Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Personal Intelligence Theory and Improvisation - How do we assess learning in a more meaningful way?


            Since I have been searching for a theoretical foundation for the type of teaching and curriculum I am attempting to design for my music students, I have been studying several theories of learning and intelligence in order to see if there is one that seems to support what I do. I have also been looking for theories with which I disagree so that I can position myself and develop a voice about where I stand and what I believe about how my students learn and how best to teach them. In the case of the work of Scott Barry Kaufman, I most definitely and wholeheartedly agree.
Like my students, Kaufman has struggled with a learning difference, and his experiences in school have motivated him, just like many of my students, to seek out some explanation of how he became the way he is. His book, Ungifted, tells his story, and also traces the history of our understanding of intelligence, culminating in his final chapter, the subject of these annotations, in which he creates his own, empirically supportable definition of intelligence, and outlines his own theory of intelligence, Personal Intelligence Theory.
Kaufman begins by reviewing the definition of intelligence put forth by fifty-two experts in the field of intelligence and published in The Wall street Journal in 1994:
“Intelligence is a very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. …it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings” (291).

First reading this definition, especially after studying theories of intelligence and learning by Howard Gardner, Lev Vygotsky, and David A. Kolb, it seemed to adequately capture the ways in which intelligence manifests itself. One thing is for sure, after twenty-two years of teaching, I know that “intelligence” manifests itself in my students in myriad ways. And many of them are not related to traditional academic skills, such as note-taking and critical writing. Not only that, I have seen Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences be used to pigeonhole my learning different students into a box that they can’t break out of and that limits their academic potential. So this definition, by its sheer wordiness alone, seemed to be hedging all of its bets and covering all of its bases. Most importantly to me, it speaks to the value of learning from experience. This is an aspect of intelligence that affects the way we approach almost every problem we encounter, and yet subjective experience is kept out of so much of our academic discourse. Kaufman seems to feel the same way about the depth of the definition, but asserts, “defining a term is one thing, measuring it is another” (291). This contradiction becomes the crux of his argument against so many prevailing definitions of intelligence, and the foundation of his own theories. The paradox is that, as Kaufman describes throughout the chapter, most theorists agree that intelligence is really much more than intellectual capacity, and yet our measures of and expectations of intelligence by and large focus only on this one element of overall intelligence. Therefore, our schools and our assessments only cover part of the picture; only teach part of the person. David Wechsler (of the WISC fame – the general IQ test that tortures my students!) has even said, “My main point has been that general intelligence cannot be equated with intellectual ability, but must regarded as a manifestation of the personality as a whole” (298). If we agree that intelligence is much more than just intellectual ability, why do we test students on one aspect of intelligence alone? And who decides what those academic skills are that best manifest intelligence? And why does this single test burden so many of us for the rest of our lives? Sure, intelligence is an amalgamation of affect, volition, intellectual capacity, and adaptability, but most tests of intelligence test only intellectual capacity. Do poorly on one of those tests, and you will be labeled for a long time. You’ll be deemed “ungifted”, as Kaufman coins, and your education will forever reflect that title in both the limited curricular offerings, and stilted expectations of your peers and teachers. This is, of course, ridiculous and unfair, and has both Kaufman and me asking the same question – why do we still bother with these tests at all?
Many theorists have tried to compensate for the shortcomings of IQ testing by creating other criteria that aptly demonstrate other characteristics of intelligence, but they all require testing as well, thus piling on test after test on a poor child who struggles with learning, all in an attempt to quantify something that we all know and see in our experience of that child, and that we know does not even need to be tested. Kaufman argues,
“From the very first test of intelligence, we’ve been operating in an individual differences paradigm, and have been stuck in that paradigm ever since. Attempts to go beyond IQ seem to just add on more individual difference variables, and slap the label ‘intelligence’ on them. This creates more tests, and more ways to compare one person to another on whatever tests of intelligence the psychologist has created. But here’s the thing: there’s no objective reason why society still needs to operate in this paradigm” (300).

