Leading by Example: Jazz in 21st Century Education

Leading by Example: Jazz in 21st Century Education
By JR Gould

When John Adams said, “There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other should teach us how to live,” he didn’t fully succeed in making the point he intended. Inherent in his well-meaning statement is a separation of two values: the productive (how to make a living), and the personally fulfilling (how to live). Schools which seek to thrive and lead in 21st century education can and should be imparting one education that addresses both of these important values simultaneously, and those schools’ music educators can and should be the leaders to whom they look.

America has a long and storied history in what are commonly called “academic” courses – reading, writing, arithmetic, and so on – which were emphasized as the important subjects for learning to make a 20th century living. Arts courses, those which are intended to teach us to value beauty, new perspectives, and meaning, have traditionally been seen as the less important “how to live” subjects. However in the 21st century, the arts are positioned to leap into academic prominence as subjects that develop both sides of the brain, build skills for the modern world, and prepare students for both productivity and fulfillment.

When it comes to cross-curricular programming, exercising the whole brain, and teaching important life skills, the arts – especially jazz – are uniquely equipped for teaching, well, everything. Music is a science, art, math, and language class rolled into one. Music is mentally and physically taxing, requiring both logical and emotional thinking. Playing or singing with others teaches both independence and teamwork, requiring precision and flexibility, demanding not only self-focus, but also cooperation. There are no sideline benches, time-outs, or star players to do all the heavy lifting. In short, music ensemble classes are a microcosm of the real world.

The world is starting to figure out what music teachers already know: people rich in artistic skills and experiences are among the most well-prepared for higher education and employment. Educational trends across the country and the globe have therefore begun to point toward a more well-rounded education being the key to the future. Experts like Milton Chen of the George Lucas Educational Foundation and Pat Bassett, former president of the National Association of Independent Schools, encourage educators to rethink whether the Three R’s remain sufficient in today’s world, and to move toward the four C’s: Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, posits that the left-brain tasks emphasized in traditional American education are being rendered less valuable by the Three A’s: The Abundance of material goods, Asia’s more affordable white-collar work force, and the Automation of blue-collar labor. He goes on to emphasize that the most valuable commodities that America can cultivate in this century are the more right-brain themes of Design, Symphony, Empathy, Story, Play, and Meaning. He holds up Apple as a shining example of a company that not only makes a well-engineered product, but makes that product sublimely beautiful in design and meaningful in our lives. In short, he encourages us to learn to make a living at living better.

If our schools are to provide an education that equips students for a life of both success and fulfillment, we must be willing to look forward and acknowledge the world in which we now live. A 21st century classroom should look as much like the real world as possible, and the real world has very few multiple-choice chapter tests. Life in the Information Age no longer requires the memorization of facts; most of us have the entire collected knowledge of the human race right in our pockets! The definition of “smart” is no longer just knowing things and passing tests on them, it is being able to think in new ways, imagine, predict, improvise, redesign, and work together to create something beautiful out of that knowledge.

As an example of how relevant the arts can be to a 21st century education, consider a high school jazz combo. By its very nature, this is project-based learning; the students will show their understanding of the music (and of the Four C’s) by playing it in front of an audience! The students engage in Collaboration and Critical Thinking as they rehearse and perform, making artistic decisions, solving execution problems, connecting history and language to emotion and physical action. They each Communicate with the audience and each other through Creatively improvised accompaniments and melodies, which require a delicate balance of strict timing, stylistic conventions and music theory against complete self-awareness, openness, and freedom to say whatever may be on their heart. It is small wonder why brain researcher Dr. JoAnne Deak, author of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, told our school’s faculty during a 2013 workshop, “If I could go back and put my daughter in one activity to help develop her brain from a young age, I’d choose instrumental music.”

John Adams could never have known how outdated the idea of two educations would become – that the most relevant education for our time would be an arts-integrated curriculum, rather than a curriculum plus some arts. Tradition and legacy are important, but they can be the enemies of innovation. As educational reformer John Dewey said, “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” Both men would surely agree that jazz educators uniquely equip their students to learn, work, thrive, and lead in the 21st century.