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Learning at its Best

Hustle and Flow

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the role competition plays in traditional American schooling. There are a whole lot of practices that schools and teachers assume are normal, natural and constructive, beginning with gold stars and ending with getting into Princeton.

Recently, the conversation’s been about Finland--and how they get such terrific scores on international tests without embracing competition. As we’re frantically racing to the top, Finland strolls past us, with their low-tech, no-contests approach: starting reading instruction at age seven, mixed-ability classrooms with no “special” education, a strong focus on belonging and cooperation.

It’s not that competition is an American thing, per se—witness countless World Cup uprisings—but that our educators automatically assume that there’s no classroom learning practice that can’t be enhanced by a rivalry. Even better–offer a reward. It’s habitual—it seems we all come pre-programmed to embrace B. F. Skinner, modifying classroom behaviors through a little low-rent psychology.

In my first 15 years as a middle school band teacher, I used all the traditional competitive practices, including a “chairs and challenges” system familiar to anyone who’s played in a school instrumental group: Teacher publicly ranks kids by playing ability. Kids challenge each other in teacher-judged playoffs to move up and down the “chair” pecking order. First chair players are designated leaders, getting solos and more interesting parts. Kids at the bottom of the ladder don’t get much, beyond the opportunity to go after their classmates.

The theory is that all kids will practice more, and thus improve. The reality is that most challenges and chair-hopping occur at the top of the heap; the kids down below slog along listlessly. And then drop out.

I wish I could say I ended the challenge system because my eyes were opened to its pedagogical inefficiency and questionable morality. Actually, I just got sick of having flute players crying in my office and drummers hiding each other’s sticks to prevent last-minute cramming before a challenge.

No chairs any more, I said. From now on, you’ll have assigned seats. I sat kids in mixed-ability groups and rotated the “good” parts and the harmony parts. If there were solos, anyone could try out, and the whole group voted. Our new goals: pursuing excellence and playing amazing music together.

Almost immediately, several things happened: My band program got larger. The kids with weaker skills improved, sitting next to stronger players and playing more challenging parts. In turn, my musical groups got better, as playing quality was more even across the group—allowing us to choose increasingly difficult and rewarding music. Kids who might have been last chair under the old system didn’t realize they were the weakest link, and signed up for solo festival, building even more personal proficiency.

And, of course, I had some complaints, from parents of former first chairs. The complaints lasted exactly as long as it took to flush the memory of chairs and challenges out of the system. And from then on—mixed seating was the norm.

Here’s something I learned from reading Alfie Kohn. The principle under most competitions is: Cui bono—who benefits? Whose ox will be gored if we stop competing? And whose star might rise? When chairs disappeared from my classroom—when there was no longer a list on the wall rank-ordering my clarinet players for everyone to see—kids were free to concentrate on becoming a music-making community.

It’s odd that competitive routines are so entrenched in school music programs. The party line on the benefits of music education is all about creativity, artistic expression and teamwork. Most music teachers, whose own fortunes in music school rose and fell on the chair system, are well aware of how uncomfortable it is to be worried about the person above or below you hawking your mistakes. It’s easy to forget about the power and pleasure of music, lost in guarding your position.

In creative arts, the ideal is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow–that place where you stop thinking consciously about performance and are fully lost in the beauty and delight of playing. Veteran jazz musicians depend on flow, a result of their deep knowledge and experience, to trigger inspiring improvisation.

Flow doesn’t often happen when you’re twelve years old, but I have witnessed student musicians lose themselves in peak experiences, awestruck after a glorious final massed chord, or closing their eyes to put a little more feeling into a passage. Why would we want to distract them from something as important as that?

About nflanagan

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She divides her time between wondering how things got so messed up and dreaming up ways to re-energize America's best idea--a free, high-quality education for every child.


10 thoughts on “Hustle and Flow

  1. Nancy, you always do such a great job of putting everything together in a way that makes sense. I once had the pleasure of seeing Alfie Kohn and Csikszentmihalyi at the same conference (but I heard about it through a business member). Coincidentally, I was just thinking about Csikszentmihalyi today, because we are so involved in so many different activities, regroupings, tiers, remediation, etc. that I don’t think our students ever have time to get into true flow. Right now we are so invested in collecting so much data (whether it’s valid or not) that we’re testing and measuring constantly. Removing competition and some of those measurements can be so beneficial to our students.

    Posted by Susie Highley | December 1, 2011, 10:31 pm
  2. teacher is one who teach us when we doesnt know anything………..nice stuff about teacher and always give respect to your teachers.