Yes! I could not agree more. Why are we persisting in comparing our students with each other, when the reality of the world is that they will need to dig down deep within themselves to find their own inner strength and intelligence in order to achieve the dream that they want for themselves. I, for one, never wanted to fulfill the dreams of my English teacher. And while my dad seemed to have a good idea of what I should do with my life, I sure as hell wasn’t going to oblige with his goals. I knew what I wanted and have sought for most of my life to get there. How I compare with my peers has nothing to do with that, but that is how our schools have been set up. This is why my learning different students so often come to me beat up by school (metaphorically and yes, sometimes literally). They have been compared with their peers for so long, and they just don’t fit in with the arbitrarily defined criteria of what comprises intelligent behavior in school. They have been taught, essentially, to become helpless. They have no ability to dig down deep within themselves anymore because school has taught them that what they need can’t be found there. It can be found in some textbook they can’t read, or some test they can’t pass. And indeed, many of those books and tests are the exact walls that are keeping these students out of fulfilling, powerful opportunities.
So, indeed, I agree with Kaufman that we need a new definition of intelligence, and a new way to frame intelligence in the classroom, and a new way to assess it that more accurately captures what it really is, and the purposes it really serves in our lives. “For too long, there has been a mismatch between theory and practice” (300). Kaufman seeks to bridge this gap with his Theory of Personal Intelligence. Here, intelligence is defined as “the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals” (302). The most important parts of this definition, for me are the words, “personal goals”. I feel relief that someone is finally admitting that the hoops set up by traditional education are just that: hoops. They have been placed there for me to jump through, and when I get through them all, I can go do what I really want to do. Whether or not what I learn in school helps me accomplish my own goals has little or nothing to do with how I achieve them. My “intelligence”, as it was framed for me by my years of educations, is not related to “intelligence” as it is manifested every day in doing what I love to do. Kaufman expands on this by providing four basic tenets of his theory: “the self is a core aspect of human intelligence, engagement and ability are inseparable throughout human development, …both controlled and spontaneous processes can be adaptive for acquiring a personal goal, … [and] there are no ‘ten-year rules’ or ‘creativity thresholds’” (303-305). In my own words, I see these four tenets as meaning that, first, we must stop comparing ourselves with others. A grade in a class we take is a rating, a means of comparing how we did in arbitrarily defined assessments with our peers. Such measures are artificial in truly assessing an individual’s true intelligence, and by extension, their potential. Second, our engagement is intimately tied to our ability. By this, I’m not arguing for the ten thousand hours rule about talent, rather, I’m saying that time devoted to a domain improves ability. What do my students devote their time to? I’m not sure. I’m too busy assigning them papers in my English classes, and of course grading them to find out. And as Victor Wooten argues, “Many music teachers never find out what their students have to say, we only tell them what they are supposed to say” (TED-ed). As a music teacher, the work of which is most relevant to my research here, I have tried to rectify this problem, but much more on that later. The point here is that many students never get to demonstrate their intelligence because it is manifesting itself in an activity outside of the traditional norms of education, where intelligence is most commonly assessed. They are spending hours building computers in their basements, or composing songs on their laptops, or coding video games with their friends. The sheer time devoted to these tasks determines their ever-increasing ability. Not only that, Kaufman’s idea completely flips the concept of a linear curriculum - learn one concept and move on to the next. Instead, don’t be afraid to spend a great deal of time in one area, for the time devoted to it will increase intellectual capacity. Expecting our students to learn as quickly as we do is simply silly. Third, we view our traditional models of education as full of “best practices”. Once, while teaching in the inner city