Quality School and Outstanding Teachers

What kind of school is best for children and adolescents?

How to choose a school...

I am often asked - What kind of school is best for children and adolescents? Initially I considered creating a list of attributes to evaluate schools. However, having such a list and using it becomes problematic. What criteria would be used? Who will judge the selection of the criteria? How could it be used accurately? How can bias be removed? Would the criteria be standardized or localized? Too many questions.

A second option was to suggest deciding by the quality of a teacher regardless of the school. This makes sense when one considers good teachers and bad teachers can be found in most schools, making the selection of the teacher possibly more important than school selection. However, the standardization of schools, which has resulted in a standardization of teachers, causes one to rethink this strategy. Mandated curriculum within school districts are meant to remove individual freedom so there may no longer be significant differences between teachers within schools themselves. This standardization of teachers may not so much be a decision for teachers themselves, but imposed on by adminstrative mandates. While this is not to minimize the importance of good teachers I think it best to consider results and in a manner that is fairly easy and dependable.

To investigate this idea what outcomes of good schools and good teachers can be observed easily by watching or talking to students? What kinds of daily experiences and interactions do children and adolescents have to prepare them for limitless possibilities in their future. A key attribute seem to be motivation. What motivates today’s children and adolescents long enough for them to experience the empowerment of learning? What empowers today's children and adolescents? Video games, television, movies, music... Music? Music is something which has motivated me, my children, and grandchildren and many other people through all stages of their lives. Therefore, let's reflect on musical outcomes related to motivation and empowerment. Hopefully, those thoughts will provide insight as to what good schools and teachers are better at doing.

How is music motivational and empowering children and adolescents? What causes us to turn on the music? Spend hours learning to play an instrument or write music? To constantly seek more, appreciate variety, new pieces, and new musicians? What fuels a desire to seek quality music? It has to be related to the kind of responses a listener has when involved with music. If they think a piece is awesome, they want to listen to it again and again, find our more about it or the composer, or find other similar pieces to have similar quality experiences. Experiences which cause us to be wrapped in a richness of sounds and pitches in harmony pushing against us rhythmically from all directions with a feeling of floating in a river of sound that takes us on a journey with our personal thoughts and feelings. Experiences you eagerly anticipate and look forward to with confidence.

Musical experiences which are selected by children and adolescents are empowering and motivational. Why are they? And what might be a relationship to quality experiences, teachers and schools?

First, let's give this experience a descriptive name. A word whose definition is this experience. The first word that came to mind was appreciation. Which describes what people have for the experience and the music that is capable of providing it, but it doesn’t communicate the power of the experience itself or the emotional charge a person has from such an experience.

This led me to think about athletes being in "the zone" when they have an incredible game and how athletes describe their experience as being in the "flow" of the game. Acting and reacting without conscious thought, make the appropriate move because one has repeated it so many times before that it is automatic. But, that is more descriptive of musicians when they perform a piece of music, which should be the goal. However, what about all the previous experiences which are more like the listener, which should also be included. How could both be included?

This lead me to think of using two words: powerful experience, productive experience, appreciative experience. Not very catchy, but they seem to convey the experience with appreciative grabbing the importance of an experience that is empowering and emotional enough to be rated as an outstanding experience. One which is valued enough to continually engage in with the desire to discover more meaningful emotional experiences. Empowerment to choose your own experiences of quality so they might enjoy one experience after another. Appreciative experience may not have the glitz I had hoped for, but it will suffice.

Let's consider an example of an appreciative experience. There are many different tastes in music, but I will pick a classic that many people enjoy and are familiar - Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Most everyone who has listened to a live performance of this masterpiece or a good recording of it has had the hairs on the back of their neck stand up when the cymbals crash and the cannon fires. You just want to stand, throw your arms in the air, and experience the joy that comes when listening to an outstanding piece of music. You are not listening to any one particular instrument. You recognize the cymbal crash and the cannon boom, but if you think about either too long the musical high from the appreciative experience will stop. If you stop thinking about the cannon and return to the full blast of the Overture you climb back up the musical high and float with the music until the vibration of the final note dies away.

I think we all agree that quality music provides appreciative experiences, but what about other kinds of music? I find it rare that a solo artist or a small group of musicians, and once in awhile a soloist, are able to perform at a level to induce appreciative experiences. I do find some popular music is able to achieve this, but to do so the lyrics, arrangement, and quality of instrumentation must support each other optimally for the music be an appreciative experience. When this happens there is enough going on so the listeners’ senses are activated for maximum input. He or she becomes excited and stimulated to a high degree to listen and hear everything. Yet during this mental stimulation the body becomes relaxed. The brain may flash the identity of different instruments, but only in the briefest communication so as not to distract from listening to everything by focusing on a particular instrument or singer. Flashes of recognition for sounds being made by violins, flutes, a saxophone, snare drum, base guitar, tom drums, high-hat, rhythm guitar, trumpets, and maybe a lead singer and background singers. Once the different sources of sound are recognized it becomes possible to hear each different sound simultaneously among all the different sources within the piece of music. Does a listener actually need to identify what is going on for them to have an appreciative experience? Is it possible for a person to have an appreciative experience without knowing a lot about how the production of the piece was achieved.