    Posted by Erzieherinnenstuhl | December 1, 2011, 11:34 pm
  3. Love this: “When chairs disappeared from my classroom—when there was no longer a list on the wall rank-ordering my clarinet players for everyone to see—kids were free to concentrate on becoming a music-making community.”
    I’ve been both a band student and teacher, and I also noticed kids getting stuck into a chair almost from the beginning. The gap between first and last chairs seemed to widen exponentially in high school. Always hated the competition aspect of “playing for chairs”; I felt like the process sucked the joy out of music-making (this was one factor in my decision to switch to elementary music in a state where competition is king). I teach music at an elementary school and have an after school choir program where I choose kids (who WANT to sing) based on behavior and responsibility. While working on Kodaly certification this summer the professor was flabbergasted that I chose this method instead of having an audition-based honor choir. I’ve had similar results as you (on a smaller scale) in that kids who have trouble singing on pitch all of the time have improved from the extra singing practice and the peer support. Confidence levels have gone up simply from a sense of belonging to group and we’ve cultivated a community of kids singing joyfully without being self-conscious. The sense of community has really helped students who “walk the line” between good and bad choices sometimes. Incidentally, this year my school started implementing Tribes and it has worked beautifully in my music classroom.
    I enjoy your blog very much and look forward to reading more.

    Posted by Karen Y. | December 2, 2011, 2:35 am
  4. I love your bottom-up reform here. In the end that is the only effective way to re-make the current system from within. Your post brings home the lesson of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” again to me. You saw the system in all of its raw, naked power struggle. And you turned away from it. Thanks.

    Posted by tellio | December 2, 2011, 7:16 am
  5. I remember self-sabotaging so as not to be first chair ever.

    I am fed up with pop #edreform’s insistence that the US could never have a school system like Finland’s because of demographics. First, that’s an opinion – it’s pure punditry. It’s not an experimental design, let alone any kind of actionable data.

    Second, it’s tremendously fatalistic in that it suggests we can’t have any system other than the one we have, so we better fix it, rather than imagine a better system. Cui bono? Politicians, vendors, and, honestly, some families that get opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise get at their home schools. The politicians and the vendors will always put those families and their needs (which are created, in large part, by a school system we refuse to reinvent) in between critics and themselves.

    Finally, pop #edreformers are blatantly hypocritical when they say what works in another country could never work here in the US. It’s either an uncritical hypocrisy or – worse – a political decision these “reformers” have made to contradict themselves because no one with any power can call them on it. Why is it hypocritical? Because pop #edreformers say things like, “Demographics are not destiny,” and, “A child’s education shouldn’t be determined by his or her zip code.” How can you simultaneously say that we shouldn’t try out ideas about teaching and learning from another place, but that the place a kid lives shouldn’t limit his or her education?

    You can say exactly that if you benefit from what’s going on more than you would benefit from a democratic public school system that would provide a freer education for our kids.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 2, 2011, 8:01 am
  6. Nancy, This is a wonderful post, complex and elegantly simple. Thank you for the vivid example of the elimination of the chairs as a testament to what happens when individualized competition is eliminated as the central motivator for learning, and other sensibilities are allowed to enter the room, to play and make music.

    Another piece I find compelling about the argument you make here–one that I’ve been on board with for years after reflecting on my own most powerful learning experiences–is that individual competition assumes that there is only so much “merit” and excellence possible, in human cognitive and creative terms, and that we must fight and grab and battle for it. In school, excellence is zero-sum: some (usually the most privileged) have it or have tools to fight for it, and the rest must do without. And in assuming this as teachers and administrators, we make it so.

    The individualized competitive model also fails to tap the diverse powers of the group, as you so beautifully describe. As George Lakey writes, in his beautiful book about adult learning, (Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners, 2010), when we allow the differences in our learning and being and performing come into the room, everyone gets better faster and more powerfully because the group is always more skilled than the individual. That’s a band, playing together.

    Love playing with and learning from/with you,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 2, 2011, 2:53 pm
  7. The only real competition any human will ever face is within him or herself n subjecting kids to, especially young children may lead to affective disorders such as anxiety and depression. That what Bill Gates perscribe, competition but bill gates was also accused and convicted as using ANTI COMPETITIVE practices in his Microsoft elimination of Netscape, the first web brouser and is still dogged by a law suite regarding using monopolistic power to squash Word Perfect.
    Enough with high stakes testing, it is damaging, especially for younger children.

    Posted by momzer | December 4, 2011, 11:26 am
  8. I really appreciated learning about your personal experiences with eliminating competition from your own pedagogy, and the blossoming of the community at large which resulted. I’m most interested in and excited about learning practices which collectively challenge social/political/economic business-as-usual, rather than preparing kids and communities to participate in them as is. The discussion you raise here is a concrete example, and your testimony is inspiring. It sparks on a small scale what we need to manifest at large–the understanding that competition alienates and imbalances, while collective struggle can provide us all with what we need. Thank you so much for your generous perspective.

    Posted by rad fag | December 7, 2011, 4:03 pm
  9. I so appreciate all the good thinking in your comments. As Kirsten notes, it’s a gas to learn and play with all the folks who ramble the halls of Cooperative Catalyst. Another version of this blog, posted in another site, drew the exact opposite response: The only way to improve is compete. Competition is what makes America great. So you’re one of those teachers who believes self-esteem is a real thing? Etc etc

    Posting it here and reading your thoughts is a long drink of cool water. Angry commenters don’t generally change my mind, especially about the necessity of competition–although they do make me think. And what I think is this: my 30 years’ experience IN the classroom (where I was paying attention to the results I got) trumps that of economists and businessmen who think their ideas as observers of a “failing” system are just the ticket.

    Thanks, all.

    Posted by Nancy Flanagan | December 8, 2011, 1:17 pm


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