Skip to content

Teaching learning, teaching for learning, or teaching learning through living?

Learning and understanding learning is one of my favourite topics and I love tinkering with how people think and what it means for learning and life. This post is a short reflection on a conversation between Stephen Downes and George Siemens as a part of the open connectivist ‘class’ #el30.

George began with a lovely sentiment that we as humans learn. As long as we live, we learn- whether as intentional, sub-conscious learning or otherwise – we learn.

I do believe that is a truth. He then went on to ask a valuable question:

Why are we teaching in a way that is counterintuitive and not personally satisfying to students? 

-What should we be teaching in our school systems.

(As an aside, I have an issue with the ‘system’ – the first time George said ‘school system’ far earlier on in the conversation, I twitched and thought – oooh a Freudian slip there- why would he call it a ‘system’ when school and learning should be anything but ‘systems’. A system makes me think of flow charts and expected outcomes, pre-conceived and defined content, outcomes, answers, and worse – commercialisation. I’ll leave that thought in brackets so it doesn’t pollute the rest of this post!)

I prefer learning as part of a journey. I might go a bit down the road and then perhaps for the course I’m on, I look around and document my journey so far. For me there is no ‘arriving at the answer’ even if there is an externally observable outcome like a performance. That is a stepping stone and I stand in that place at that moment, it is not an answer. If there was an answer to have, I promise I would have put my money where my mouth is and bought that one already.

About an hour before this George-Stephen chat, in Stephen’s conference presentation, he asked:

Why would we employ tests and quizzes ‘inside’ the learning environment when the learning [we aim for] is intended for use ‘outside’ the learning environment – in life & work? It’s about application in context, not memorising content.

For me the bigger question is about the purpose- both the personal, community, and collective perceived purpose and meaning of being, action, and interaction (what we think, what we do, and how we internalise one another).

George commented:

There is something about those things that aren’t measured by our university or school systems today, and yet end up being the most consequential in a societal or work-based environment.

And Stephen added in summary:

It’s precisely in the things that can’t be measured where we have the greatest potential of being what computers aren’t.

Yes. and more yes. and how funny that George asks for an accurate depiction for how to develop learning…. but that is an in-built oxymoron. You can’t have the answer. 🙂 …it takes me back to your meditating monk – the answer will come, but depends on the individual and their purpose and perspective – and that answer changes with time (and I don’t mean age or the passage of time, but simply with the orientation in the now and how that relates to the rest of the now around us).

Featured image CC BY-NY-ND by James Laing 

(I liked it so much I put it at the bottom here too, so it could be bigger 🙂 )

Talking Jazz and Rock with Reuben Jackson

I had the (undeserved) privilege of being introduced to a poet and music lover who exceeds any ordinary music listener’s, and even most performer’s knowledge of groups, their influences, and their impact on music and life. Reuben Jackson is a curator, an archivist, and has long written and spoken about jazz. He was curator for the Smithsonian Jazz collection for 18 years, and so an invitation to speak to him was something not to pass up.

This year I’ve been teaching a new class (new to me) and naturally I’ve re-vamped it considerably from what I inherited. What does that mean? Homework for me. Research. Buckets of it. At least I can tell my students I’ve done at least 10 hours of homework a week. I hope they do too 😉

What you find below is the audio and the transcript of my talk with Reuben. Questions are in bold, so you can scroll through and pick the ones you are interested in. There are SO MANY names and references to people and works. I really do recommend you follow up on them and learn. Be a sponge. Challenge yourself – especially if you hadn’t considered crossing, and certainly not straddling the jazz / rock divide.

Enjoy! and huge thanks to Reuben for his generosity, both with his time and sharing his experiences and knowledge. For me it’s people and their living stories that make history come alive. (I also talked to Reuben about his upcoming book, and that segment will appear in another post)

Reuben Jackson Interview (with Laura Ritchie)

Tuesday 16, October, 2018


Good morning Felix Grant Jazz Archives.

-Hi, this is Laura Ritchie, I’m ringing for Reuben.

Yeah, hi, how are you?

-I’m very well. Thanks for making time to chat. And of course permission to share the call – I’m happy to transcribe it.

Oh absolutely. That’s fine.

-Thank you

Read more

On being a Music Critic – Interview with Glenn Gamboa

I really like to learn and I really like to tell stories. Over the years I’ve learned to ask and to listen and more often than not, people are willing to tell you a bit of their story. Last night was no exception. I had the privilege of speaking with Glenn Gamboa, music critic for Newsday, a very well known paper based in New York. As a teacher at university, I lead a couple of classes that have to do either with popular music or with music criticism, and so this was a wonderful opportunity to gather real stories – the straight from the person evidence that supplements academic texts and historical documents.

