Yearly benchmarks and assessments saturate the current educational climate. We set expectations; we test; we measure. The results determine what we—students, educators, administrators, government overseers and parents—declare good, or not good, in education. Through this, the community conditions itself to view annual test scores as the indicator of a school’s failure or success.
There are gains to be made from this sort of thinking. Children need to be educated, and they can and should be tested. But if the immediately measurable becomes the sole marker of a quality education, what might we lose?
Since September, one of my kids has been a part of Rock Our World 17, a project connecting students around the world through technology and the arts. Carol Anne McGuire, a teacher and specialist in integrating technology, founded the project in 2004. Classrooms apply to be part of the project. If accepted, they spend several weeks working collaboratively.
The primary collaboration uses Apple’s GarageBand. Each class creates a 30-second drum beat track. They send that drum beat to another participating classroom, and receive someone else’s drum beat. They listen to the new track and add another instrument to it. The tracks get passed along 8-12 times, and at every stop, one more instrument is added. When the track returns to its originators, it may contain the work of students from places as varied as Australia, Belgium, Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland and Tasmania, as well as many schools across the United States.
In addition to producing the musical component, participants in ROW 17 also take photographs on the theme “Smiles in 100Languages.” Students plan and create pictures that make people smile, show people being made to smile, or both.
ROWers also video chat with other participating U.S. and international schools, asking questions and teaching each other—sometimes about language and culture, other times about technology tools and how they are used. Our local kids talked to students in Canada and Hawaii.
Our area project leader, music teacher Michael Medvinsky, sees value. In an interview, he described the GarageBand collaboration process for me, how our local students brainstormed ways to contribute to each track. They voted to determine what idea to pursue each time, and then trusted their classmates who play or sing to execute their ideas. ROW, Medvinsky said, helps students learn that we all aspire to expression—self-expression. The students see this in both their classroom experience, as well as in the work of other classes.
Medvinsky also pointed to all the technology the kids learn to use: FaceTime, Dropbox, GarageBand, working with MIDI and Skype. He believes that the greatest value is that kids see themselves as a part of a global community. Through the lens of music, ROW broadens the students’ perspectives and helps them understand how they fit into a whole world of their peers.
All this sounds wonderful, but that is a problem. “Wonderful” is not an educational benchmark. It is not measurable. Given the climate in education, something being wonderful may arouse suspicion. Is it fluff? What’s the point of this? Can you measure creative output, collaboration, flexibility, and asking questions?
I can’t think of a way, and yet I agree with Medvinsky. I know this project has value. I know it because I watch my son’s understanding shift. He sees himself and his classmates differently. He learns, through this time of working with others to make art, that they each have something unique to offer. He sees the world differently. States and countries once thought of as spots on a map are now populated with creative, fun people with whom he can exchange a smile or a song—people curious about the world, people like him.
He sees technology differently. It’s not just a source of entertainment, but a tool for real work and education and creative expression.
And he sees learning differently. My son’s class video-chatted with a local professional photographer to learn about photography. The photographer, Jeffrey Bennett, let the students direct the conversation. This shift in responsibility caused my son to pay more attention to and celebrate good questions. According to Bennett, some of the questions amazed him, and his answers amazed the students, creating a sense of community and delight.
ROW takes the long view, meaning the full rewards of this project will not come until much later. It reinforces artists and the arts as being a valuable part of, as well as a source of, community. It reveals that technology is more than YouTube and video games, it shows kids that technology is a tool and is useful for working, collaborating, creating.
From this foundation, I imagine the possibilities for my son. Being exposed to technology at a young age will change the way he thinks and solves problems. Knowing the capacity of current technology may stir him to dream of future technology, and ways to use that technology. These are building blocks toward our future.
ROW also puts him in a different educational environment—one that values individual contributions to a community. It honors people, processes, playing, and product. It allows kids, and everyone else involved, to experience and be filled with wonder, to marvel at the world, to practice asking questions and to gather information from people in an immediate way. It’s cheaper than travel yet yields some of the benefits of travel: a change in venue.
I hope this sort of learning shakes us loose from our benchmark-only conditioning. Students and schools are more than bar graphs. While some learning can take place now, and should be measured now, I want to see schools with an eye on the future, creating an ecology that lifts our vision, helping us see ourselves rightly: as creators, thinkers, collaborators, individuals who are a part of something bigger, people wise enough to call the immeasurable good.