of Philadelphia, surrounded by students who could easily beat me up if they wanted to, I realized how absurd and precarious it was that they so willingly spent forty minutes a day sitting in my presence while I, standing in front of them, spoke. Not only, neither of us was particularly interested in the information I was spewing at them. Why didn’t they ever revolt? I like to think it was my rapier-like wit, or the fact that I’m an all around great guy, but I know that it really was nothing except learned behavior. We see controlled environments as the best ones for acquiring knowledge and striving towards goals. But control is not always a good thing. Sometimes spontaneity gets us much more. Sure, sometimes it causes chaos, injury, or some sort of property damage, but at others, it leads to brilliant decisions. Sometimes, decisions made in an instant of impulse, passion, or desire, can lead to life-changing realizations, like when I spontaneously dropped out of my first graduate school. I remember driving as fast as I could to get to my advisor’s office to tell him I was quitting. It was completely liberating, even though professionally, it was a crazy idea. That decision, made in one afternoon, completely changed the course of my professional life.
 Lastly, Kaufman’s assertion that there are no benchmarks is, in my experience, simply true. When my oldest daughter was an infant, our friends told us that by three months, she’d be sleeping through the night. Didn’t happen. The doctors told us, put her down and let her cry. In a half hour she’ll stop. She lasted four hours one night. Now, at age twelve, she stills wakes me up every night. Benchmarks are just one more comparative measure. We have to start asking, “compared to what?”
Of course, Kaufman’s theory, while I agree so strongly with it, has yet to be put through a serious battery of quantifiable tests. But one thing is for sure, his work flips education on its head, and I really like that. As a mostly self-taught music teacher working with students who learn differently, I have sought to teach in innovative, humanistic, intuitive ways. I have actively tried to stay away from traditional approaches to teaching music, learning music, and performing it. In this way, I feel that Kaufman’s Personal Intelligence Theory, along with a few other theories, informs and supports my work. Since I use improvisation as my main mode of teaching, students are able to play music at any ability and experience level. In this mode, all ability and experience levels are honored as the same. In fact, the least experienced player in an improvising ensemble is the default leader because their ability sets the standard by which all others playing in the improvisation will have to compare. I see improvisation as humanistic and fulfilling Kaufman’s tenet of placing the individual at the center of their own determination of intelligence, because every player in my classroom has equal value, and the spontaneous playing of any player at any time, regardless of experience or ability, can sway the entire class. In this way, we exercise both controlled and spontaneous processes in the work of helping students achieve their learning goals. In addition, improvisation requires a depth of engagement that completely removes the roles “teacher” and “student” from the relationship. Instead, when improvisation is happening properly, we are all equally and intensely listening like mad to each other, and focusing entirely on the goal of creating the most beautiful music we can in the moment. This is not only both controlled and spontaneous, but it also requires that all of us log serious engagement hours in the pursuit of increasing our abilities and creating beautiful music. Lastly, the idea that improvisation thrives on diversity of ability and experience is in line with Kaufman’s powerful argument against benchmarks. In the improvising music classroom, we are all learning at the same pace because we are all learning at our own pace. And each of those individual experiences of learning contributes equally to the power and beauty of the music.
            In the end of the chapter, Kaufman describes several examples of educational practices that he sees best fulfilling and playing out his theory. Through all of it he enthuses, “the full landscape of human intelligence really is so much more beautiful, exciting and hopeful than any single perspective can possibly reveal” (314). I completely agree with this, and seek to empower and give voice to as many perspectives as I can through an innovative, humanistic, intuitive approach to music education. Maybe Scott Barry Kaufman and I could get together for coffee one day and talk about it all!









