the finalists were required to perform together. This cooperation gave the performers greater respect for one another and taught valuable life lessons for the future.

Achieving ones goals is not a zero-sum game
I believed the “idols” who said that participating was reward enough, even if they did not win the competition. The television show sustained this community of practice by having the “losers” in the top ten return frequently for choreographed ensemble performances. Some of the “losers” have embarked on successful careers due to this exposure and their willingness to give it their all regardless of the situation. Clay seemed genuinely happy for Ruben when he was named “The American Idol.”

There are no makeup tests
You get one chance at the plate and have to hit it out of the park every time. When Clay forgot the lyrics to a song in the final rounds, he had to recover with grace and move on.

Talent trumps superficiality
I was impressed by how often the viewers rejected “sexier” contestants for those with more talent. This is all the more remarkable when viewers are picking a pop “idol.” Perhaps folks aren’t as shallow as we thought.

Education is growth
The contestants actually improved each week. That demonstrates their willingness to incorporate advice, experience, talent and risk-taking in order to improve their future performance.

You need to be able to take a punch
Responding to the audience may enhance all human expression. Some of Simon’s critiques were brutal, but honest. The successful performers respected that criticism. learned from it and responded in productive ways. This helped them improve.

A life in the arts is full of rejection, not often so lovingly offered. Students need to recognize the difficulty that lies ahead while not abandoning their dreams or desire to bring beauty to the world.

You learn by working outside of your comfort zone
While it was clear that some idols were better dancers than others, each contestant did their best to improve in areas outside of their comfort zone.

Master as many genres as possible
The requirement that contestants perform in a number of different genres leveled the playing field while causing the singers to stretch. You don’t have to like everything asked of you, but you must do your best. Flexibility and versatility are extremely desirable virtues.

Respect history
While you can hardly consider Bee Gees or Neil Sedaka relics, millions of American youngsters were introduced to their songwriting talents. Great songs are timeless. The American Idol contestants benefited from the wisdom dispensed by these elders.

Production values don’t matter
Educational software and television producers believe that kids won’t watch anything without the latest in 3-D special effects. Great storytelling or music trumps production values. The American Idol set was ghastly and the background videos were distracting.

Teaching is storytelling
Part of what made millions of viewers tune into each show was the compelling use of storytelling that held your interest, recapitulated what you may have missed and introduced you to the lives and work of various musicians.

You care about great characters
The biographical profiles of each finalist and footage of them clowning around allowed viewers to identify with the contestants and get behind their favorites.

You must be graceful in defeat
Perhaps the most astounding part of American Idol was that seconds after being eliminated, that youngster needed to put on a happy face and belt one more song out for the audience. This demonstrated a remarkable level of graciousness, professionalism and poise.

Young people are willing to vote
…but apparently only if they like the candidates.

Americans are ahead of the media on race
I was frankly considered that America would not choose an overweight African American as their American Idol, regardless of his talents. The selection of Ruben Studdard proved that Americans were a lot hipper and talent than the national media whose magazine covers screamed, “Was American Idol Fixed?” following the final episdoe.

Originally published in the August 2003 issue of District Administration Magazine

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