Glenn chose the time and I stopped what I was doing to make the call. I happened to be by the seaside and if you listen closely, you can hear children playing behind the initial ringing sounds, and there is one moment when a runner and his dog go by. The evening bats overhead didn’t make a sound.

Both the interview and transcript are below. Glenn was incredibly generous with his time, and I know my students will be excited to listen and follow up by reading his work. After the recorded portion of the call, I asked for guidance as to which of his pieces my students should read (Glenn is a very  prolific writer). He suggested these for starters.

They represent a range of short and longer pieces. I am sure when you read them, you will notice the absolute breadth of knowledge, attention to detail, and sheer amount of careful craftsmanship that has gone into putting together each piece. Even though Glenn speaks with such openness and with easy-going fluidity about what he does, mastery takes thousands of hours of practice, as with any discipline. I was definitely aware that I was speaking to one of the masters of this craft. Thank you Glenn for sharing your time with us!

A telephone conversation between Newsday Music Critic Glenn Gamboa and Laura Ritchie, 5 October, 2018

[ringing sounds]

Newsday, this is Glenn.

-Hi ! This is Laura Ritchie in the UK

Hey Laura, how are you?

-I’m fantastic! So this is fantastic and thank you so much. First question before we say anything, can I record the call to share with my students?

Oh sure, definitely.

-Thank you! So, you’ve been a music critic for a very long time.

…a very long time [laughs]

-No but seriously- for years and years, you’ve seen change that’s been unprecedented actually- gosh, I can’t even imagine. Will you tell me a bit about some of it?

Sure- Should I talk about how things are different now than they were 5 years ago?

-Absolutely. Read more

Curriculum: Prison, garden, or gateway? Annotate with us

We’ve been thinking about curriculum in #MUS654, and have jumped ahead a bit to look at and annotate the article that is listed n the MUS654 tab between sessions 6 & 7 (and we’re only about to be on session 3 in our real life class). There was a reason for bringing this forward- because it is the central theme as well as the end goal. At the end of the semester my students will put together a 1-year curriculum, and so there is no harm in thinking in detail about what it is?

Curriculum is something that is constructed, and from my point of view constructions can be prisons, gardens, or gateways. Whatever it is, this article gives a few perspectives as they have developed over the past several decades and we’ve been adding comments. I’d like to invite you to join us via this link and make your own annotations, and to respond to the comments of others. You do have to log in to use it, but you can keep it as private as you like. Make a new email for the purpose of using it, be a random user name, and VPN your computer up for starters – you do not have to be your name. (I am my name, so you’ll know what I wrote!)

Reading about curriculum may spark your thoughts on tangential topics too… One of my students was reflecting on the article that we’ve been annotating and sent me this provocation on the concept of ‘progress’:

It affects us all

Two weeks ago my daughter had an assignment at art college. She drew these three sketches and put them with the words of a poem by Darshan Mondkar. I found what she did to be incredibly powerful and pertinent. It deals with current issues about the treatment of women. I am sharing with my daughter’s permission. (I have put a ‘read more’ tag as not everyone may want to read this post, however there are no offensive or graphic images or words in this post.) Read more

Can you guess the sounds?

This soundscape was sent to me to post as a part of the MUS654 class. Have a listen and see if you can identify what’s happening here:

I’ve embedded the photo below, using my account on Mastodon. There is a built-in facility to ‘hide’ images (that might not be suitable for everyone due to a phobia/trigger/or just not wanting to see it!) and it works perfectly for this game! 🙂 To reveal the image, click below where it says ‘sensitive content’ I promise it is not at all inappropriate!

If you did listen and guessed something else or got it right – leave a comment to tell us!

LISTENING to sound

For musicians, listening is one of the most valuable skills and like all skills, it is something to develop. The idea of discriminating between gradations of tone or listening to the various harmonics being brought out in a sound or of the minute variations of pitch all take focus and time to learn.

This week in my MUS654 class we have been talking about sound and I encouraged my students to make a soundscape so that we could have a little fun seeing if we could identify sounds and accurately describe various situations with only the sound clues.

Examples (this is a game!)

I made a couple of recordings and have chosen to share these two. I explained to my class that devoid of the context, we draw upon what we know – and so your understanding of these sounds may be very different to the contextual vocabulary that would be commonplace for me. Please share your impressions of the who, what, where, or why in these soundscapes by leaving a comment on this post. If you are not comfortable with leaving a comment, you can tweet or toot and tag it #MUS654 and I’ll find it. 🙂

  • Guess the setting and describe what is making the various sounds? Is there a story or progression being represented? Some of this first recording may be obvious, but other aspects will be trickier.

