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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Six Principles of Learning in School Jazz Programs

Jazz is complex music that even some professional musicians have difficulty playing. Yet somehow, jazz-band teachers create new jazz musicians out of youngsters who just a few years earlier knew nothing about music. What magic must they be using? In the spring of every year in Texas, Katy High School near Houston hosts a jazz festival that showcases junior- and high-school stage bands from around the state. I have attended several times and never failed to be astonished at the musicianship of these youngsters. Each year, there is one or more middle-school band. Even the professional musicians who critique each band’s performance are amazed that these 7th and 8th graders “play like adults!”

I never cease to be astonished at how accomplished these students are. I ask myself, “How did those kids learn such complex music?" The music played by the school stage bands is mostly the big-band music of Goodman, Basie, Kenton, Ellington, and others from the eras of swing and progressive/modern jazz of the 50s and 60s. They also play more modern jazz.

The emphasis on teaching reaches into the festival itself. Each band or ensemble performs for 30 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of critique from professional jazz musicians (some of whom are music professors at universities). The critiques are shared with the audience, consisting mostly by family and friends. Are university professors ever asked to evaluate student performance in regular secondary school academic classes?

The festival includes small-group performances, which are also openly critiqued by professional musicians. Katy High puts great emphasis on music teaching and has built a magnificent Performing Arts Center, where the festival takes place. If Texas schools are hurting for funds, it certainly isn’t evident at Katy High School. I bet they get extra support from parents.

Jazz fans everywhere lament that jazz seems like a dying art form overwhelmed by the simpler music of country, rap, hip-hop, rock, and whatever it is that most kids listen to these days. But the professional “coaches” at the festival reassure the audience that “jazz is in good hands.” The future of jazz is bolstered by the fact that many school and university music programs teach jazz.
Learning to playing any musical instrument is hard, but playing jazz is the ultimate challenge. In jazz, you not only have to know the tunes, you also have to use the chord structure and complex rhythms to compose on the fly. A jazz professor from North Texas State University counseled in one of his critiques, “I know you have sheet music you have to follow, but when you hear something in your head, play it. That’s what we (jazz musicians) do — improvise!” My impression is that in regular academic classes, we don't do much to encourage the creative application of knowledge. In jazz, it is the whole point.

Another jazz professor during a critique session had two bands re-play a number from their performance. About one-third of the way through, he silently and casually walked through the rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, and drums) and picked up the sheet music. The kids went right on playing without skipping a beat, because they had already memorized the sheet music. His point was they were using the sheet music as a crutch and not engaging with each other. Musicians talk to each other with their instruments, and listening is a big part of jazz improvisation. Students playing jazz need to be engaged with what each member of the rhythm section is doing, and, moreover, the rhythm section needs to interact with the saxes, trombones, and trumpets.

Hearing such wonderful music from children raised a nagging question. Why can’t kids master science, math, language arts, or social studies? Why does everybody struggle so mightily to get kids to pass simple-minded government-mandated tests in academic subjects? And then it hit me. Jazz-band teachers do the right things in teaching that other teachers need to do more of.
Two things are essential in teaching: the professionalism of the teacher and the motivation of the students. Most school jazz programs provide both. Sad to say, this is not so true of traditional curriculum.

Consider professionalism. It was clear that these band directors really knew what they were doing. Some had professional playing experience. Most, I am certain, were music majors in college. Think about what they have to do. They take young kids who know little about music beyond humming a tune and teach them music theory, teach them to read music, and teach them to play the different instruments in a band. And then they have to teach students how to compose on the fly. You can’t do that without being a real professional.

As for motivation, teaching and learning jazz involves clearly identifiable motivating features. Jazz-band teachers can’t take credit for some of these features, but creative teachers in other subject areas can think of similar motivating things they could be doing, based on what is involved in jazz.

First, there is passion. Jazz stirs the emotions, from blues to ballads to hot swing. If Benny Goodman’s music doesn’t make you want to jump up and dance, you better check your pulse to see if you are still alive. That brings up this point: jazz is fun! Learning chemistry, for example, is almost never considered by students to be fun — but teachers should be thinking of ways to make it fun. 
Some academic subjects do have intrinsic emotional impact. If, for example, the emotions of history students are not stirred by the Federalist Papers or the turmoil of the Civil War and the country’s other wars, then history is not being competently taught. If the beauty of the laws of physics and chemistry or the biology of life are not evident in the teaching of science, it is the teacher’s fault. 

Second is that jazz involves personal ownership. A jazz student intellectually owns his instrument. He or she owns the assigned space on the bandstand. One critiquing musician at the festival reminded students that they own that space, and if the sheet music stand or the audio at their station was not left just right from the previous band, they must fix it. It is now their space.