Works Cited
Kaufman, Scott Barry. Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. New York: Perseus Group, 2013. Print.

TED-Ed. “Music as a Language - Victor Wooten.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.




Friday, November 25, 2016

Free Improvisation - November 25th, 2016 - Lap Steel Guitar


Pondering Part Four: One Quality Sound


When students first enter my music room, I begin to play music with them almost immediately. This is one of my favorite ways to greet them, especially those who come from more structured school environments, or who have little experience. It is so interesting to see how they react to someone who is inviting them to just make some noise and have fun. Most students have never been told that they are allowed to play freely on the instruments in their school’s music room. Many have been taught that there is a strict regiment of exercises that they must follow until they will be able to play freely. Perhaps this is true, but the way I see it, this is only true if one’s goal is to be a professional, world-class, virtuoso musician. What about if you’ve just had a bad day, and you need to make some noise? What if you’re a wiry teenager and you’ve had one of those weeks when you feel like no one ever listens to you? Maybe you just need to be heard.
 I love to listen to the sounds they create. We often begin with an exercise called One Quality Sound.  This exercise presents one of the fundamental truths of my approach to music – all music begins with one quality sound. If you can make a sound that authentically expresses who you are at that moment in time, then you can make music. In his guide for facilitating improvisation, Return to Child, Jim Oshinsky says, “One Quality Sound is one note or tone – just one! – that authentically expresses how you feel at the moment you sing or play it” (18). This is a total reimagining if what music instruction is. Notice Oshinsky’s use of the word “tone” in addition to “note”. “Note” implies a right or wrong choice. But “tone” simply means that you are to make a sound. And if you can make one sound, then who’s to say you can’t make two? Once you’ve made two, why not three? And once you can make three sounds on an instrument, why then you’ve begun to play a melody! By this line of reasoning, anyone has the ability to play any instrument; if only they are able to forget everything else they have learned about what is “right” or “wrong” about musicianship. If only they are willing to listen to themselves. If only they are courageous enough to let their inner voice speak.
The rules for what is right or wrong go out the window when we view music in this way. I take away the top-down instructional model that says the teacher has the right to dictate what the students should play, and in its place I set up a model where the student is the center, and their own sound, originating from deep inside them, becomes the measure by which I assess their musical ability. They create music based on what is happening inside them in the moment, not based on what someone else is telling them should be happening. In this way, as Victor Wooten argues, students can learn music the same way they learned to speak as babies.
 “Think about the first language you learned as a child. More importantly, think about how you learned it. You were a baby when you first started speaking, and even though you spoke the language incorrectly, you were allowed to make mistakes, and the more mistakes you made, the more your parents smiled... As a baby, you were allowed to jam…” (TED-ed).


Not only can this free play in the music classroom help break down the initial walls of inhibition and open doors to deeper understanding of music, it has the power to transform students. Beginning with the simplicity of One Quality Sound, I meet the students where they are, and permit them to discover the music that lives inside them, and by extension I give them the opportunity to be heard in a new way. Because my students learn differently, they have only been told what they are not able to do, and what they need to change about themselves in order to survive academically. But here, I have the power to throw that thinking away and ask them, “What do you have to say? How do you feel? What are you experiencing right now? What can we learn from that?”  I allow the student to show me what they can do. The experience of making music, of hearing and expressing the inner voice, becomes the teacher. I become nothing more than an awed listener. Arguing the value of such an experientially based approach to education, Malcolm McKenzie urges, “Let the students loose … They will soon convince the adults in the community of the learning that takes place there” (McKenzie 28).

Pondering Part Three: Underground Glitter Movement


When did you first hear music? How was it introduced to you? Were you told to sit and listen, or were you invited to dance and move? For many of us, we experience music as children in our family homes. Our parents bring their musical tastes into the minutiae of our daily lives. It serves as a backdrop of our growing, of our becoming aware. No one tells us not to dance and sing along to music when we are children. We are, in fact, encouraged to be silly, to be joyous in celebrating the sounds we hear. We move freely, we sing freely, we make sounds that reflect our inner voices. Then, as we get older, something happens. We learn about rules. Someone in school tells us we can’t sing. A teacher orders us to stop drumming on the desks. Our friends decide that certain kinds of music are no longer cool. Music becomes part of the social fabric, and along with that, it becomes burdened by rubrics, systems, and directives. The world of music is a place where exclusion is widely accepted, but this is antithetical to its purpose in our souls. And yet, we work so hard to entrap it in the rules of our society, while music’s sole purpose is to give voice to our own souls. And when we allow music to do this, to be a vehicle for our innermost voice, we find true joy in the act of making it, of hearing it, of being immersed in it, no matter what it sounds like.
As a music teacher striving to innovate, my mission has been to help my students rediscover that joy of making music. I want them all to enter into the air-conditioned kitchens of their minds and bodies, wherever that place is, whatever it is like. I want them to go back to that place of childhood, of innocence, of freedom from rules and agendas, and to find the pure joy of making music, of being heard, of creating freely with others in a dance of communication and energy.

