On Jazz Teaching and Lesson Sequencing

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

I was drawn into 2 conversations today: one about jazz teaching, and another about lessons and topics, and how they don’t always mesh nicely.

Lessons & topics:

Animated example of LZ77 data compression algorithm. (C) K.Becker

Michael Pershan‘s blog post about sequencing lessons:

A quick thought on sequencing within units

So instead of trying to craft my units into well-told stories, what I think I need to do is craft every lesson into a good story, and use my units to develop themes and concepts.

Why would we think that knowledge should fit neatly into lesson sized chunks? We seem to – I struggled with that too for many years until I finally accepted the fact that concepts don’t necessarily fit the format of formal education, no matter how much we may want them to.

I guess what’s different about this for me is that there’s no particular day when I can say, oh, we handled composition today. Learning of any single topic is being distributed over an entire unit. But those units are also connected to each other, so the big themes, ideas and skills need to be distributed in a similar way over the entire course.

The tricky part about this (aside from the actual teaching, I mean), is that neither you nor you students can sit down at the dinner table at the end of the day and say what you learned (or taught) in a single sentence. That doesn’t mean you didn’t learn something. (A word of caution though – this may also mean you actually DIDN’T learn anything new.)

Jazz Teaching:

Teaching Numbers Systems using Multiple Intelligences (C) K.Becker

I first came across the term “Jazz Teaching” in 1999 through an article written by Paul Weinstein. It profoundly affected how I thought about teaching. It was incredibly liberating – I was headed in this direction already in my teaching, and having someone else describe what I was doing gave me the validation I needed. Having a cool name to put to it didn’t hurt, of course.

Today, Frank Noschese tweeted about it in a conversation with Michael Pershan: (here are a few snippets)

FN: In the beginning, my planning took a content focus — WHAT do I want students to know. Now my planning is task focused — the HOW.

FN: While lessons are similar each year, I don’t think I’ve done the exact same lesson twice. Probably not good for my sanity.

MP: Are these decisions that, you feel, there’s an optimum solution to, or is it different with each batch of kids?

FN: Kids, time, what I want to emphasize, equipment … Lots of factors.

FN: I’d say experienced teaching looks a lot like jazz.

Jazz involves: improvisation, experimentation, hooks, bombs, attitude, and, the occasional nugget. Good teaching involves all those things too. And, like good jazz, good teaching demands that you understand your subject well enough that you can shift, adapt, and improvise on the fly. In order to do that, you need enough experience that your repertoire of tools, approaches, examples, and so on is wide AND that you have tried most of them on sufficient numbers of students that you know each has merit. Once you possess sufficient tools and experience, you can try new things on the fly and adapt them to the situation as needed.

While I will grant that there may be the occasional virtuoso, almost no-one is talented enough to teach this way when they are just starting out. Remember that 10,000 hours thing that Malcolm Galdwell talked about in his book Outliers?

Good teaching takes talent, a great deal of experience, and a willingness to critically examine everything you do in the classroom, every day.

You also have to recognize that the teacher should never be the star: it’s not about you. It’s about what you are trying to share.

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