  • In this second recording there is a bit more of a mystery… Can you identify these sounds?

The people who make sounds for films are Foley artists, and they have a unique look into the sound world. They are able to listen to sounds and to understand them as sounds, analysing them separately from their sources or contexts. These artists can imagine the possibilities for the sounds to be used like colours.

When placed in a completely different context, sounds can give the illusion of being something else. (there has to be a silly side, and this is it. – I am in no way encouraging people to do this as a past time!)

So often sound washes over us and when creating sound, musicians need to listen differently. Young learners sometimes think it is just about the notes, achieving the basic pitches and rhythms, putting down the right fingers, but when they realise there is a whole world within the sound, that is when they begin another level of their journey.

Featured image CC BY-NC-ND by Lucas

Penny drops and the light stays on

I finally understood it.

What’s it? One of those uber-famous quotes that isn’t really a quote at all, but someone must have said it sometime:

‘A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle’

You know, it’s been twisted into any number of wall-hangings and greeting cards, and I’ve heard it generally used as a thank you to describe a random nice thing. -and yeah, I get it, one candle can light another one and stay lit. Fire is one of those things you can literally pass on the flame (just think of the Olympic’s opening ceremony) and it is very moving to see the transfer and the impact of physically carrying the flame in the Olympic torch across the world.

Other things work like that too, but it is more difficult to see the impact with something like laughter, or even with ideas. Often we don’t see the impact until much later, if at all. Read more

Broadening Horizons with #MUS654

It’s a new academic year and a new chance to look at how we learn and teach. MUS654 is just that chance. It’s a class I run at the University of Chichester where my final year undergraduates studying private teaching focus on learning to create a curriculum for a student. This is not something that people often have either spare or even professional development time set aside to learn this and so often, at least in music, it is the kind of thing that is done ‘on the job’. There isn’t a comprehensive music curriculum for each instrument and with all the differences that individual students can bring, with their goals, skills, age, levels of dedication, oh the list could go on and that’s not even accounting for any of the variables like instrument, style, how or where they learn – privately or in school. The list really can go on indefinitely.

Creating a curriculum is tricky, takes thought, and requires a knowledgeable and skillful teacher. It is easy to sit back and do what you’re told as a student, and yes, it is easy to resort to doing the telling as a teacher, but that’s not really the way meaningful learning happens. It’s also easier to teach thing to others just how we learned it, instead of having a rounded insight that lets us forge a new path and mould experiences around each student so they are really able to do the learning. Those last three words are the clinchers “do the learning’, not listen to someone about the learning. I am keen to broaden my perspective and grow and that’s the point of this class: to take the time to dissect, analyse, and rebuild something that really enables learning.

An Intro to MUS654:

I’ve put together a 10 week set of resources under the MUS654 tab on this website and I encourage you to pick and choose elements to dive into, activities to complete, and blogposts to read. This year we’re starting by looking at the satellite topics that I have set out – first thinking of the Mechanics of Sound but also musing ahead at repertoire and the possibilities of how and why we might adapt what we already know to serve as a useful teaching tool.

  • We started with a tune we all knew, Twinkle Twinkle, and used two examples – both student creations. Have a listen and ask yourself as a learner and teacher, what could you use these to learn. This was really an exercise in planting seeds for what’s to come in future weeks.

  • Another seed planting exercise was the invitation to annotate this article on What is curriculum?You can join us. The link will take you to the article in a page – which means you can annotate and comment all over it. If you don’t like being known online, you are very welcome to use an pseudonym.

I look forward to posting about our progress on considering and creating our own curricula over the next few months. Do comment on anything that interests you, ask questions, or connect and tell us about how you do things. My students and I would love to hear from you.

Featured Image CC-BY-SA by ReflectedSerendipity

Talking Pedagogy: Stringbabies with Kay Tucker

Over the summer I had the pleasure of inviting Kay Tucker, creator of the Stringbabies teaching method to record a couple of conversations with me. I had sent her a few questions in advance and promptly went off script. This will be of interest to anyone who would like to know a bit of the methodology behind Stringbabies. These videos are not meant to be introductions to the method or any sort of sales pitch. I am interested in pedagogy and in these talks, I extract the underlying principles and begin to discuss how they are relevant to teachers and learners of music across the scope of learning – from beginners to the very advanced.

Together the videos take just under an hour to watch. Get the popcorn, boil the kettle, and pull up a chair.

Many thanks to Kay for taking the time to talk with me. I thoroughly enjoyed our time together.