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 is PERSONAL. 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 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.
How well a student has learned jazz is public knowledge. They can’t hide. 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. In marked contrast, it is against the law for teachers in other subject areas 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 policy maker came up with that? I know; it comes from the perverse politically correct movement that ignores the reality that self-esteem needs to be earned.
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 to students write and re-write an essay, poem, or short story? Does anybody write book reports anymore? Do students spend hours of writing and editing comparable to what a jazz student spends in practice? In social studies, how many students are required to explain and debate capitalism, socialism, fascism, democracy, and republican government?
Fourth, jazz is SOCIAL Jazz students perform as a group, either in a big band or combo. Recall the earlier example from the 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 learning,the idea of learning teams, but many teachers don’t use this approach or do it without regard to 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 off 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?
Unlike 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. They expect excellence and they get it, as witnessed by festival performances such as I saw. Thanks to the unenlightened thinking of No Child Left Behind law, our public education has degenerated into “No Child Pushed Forward.”
And finally, consider the matter of REWARD. Somewhere in the college courses of teachers they learned 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:
What I took home from this experience is a renewed feeling that outside of jazz music programs our schools are letting our children down. These young musicians prove that when motivated, challenged, and taught professionally, they can do astonish 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 doesn’t the rest of education do that?