Is there a difference between an enjoyable experience and an appreciative experience? Do you enjoy music or can you appreciate it? Try an experiment. Think of a piece of music that you like and think it is quality music. It should have a variety of instrumentation, a combination of vocals and instrumentation, or something that provides a range for this listening experience. Find a good set of head phones or a location where you can sit, relax, and really listen to your selection without interruption. Adjust the volume and balance of the head set so that it sounds as if the music is inside the center of your head. No, it doesn’t have to be loud to achieve this. In fact if the music is too loud it will detract from the effect. Start the selected piece of music, relax and listen. You may want to close your eyes for better concentration and listening enjoyment. Try to identify what instrument or singer is making which sound, but as soon as you identify the sound or instrument stop focusing on it and let it blend back in with all the other sounds. Keep identifying sources of different sounds until you have identified all or the major groups. Listen to the range and variety of rhythms and pitches for each instrument and singer. Listen to how the different instruments and singers combine to create harmony. Then listen to the song and try to hear them all together. Relax, enjoy, and an uplifting feeling will come over you. Is it the feeling of joy or appreciative experiences or both? What is the difference?

The difference is knowledge. Knowing something about music to move from understanding to appreciation for the mastery the musicians possess. And as one knows more the appreciation is stronger with the ability to recognize the unique quality of the music and the artistry needed to perform it.

Sometimes popular music can provide an appreciative experience. Often it is achieved not singularly with music, but with a combination of music and a message. Two pieces that did such with a political message:

American Idiot by Green Day (musical video). It has within it short runs where the artists created and performed a piece of music that achieves, for a large number of listeners, a musical appreciative experience. Listen to this piece and see how the appreciative experience rises and falls during the song.

Another from the summer of 2006 was the Dixie Chicks song and video Not Ready to Make nice from Taking the Long Way. It was number one on VH1 surpassing all previous records for consecutive weeks as the number one video. The lyrics, orchestration, and singing in that piece has enough power and emotional appeal to create an appreciative experience for many listeners that had the knowledge to understand the message and appreciate the musical interpretation. Without the power that is created by quality musicians, a quality composition, or the communication of a powerful message there can not be appreciative experiences and without appreciative experiences children and adolescents would’t listen to music. Think about it?

Within American culture music consumption is way out of whack with the promotion of music. There are very few cultural pressures on children and adolescents telling them to study music, that music is important in their lives, that more music needs to be taught in schools, or that America needs to be number one in the world in music. There is no national agenda stating that all children by third grade need to be able to music. Yet almost every adolescent is fluent in popular music.

Could it be schools today are trying too hard to teach? Has the information taught in schools evolved to a point that it can not create for students appreciative experiences?

The first years I taught in a public elementary school I taught reading with reading groups, had students review vocabulary for a story in a basil text, read the story in a basil reader, and discuss or write answers to questions about the story. All to help students build vocabulary and improve their literal and interpretive comprehension. In skill groups students worked on skills that accompanied the basil series through practice sheets in a workbook and skill maintenance packets. As the years rolled by and distractions from reading increased I actually decreased the amount of time I spent on “teaching reading” while maintaining the same amount of actual time for reading class. The decrease in teaching reading was achieved by allowing students to choose what they read. Most chose chapter books. Skills were still taught, but students could pick and chose different activities and ways of learning and practicing those skills. Students read more and the selections they read included literary structures that were, on average, more advanced, than the basil reader. There was more reading and application of reading skills applied outside of reading class and the class average on achievement tests improved. The more the students were able to chose an appreciative experience the more they read, the better they were able to read, the more they learned, and the more they wanted to read and learn.

How does this help answer - What is the better teacher or the better school?

I believe the more schools empower teachers to provide students opportunities to make meaningful choices so teachers can provide opportunities to encourage and facilitate student learning to higher achievement through appreciative experiences, then, they can better faciliate students understanding of important powerful ideas, which will maintain children’s curiosity to build a passion and ability for learning that will be sustained for a life of learning. It is the appreciative experiences that motivates. Schools and teachers who understand this will have the highest rates of achievement. They will seek to understand the needs of their students, provide appropriate experiences, and motivate through encouragement, success, and appreciative experiences. This combination over time will develop the intrinsic motivation needed for students to achieve their potential. Nothing more powerful in motivating students will ever be found.

I have always enjoyed learning and reading is a big part of that. I believe children, adolescents, and adults are constantly learning. However, if they lack sufficient appreciative experiences in reading, they will not read or they may read enough to get by, but not be motivated to choose or seek reading experiences. To overcome this, I believe we need to encourage students by providing choices not only in their reading, but for all their educational experiences. This is needed to increase the likelihood of a critical mass of appreciative experiences to achieve self motivation and become empowered for life long learning. The more we “teach” rather than allow learning to happen, the less likely a love of learning will be achieved. Children, adolescents, and people in general will be empowered to discover their own passions for learning. Learning something well enough to create appreciative experiences for that learning or subject. Teachers within quality school systems are secure enough to know when to stand back, when to encourage, and when to ask for more. This is what happens in quality schools. Therefore, to find or choose the best school, look at what students are doing and how it is or isn't empowering them to personally seek productive appreciative experiences.

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes