only thing that interferes with my learning is my education"
Most of us in higher education know our subject matter. We
spend years reading in dark corners of libraries, searching
the internet for obscure bits of information, and many
lonely hours writing up our ideas. We have juries of peers
verifying what we know. Knowing is usually not our problem.
Teaching, however, is something for which we are given very
little guidance—an afterthought for our graduate programs.
After all, if we repeat back what we know, others will know
I was born and raised in New Orleans. While I am not a
musician, you cannot grow up in this city without being
affected by the music that permeates the air. It is the
soundtrack that plays in our heads. It occurred to me one
day while sitting in one of my favorite New Orleans jazz
clubs that everything I know about teaching I learned from
Jazz—America’s first original art form—confused the
classical music crowd when it began to emerge in New Orleans
in the early 1900s. It was spontaneous, improvisational, and
sexy. It was a product of the musicians, rather than the
composer and conductor. It was unabashedly multi-cultural
and a great example of what can come about when cultures
come together. But for all of its wonderful musical
qualities, it was maligned by proper society in New Orleans.
A 1917 article in the local paper, the Times-Picayune,
regarding New Orleans being the birthplace of jazz declares,
“We do not recognize the honor of parenthood, but with a
story in circulation it behooves us to be the last to accept
the atrocity in polite society, and where it has crept in we
should make it a point of civic honor to suppress it. Its
musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are
great” (Rose, 1975, p. 107).
Using jazz as a guide for teaching may also be shunned by
the “polite society” of higher education pedagogy, yet,
buried in the process of creating jazz is everything we need
to know about teaching and learning.
Teaching and learning necessitates cognitive, emotional, and
meta-cognitive skill building in which students learn to
know about knowing (Kolb & Kolb, 2009; Tanner, 2012). With
readily available knowledge and information, students can go
beyond memorization of facts to discovery and creation. In
fact, 21st century learning must go beyond memorization and
“teaching to the test” as fields evolve at a faster pace
requiring students to keep up with new trends and
information. Twenty-first century students, like 20th
century jazz musicians, will need multiple skills to develop
new ideas or risk becoming obsolete at a young age. In
response, professors will also have to make changes in their
Classes, whether directly or indirectly, will have to convey
not only learning, but the process of learning. Students
impacted by the process as well as the content become
motivated to learn more because they have the tools to learn
more. Knowing the process of learning allows the learner to
use information to create new learning or critical thinking
strategies to deal with a problem. This changes the role of
the professor from the “composer” to the “arranger” of the
class. Likewise, assessing outcomes shifts from knowledge of
content to use of content—how students play and use what is
presented to them.
Jazz, and learning jazz, is also cognitive, emotional, and
meta-cognitive. Players understand that there is a chord
structure and a melody, and there is also improvisation. The
chord structure and melody give the tune a frame. It is in
the improvisation that learning takes place for the
individual player. They use what they have learned to learn
more. Subsequently, others learn from that player. While
improvisation is used at times in other music forms, it is
most pronounced in jazz.
Discoveries in neuroscience revealing the biological
processes of learning are shaping both our ways of knowing
and the new ways in which knowledge is being created. These
developments are no more evident than in the fields of
science, where the shift toward learning for understanding,
application, integration and discovery is pronounced (Roehr,
2012; Brewer & Smith, 2009). Through work funded by the Teagle Foundation, my study of teaching and learning has
been informed by both the learning sciences and through
active cultivation of evidence-based practice. Here is what
I have learned about teaching and learning from the lens of
Start and End
With the Head
jazz, musicians start and end with what they call a
“head”—the initial chord structure and melody that all play
together before they go off into their solos. The musicians
establish the tune and play close to the melody line and
chord structure they read from the one page chart. After the
head is played, each musician typically takes a turn—a solo.
Improvisation is encouraged and stretches the music into
unknown areas, and thus new learning for the player. Other
players add accent notes while the drum and the bass keep
the beat and rhythm to support the soloist. Jazz tunes are
seldom played the same way twice (Ciorba, & Russell, 2014).
Yet the musician must stay within the rules—playing in the
correct key and notes within the scale with the occasional
grace note. The combinations are endless and take the
musicians and listeners to new places within the music’s
structure. Sometimes it gets messy, and sometimes it gets
downright hard to listen to when the musician tries out a
new combination. When each have played their unique solo,
the band joins back together to again play the head—that
original tune that gave the song its structure and purpose.
The head played at the end gives coherence to the song.
A good class also starts with the head—here is what we are
going to learn about today; here is what is known about this
topic thus far from the research. The professor can then
give an assignment to the student or the group to use the
information in creative ways that assist in new learning or
discovery. The learners experiment with the information.
They stretch it into new places, play with it and take
chances. When learners plays with the information, it sticks
in their minds in ways different from simple memorization.
Not only is the material remembered, but the learner now has
a new way to learn. Through a process neuroscientists call
“consolidation” and “re-consolidation”, new neural pathways
are created and the learner has less fear of charting now
familiar territory the next time (Alberini, 2013; Schiller
et al., 2010). What seemed
daunting and unobtainable becomes common as the brain learns
new material and new ways of learning. The new learning
becomes second nature, and the learner can take next steps
because of the confidence built from previous learning.
Play in the
class has a personality, as does each jazz tune. In jazz, to
play with the other personalities in the band, you have to
play in the same key to sound right to the ear. If someone
plays in the wrong key, the tune sounds discordant and is
difficult on the ears. When we approach a class in the wrong
key for the learners, what we say sounds discordant, and the
class does not go well. Sometimes there are those in the
group who are not familiar with a certain key. In that case,
the band leader may consider changing the key, which can
mean helping the class adjust to the teacher, or the teacher
adjust to the class. This does not mean dumbing down the
class; it means working with the class you have—play the
same song in a different key.
One seldom knows the personality of a class until several
weeks into the semester. Some classes are talkative while
some are quiet. Some classes are smarter than others, and
some classes are more emotional than logical. Classes are
essentially groups and often the professor has little
control over the participation level of the students (Fassinger,
1997). Overly quiet or overly chatty classes can be
frustrating to the professor. Like a parent and child,
“goodness of fit”—the compatibility of a class temperament
with the environment created by the professor—often
determines the outcome of the class. Parenting experts often
classify children’s temperaments as easy, difficult, or slow
to warm up (Thomas & Chess, 1977). Certainly these three
categories can describe the personality traits of many
In a good jazz jam, the band adjusts to the players, but at
the same time pushes the weaker players to a next new level.
No one is made to feel embarrassed if he or she is working
to their highest level, plus a little more. The band has an
awareness of all of the other players and their level of
play, and the experienced players remember that they once
played at that level too. The classroom, like the jazz jam,
can be designed to be a nurturing environment that
appreciates the present level of knowledge, and pushes the
student to the next level. In essence, the faculty and
students co-construct an environment that promotes learning
and communication between members based on personality and
ability (Sidelinger & Booth-Butterfield, 2010; Kimball,
2011). As the class progresses, they can take on more
difficult material, change the key and become more
Let Others Play
young jazz players learn the language of jazz, they build
confidence in their knowledge of their instrument and
playing in a group. They have learned through their
successes and flops how far they can take their instrument
and still stay within the set tempo and tone. They develop
what Bandura (1997) called “self-efficacy”—the belief that
they have the capacity to perform a designated task.
A good class is not about the teacher as much as it is about
the learner. Certainly the teacher must set the tempo and
tone of the class, but the real learning occurs when
students have a chance to play. When the teacher gives the
student room to “play” with an idea or task, the student
develops self-efficacy. Ownership in an idea or task
inspires students to participate and master a topic (Gibson,
Group work, debates, lab work, one-minute papers, flipped
classrooms are all meta-cognitive teaching techniques that
allow students to play with the material. As students master
the material, they move forward to master the next level of
material, as opposed to hearing a lecture and memorizing it
for an exam. For example, delivering a short history lecture
on a topic then teaching students how to do primary research
to produce their own work on that subject is more
instructive and inspiring than the traditional “sage on the
stage” style lecture/assessment format (Jafari,
2014;Chilwant, 2012; Mason, Shuman, & Cook, 2013).
Be a Witness to
musicians love to see others play well. Solos are often met
with nods of appreciation by other musicians as each take a
turn to impress the other with their impromptu riffs. The
other musicians maintain their supportive roles by keeping
the rhythm while the soloist creates something new (Monson,
1996). A good classroom is supportive of new ideas.
In classic models of teaching, the professor dictates what
needs to be learned. Through course lectures, readings, and
test, information is delivered and then assessed to make
sure the student learned what was required. Meta-cognitive
learning allows for creativity and discovery. Of course,
this sort of self-directed learning needs to be done within
the context of established course objectives (Gibson, 2011),
but students in a supportive class setting and given the
right supporting material will be interested in creating and
discovering more about the topic. They will become the
drivers of their own education and will think of themselves
as “learners” rather than “students”.
Jazz is often thought of as a group of people having a
conversation in a common language through their instruments.
Often in jazz sessions, one will hear the audience, and even
the players, mutter “Oh Yeah!” or “Play it!” This is a way
of saying, “I like that!” or “Good Job!” It is a witnessing
of the effort and the delivery of the “words” created by the
musician and the instrument (Monson, 1996). Of course, not
every effort is worthy of a trophy or applause, and a player
can usually tell if the effort fell short by the lack of
applause, or even worse, tepid applause. It is a signal to
try something different next time. Classrooms can be that
way with continuous feedback flowing among students,
instructor and the group as a whole.
good jazz musician has many tales of embarrassment—playing
in the wrong key, missing notes, or a solo that just went
bad. Sometimes the best learning experiences are mistakes
(Healy, 2014, Linquist, 1999, Mysliwiec, 2005). Rather than ridiculing the mistake, as too
often happens in classrooms and essentially shuts down
participation, experienced jazz musicians appreciate the
attempt, learn from the mistake, and move forward keeping
the song moving and leaving the learner with dignity and a
the new learning experience. Jazz musicians focus on the
process of creating jazz rather than the results. Results
will come when the process is learned and mastered. This
musical learning method emphasizes creative thinking over
rational/logical thinking. To do things right, the musician
also has to know how to do things wrong.
Constructivist education models work in a similar way (Milbrandt,
Felts, Richards & Abghari, 2004). While the professor may
know the answer, students are given assignments and tasks
that allow them to discover the answer and beyond. In this
model of teaching, professors set up the lesson for the
day—or provide the chart—and the students are then
encouraged to solo or play in small groups to discover the
answers and new learning experiences. This leads to what
Freedman (2003) suggests, "the mind creates knowledge in
response to the world, as it creates and recreates itself"
(p. 80). Students taking chances with the material changes
their perspective, expands their way of thinking, and allows
them to be open to new ideas and learning experiences
(Harrison, 2014) . These
students allow themselves to be changed by new knowledge and
experiences rather than being stuck in their ideas.
Make It Joyous
or Make It Sad, But For God Sake, Play with Emotion
period of time in old New Orleans, jazz was used to arouse
and excite men who were visiting the brothels in Storyville.
The thought was the faster they played, the more excited
they would become, so they would “jazz it up”. Still today,
most good tunes in New Orleans clubs end on a high note and
a great cheer from the crowd. Certainly we are not in the
classroom to arouse, but we should be there to excite our
students about learning. A good classroom has a sense of
excitement and zest that is determined by the excitement of
the professor for the topic. As Micciche (2007) states
“Emotion matters to teachers because the classroom is alive
with bodies, hearts, and selves, and because learning is
joyous, exciting, frightening, risky, passionate, boring,
disappointing, and enraging” (p. 105).
In jazz, that excitement is enhanced when the performer is
able to “swing” the music. Swing is an elusive term that is
more a felt experience than a defined term, but a listener
can easily tell if a tune has swing from one that does not (Promane,
2009). A tune without swing is dry and boring. A tune with
swing has toes tapping, bodies swaying, and heads nodding.
The audience becomes one with the band. In a good classroom,
students are engaged because the professor is excited about
the topic, engaged in the lecture and uses his or her voice
in a way that helps the students stay with the lecture.
Teacher enthusiasm is directly related to positive course
evaluations (Barth, 2008). Teacher enthusiasm encourages
students to become more involved in the learning process
(Patrick, Hisley & Kempler, 2000).
How does one create this excitement in their classes? Pay
attention to the audience, take control, teach things you
love, and do it with enthusiasm. Step away from the lectern
and talk with students. Walk around the classroom and enjoy
the vibe of students learning and always keep in mind that
learning is an emotional experience as well as a cognitive
experience. As much as teachers would like to think that
students will remember their every word, it is more likely
they will remember the feel of the classroom and the
connection with their learning process; create an atmosphere
for learning and the learning will occur (Keller, Goetz,
Becker, Morger, & Hensley, 2014).
Jazz as a Model
this article, I have attempted to illustrate that jazz, and
the process of creating jazz, may be an effective teaching
analogy for teaching in our university classrooms. Jazz is
creative, meta-cognitive, cognitive, relational, and
constructivist by nature (Biasutti, 2015). Jazz musicians
must have an understanding of music theory and know the
rules of jazz which makes this part of their learning a
cognitive process. The process of creating jazz
improvisation requires the musician to think beyond the set
melody and chord structure, thus making this part
meta-cognitive. Both are important to the song and this
process lays down new neural pathways and enhances critical
and creative thinking as players learn from taking chances.
Where a classical musician may have to practice a piece with
others several times to get the tune right and get the
approval of the conductor, it is not uncommon for a group of
musicians in a jazz jam to meet for the first time and play
a tune they may have heard only a few times and make new
music from one page of written notes and chords. Perfection
is not the goal in jazz. New ideas based on old ideas that
sound good to the listener and players is what is most
important. That is the creative pro-cess.
While those who may not understand jazz may see this musical
form as old and outdated, jazz musicians would argue that
jazz is always fresh and new because it is seldom played the
same way twice. New ideas are created each time a group
plays. It can also be argued as musicians perfected one form
of jazz they created other forms to move the music forward.
From those early mostly African-American musicians gathered
in New Orleans who consciously decided that music can be
made spontaneously without sheet music, to the swing era, to
bebop, hard bop, and todays modern jazz sounds, the music
has constantly changed and evolved toward greater
When we look at progress in the multitude of academic
fields, we can see a similar process. Creating new
complexity in music, as well as academia, is initially
controversial and often rejected by the mainstream.
Eventually the idea becomes an interesting thought and
gathers adherents before becoming accepted by the
mainstream, and the next idea, or paradigm shift (Kuhn,
1962), is introduced and the pattern is repeated. In all
academic fields, there are truths that need to be taught as
the cornerstone of the field of study. There are cognitive
facts that hold up the discipline. These are the charts that
hold up the song. Giving students opportunities to play with
the knowledge creates new knowledge (Gruber & Barron, 2011).
All new knowledge and paradigm shifts occur because someone
stepped outside what was known.
Good teaching and effective long-term learning is more than
memorization of facts. While most fields require a knowledge
of facts—the Periodic Table comes to mind—it is more
important that students know what to do with those facts.
That would best come through practice and playing with
information. How jazz is learned and played is a good model
for most teaching situations. Allowing students to play with
their own ideas within the structure of the day’s lesson
provides the student the opportunity to develop an in-depth
understanding of the material. As they make mistakes and
learn from them, students become more competent and develop
self-efficacy (Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran, & Lee, 2011). And that is good
teaching by any measure.
would like to thank Beth Moy from the Southeastern
Pennsylvania Consortium for Higher Education (SEPCHE) for
her support of this article and the Teagle Foundation for
its funding of the Building Faculty Capacity Through 21st
Century Teaching grant.
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