Why it’s important to play the recorder badly.

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So yesterday my friend Bonnie shared that her son had reached that momentous moment in his academic career: the playing of the recorder in music class. Her tweet gave me flashbacks to my days of teaching Grade 5, when one fine spring morning my class would troupe back from music clutching brand new recorders, and when, by lunch time, I’d find the music teacher in the staffroom with a suffering expression and a bottle of Tylenol. After a few occasions subbing for those music classes I wondered how she even made it till lunch time.


Anyway, Bonnie wanted a blog post on the subject of recorders, so here it is. As I’ve blocked out much of my memory of being in a classroom full of recorder-happy children in order to preserve my (admittedly tenuous) grasp on sanity, I wasn’t sure what I’d write about. I walked home yesterday afternoon thinking about recorders, their painful high-pitched squawking reverberating around my head. What is the point of teaching recorder? And why do the kids enjoy it so much?

As much as parents might think it’s simply a chance for teachers to indulge their sadistic sides, I think it goes further than that. I’m sure playing the recorder addresses music-y learning objectives like reading simple notes, practicing tempo, and so forth. And of course it’s a way to introduce students to the joy of playing a musical instrument (and to prepare parents for when their child returns home from the first Grade 7 band practice gleefully toting a french horn). But what occured to me, as I thought about it, is that learning the recorder gives kids an obvious, acceptable, and gloriously loud opportunity to fail.

Failure is essential to learning. Yet think about how failure is perceived in schooling. We shy away from failures, we try to mitigate failures, we cover them up. We correct students rather than giving them the chance to learn from those mistakes, to fix them, to try again. Only the most perfect papers earn a place on the bulletin board. Failure in the classroom is the disappointment, the shame, the resignation that comes with that big red ‘F’ on the top of a paper. Failure is punished instead of being celebrated. Failure is a finality rather than an opportunity to try again.

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I watch my four year old son as he learns. There’s no fear of mistakes, there’s no shame when things don’t go right. On our fridge are drawings of pink dogs, people with three arms, and a Tardis much smaller than the Doctor (our kid’s a Whovian – did you expect any different?). He builds and rebuilds Lego until it becomes what he sees in his mind. He reads aloud with confidence, knowing that it’s ok that not every word is perfect, that we’re there to help him when he struggles, to celebrate with him when he does get it right. Next year he’s off to school and I cynically wonder just how long it will be before all his dogs are brown, before he learns to fear trying.

As every parent, every teacher, and likely every child knows, kids are terrible at playing the recorder. But we also know that terrible is how it’s supposed to be. In a class with 24 other kids all blowing the wrong notes at high pitched frequencies there’s no shame in making mistakes. And that’s just what kids need – that safe space where it’s ok to fail, where, no matter how badly you mess up, you know the music teacher, with her infinite patience (and hopefully a good set of earplugs), will soon let you start from the top all over again.

Don’t worry too much, Bon – he will get better. It will still be painful – we are, after all, talking here about a 6 inch tube of plastic that really has no business being called a musical instrument. But after a bit of time, after a lot of failing, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” will finally start sounding more like Mozart and less like Metallica. The next day he’ll bring home the french horn.

Bye, Vancouver.

vancouverI’ve lived in Vancouver for most of my life.  I was born here and grew up here.  So were my mother and grandfather – our family here goes back well over 100 years.  I moved back here from England five years ago, after my dad died and my mother was diagnosed with dementia.  My son was born here, and, I thought, would grow up here as well.  But that’s no longer an option. Continue reading

The MOOC in sheep’s clothing


Yesterday, Tony Bates, one of the foremost academics working around online and distance education, wrote a blog post  announcing his retirement. He’s had a long, productive, and highly valuable career, and very much deserves to now focus on enjoying his retirement. But the reasons he shares for leaving the field now go beyond this, presenting a scathing indictment MOOCs and what they suggest for the future of education: Continue reading

It’s bigger on the inside


The Doctor: You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go.
Tardis: No, but I always took you where you needed to go.

I have a confession to make.  I don’t like the rhizome.  At least not as a metaphor for learning.  I’ve tried to like it.  I appreciate the idea of something that grows in many directions, extending shoots and feelers wherever it likes.  But there are parts of the metaphor I question: If a rhizome extends laterally, what does that say about deep learning?  What priviliges some shoots to thrive and others to fail?  And what drives the rhizome to stretch in the various directions it does? Continue reading

I like Michael Gove even less now

Gove gave a speech about education technology to the BETT conference this week.  I don’t know why I read it, nothing he could say would have been enlightening.  Or even rational.  Of course he gets MOOCs wrong.  Except for one quote:

“No government, for example, could ever have imagined the impact that Sebastian Thrun is having on 21st century education.”

I’m assuming by ‘impact’ he meant ‘damage’.  Cause not even Gove could be that stupid.  Could he?

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore…

So today I’m embarking on my first cMOOC.  Probably a good idea for someone who researchs MOOCs to actually take a few…
The course is on Rhizomatic Learning .  When I told my husband I was taking a course on rhizomatic learning he, understandably, asked me what it was.  I didn’t really have an answer.  So objective #1 for me in this course: figure out what rhizomatic learning is.  And learn to spell it without having to check each time. Continue reading

The greatest MOOC conference in the history of MOOCs!

I spent a few days last week at the MOOC Research Initiative conference(better known by the participants as the ice-pocalypse) in Arlington, Texas.  It was, without question, the best conference I’ve ever attended.  A relatively small group, it seemed nearly everyone was not just interested in MOOCs, but held a common understanding that there was so much more to them than what the hype and stereotypes would have us believe. Continue reading