Jazz players demonstrate their learning in public. How well a student has learned jazz is public knowledge. What you know and can do is on public display all the time in practice sessions with fellow band members and, of course, in public performances. Unlike many traditional classrooms, there is no way to hide. Every student is exposed to embarrassment by mistakes. In a traditional classroom, the teacher is counseled not to embarrass students. It is actually against federal law for teachers to reveal grades on individual performance, even within the more private area of the classroom. The belief system in education these days is that you should not allow an unprepared and under-performing student to be embarrassed. What dingbat policymaker came up with that? I know; it comes from the perverse politically correct movement that ignores the reality that youngsters have to earn self-esteem.

Third is that jazz is ultimate constructivism. All teachers know about constructivism, which is the idea that students have to do something to show they have mastered the learning task. Student jazz bands and combos demonstrate personal accomplishment all the time in rehearsals and stage performances. But in many traditional courses, the main constructive thing students do is fill in circles on a Scantron test answer sheet. In science, “science fairs” encourage constructivism, but these are usually one-time events. Students need to be doing something every day to demonstrate their learning. In English, how often do students write and rewrite an essay, poem, or short story? Does anybody write book reports anymore? In social studies, how many students are required to explain and debate capitalism, socialism, fascism, democracy, and republican government? Do students in academic courses spend hours in deliberate practice and applying their learning comparable to what a jazz student spends in practice? 

Fourth, jazz is social. Jazz students perform as a group, either in a big band or combo. Recall the earlier example from the Katy festival, where the professionals had to emphasize this point by taking away the sheet music. Students had to learn to talk and listen to each other through their instruments. In traditional education, there is a movement called collaborative learningthe idea of learning teams, but many teachers don’t use this approach or do it without regard for the proven formalisms needed for success. Regardless of academic subject, students benefit when they learn how to help each other learn.

Part of the social aspect of jazz is competition. In many schools, many students don’t have to compete to get into a music class. But once in, they have to display learning in order to advance into more prestigious classes (think the “One-o-clock Lab Band" at the University of North Texas). In whatever music lab they are in, they have to compete for “first chair” in their instrument section. It is like competing to make the varsity and then the first team in sports. Where is the equivalent in science, social studies, or language arts?

The fifth point: Unlike a traditional education, where the goal is to meet minimum standards on state-mandated tests, jazz band directors make very clear their high expectations that everybody in each band class should become as proficient as they can. The whole point of their teaching is mastery and excellence, not just achieving minimum standards. They expect excellence, and they get it, as documented by the festival performances. Thanks to the unenlightened thinking of No Child Left Behind law, our public education has degenerated into “No Child Pushed Forward.”
And finally we consider the matter of reward. Somewhere in teacher college courses, pre-service teachers learn about “positive reinforcement,” and most teachers try to use these ideas to shape the learning achievements of their students. But jazz performance provides public reward, in the form of public applause. Is there anything comparable in the teaching of science, social studies, or language arts? Is publishing (inflated) Honor Roll lists in the newspaper the best we can do?

So in a nutshell, the reason jazz students do so well is because their learning environment is built around six motivating factors:

1. Passion
2. Personal ownership and accountability
3. Constructivism
4. Social interaction, both collaborative and competitive
5. High expectations
6. Reward

What I take home from attended these school-band performances is a renewed feeling that, outside of jazz music programs, our schools are letting our children down. These young musicians prove that when motivated and challenged, they can do astonishing things. The printed program for the festival concluded with the comment, “The future belongs to those who are able to capture their creative intelligence. Jazz music education and performance develop the ability to create and produce the ideas that are individually unique.” Why can’t the rest of education do that?

Reference: Klemm, W. R. 2017. The Learning Skills cycle. A Way to Rethink Education Reform. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

How Learning and Memory Relate to Free Will

One common definition of "free will" is that a person can decide or choose among multiple alternatives without being forced by physical laws, luck, fate, or divine will. Most of us feel we are in charge of our choices when no outside force requires us to make a particular choice. But it is fashionable these days for scholars to insist that free will is an illusion, a trick the brain plays on us. I will spare you the philosophical knots of specious assumptions and convoluted logic that that scholars tie themselves into.

Why do I bring this up? What has the "free will" issue have to do with learning and memory? Everything. Rather than memory dictating our choices, either we have chosen what to learn and remember or we can veto or amend the influence in our decision-making.