Several years ago, a student of mine began the semester sitting silently in my class. I told her that she was welcome to sit quietly and listen to the music, that I would never make her do anything that was uncomfortable, but that I also would never stop encouraging her to break free from her fears and try something new. A few weeks later, I found out form her mother that she was an accomplished cellist, but that the music teacher in her previous school would yell at the students in music class who played “wrong notes”. She suffered from anxiety and this was something she just couldn’t handle. Her mother told me that she used to love to play the cello, but that this experience made her want to completely stop making music altogether. This, to me, is absolutely criminal. To silence a student in order to serve some phony ideal of what music should sound like is to use something that is essential to our humanity as a tool for abuse. It took a few months, but this student did find her voice again. She even formed a band with some of her friends, and their name perfectly encapsulated the freedom and joy that music can create and express inside us, indeed, the very purpose of making music at all – Underground Glitter Movement.

Pondering Music and Musicking Part Two: The Air-Conditioned Kitchen


The music always seemed to be the loudest in the summer. That was because the industrial-strength air conditioner was humming away in the window above the sink. She couldn’t stand the heat, so she spent most of her days in that kitchen. And even though she always complained about cooking, she certainly seemed to do a lot of it. She was either breading boneless breasts of chicken in crushed up Saltines, or stirring the meat sauce for one of her enormous batches of meatballs. She was Italian, and even though she had distanced herself from her family and her cultural background, she still held on to this most fundamental, stereotypically Italian-American tradition. The meatball. And she was one. Four-foot ten. I used to tease her that she could pose for trophies. At that height, she stood only a few inches above the stove. This worked out perfectly for her, though, as this placed her directly in front of the air conditioner vents spewing out climate-controlled air cooled to a brisk sixty-six degrees.
In my bones, I can still bring myself into that kitchen. Climbing the back steps, I can hear the air conditioner buzzing the window frame in which it sits. The back door swings heavily on that one hundred year old doorframe, and I enter through the dimly lit laundry room. The kitchen is separated from here by a swinging door, and I can hear my mother singing.
That kitchen never got out of the 1970’s. Orange ceilings with brown and yellow plaid wallpaper, the floors rutted with dents from the aluminum chairs framing the table. (I learned at an early age not to kick my brother under that table because a metal bar ran across the legs. It eagerly stopped my shins, preventing my foot from ever reaching my brother on the other side.) I see the table as I enter, and am immediately blasted by the cold, chemical breath of the air conditioner. It is so loud that everyone has to speak in a mild scream in order to be heard. But that’s not the only reason we have to scream. Part of my mother’s daily cooking ritual is her music. She likes rock and roll, and she likes it loud. She wants to feel the drums beating in her chest. She moves to it. A spoon is her microphone. As she cooks and moves, she sings as loudly as she can. She knows the noise bothers my father, and this makes her smile even more; she’s a bit of a trickster. What comes out of her mouth, what emanates from her body is a form of joy. The music makes her move, and the noise of it all is intoxicating.

Growing up, I loved to be in that air-conditioned kitchen. My earliest memories of music lie there. Even though my mother is longer here, deep inside my mind, there is a corner papered in orange and plaid, freezing in the climate-control, and she is there, moving to the sound of drums. It is pure joy.

Pondering Music and Musicking...



Take a log and carve a whole inside it. See that goat over there? Once it has been slaughtered, carefully strip all of the hair off its skin, dry it, and stretch it across the whole in the wood. Hit it.
Or, think of a wooden box. Empty out its contents, cut a few holes in the top, and stretch four wires across it. Take something hard, like a coin, in your fingers, and scrape it across the wires. Pretty, isn’t it?

Imagine the folly of a species driven to create tools that have entirely no function other than the creation of sound. Then, imagine them sitting in rapt attention as they watch others make sounds on those tools; listening for other purpose than the act of listening itself. How outrageous ...
Music makes us human. We all have the ability to make sound, and to use that sound to communicate the complex ideas swimming around our heads, making up our internal dialogue – the spark of the divine inside us all. I believe that this, a most fundamental definition of music, is an essential part of what makes us who we are. Our experiences of reality and how we process those experiences all factor into the sounds we make and are reflected in those sounds. In this way, as humans merely being on this planet, we create sound to communicate our truth. Sound emanates from the deepest parts of our bodies. We long for connection, we seek others who can understand us, and our music reaches out with gossamer fingers into the ether of reality, searching for a connection. This propels us through our experiences of daily life. It also compels me to teach.