Human brains make choices consciously and unconsciously by real-time evaluation of alternatives in terms of previous learning from other situations and their anticipated usefulness. This learning occurs in the context of the learned sense of self, which begins unconsciously in the womb. The conscious brain is aware that it is aware of choice processing and makes decisions in light of such understanding. When a given alternative choice is not forced, the conscious mind is aware that it is not obliged to accept any one choice but is "free" to select any one of the available options. Such realization might even guide many decisions at the subconscious level. In either case, neural networks weigh the probable value of each alternative and collectively reach a "decision" by inhibiting networks that lead to less-favored alternatives. Thus, network activity underlying the preferred choice prevails and leads to a selective willed action. What governs the network activity causing the final choice is the activity in other networks, which in turn is governed by stored memories and real-time processing of the current environmental choice contingencies.
What usually gets left out of free-will discussions is the question of how a brain establishes stored-memory preferences and how it evaluates current contingencies. These functions surely cause things to happen, but what is the cause of the cause? Any given brain can choose within certain limits its learning experiences and stored memory. We govern those choices by what a brain has learned about the self-interest value associated with given contingencies. Brain circuitry assigns value, and values chosen are largely optional choices. The conscious brain directs the choices that govern value formation, reinforcement, and preservation in memory.

Now we are confronted with explaining how neural circuit impulse patterns (CIP) representing the sense of self can have a free will. First, I reason that each person has a conscious Avatar that brain acts as an active agent to act in the world on embodied brain's behalf, as explained more completely in my recent book. This is reminiscent of the 3rd Century idea of a homunculus, a "little person" inside the brain. The modern view is that this homunculus exists in the form of mapped circuitry.

Certain maps are created under genetic control. These include the topographic map of the body in the sensory and motor cortices. Then there is the capacity for real-time construction of maps of the body in space that resides in circuitry of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. Other maps are created from learning experience from the near-infinite circuit capacity of association cortex. What these maps learn is stored in memory as facilitated circuit synapses and deployed "on-line" in the form of CIP representations of what was originally learned. New learning likewise exists as CIP representations in sub-network populations.

The Avatar itself is a constellation of CIPs representing the conscious sense of self. Certainly, by definition, the Avatar can make choices and decisions. Wakefulness releases consciousness to make its own choices and decisions. Avatar processing is certainly not random, and presumably can occur with more degrees of freedom than found in unconscious mind.

If the Avatar exists as CIPs, how can something as "impersonal" and physiological as that have any kind of "will," much less free will. Let us recall that "will" is little more than an intent that couples bodily actions to achieve the intent. This kind of thing occurs even in the circuitry that controls unconscious minds. These circuits automatically generate actions in response to conditions that call for a response. Such actions are stereotyped and inflexible only when there is no conscious oversight.

Each alternative is represented as circuit impulse patterns (CIPs) within a subpopulation of brain, which be considered as constituting part of the sub- or non-conscious mind. Each population's activity interacts with the others - and with the CIP representation of the Conscious Avatar. When activity level in any one subpopulation reaches a threshold, it suppresses activity in the alternative representation populations, leading to selection of that population's activity as the choice result. The Avatar CIP is poised to influence activity in the alternative sub-populations and thus can help direct the final processing result.

The Avatar must have some criteria that its circuits use to make a given decision. Those criteria have been learned and remembered. When CIP processes operate in Avatar circuitry, the Avatar population activity can modulate the alternative-choice representations in the context of self-awareness according to the informational representations of past learning and value assessments of current contingencies. You might say that when the brain generated the CIPs to represent the sense of self, those CIPs came endowed with a certain autonomy and freedom of action not available to the other CIPs in the brain that constituted unconscious mind.

People who believe that humans have no free will are hard-pressed to explain why no one is responsible for their choices and actions. What is it that compels foolish or deviant behavior? Is our Avatar compelled to believe in God or to be an atheist? Is our Avatar compelled to accept one moral code over any other? Is it compelled to become a certain kind of person, with no option to "improve" itself in any self-determined way? Do learning experiences compel us to make our choices of learning experiences? Of course not. We are free to reject learning that does not serve us well.

It seems to this Avatar that current debates about determinism and free will tend to obscure the important matters of our humanness. The door to understanding what is really going on is slammed shut by assertions that value choices and the decisions that flow from them cannot be free because they are caused by neural circuit impulse patterns. Free will debates distract us from a proper framing of the issues about human choices and personal responsibility.

While it is true that genetics and experience help program the Avatar circuitry, the Avatar does its own processing and makes choices about who to interact with and what experiences to value, promote, and allow. The Avatar can insist that it has a need to remember some lessons of experience and makes it a point to remember it. In short, the Avatar gets to help shape what it becomes.

Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.
Klemm, W. R. (2016). Making a Scientific Case for Conscious Agency and Free Will. New York: Academic Press.