Last week I had the opportunity for more study about learning and technology in Boston. A high point was spent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab seeing the future of technology. The media lab, famous for Nicholas Negroponte and his One Laptop Per Child initiative (http://laptop.org), is filled with gizmos and gimcracks and gee whiz research. Some of it is focused on the future, like investigating whether 3D virtual worlds need to mimic the real world. And some of it is focused on using current and emerging technologies for education, like Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten Project (http://llk.media.mit.edu/).
But the most powerful visit was with Benjamin Zander, the long-time conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, as he taught a class of graduate students at the New England Conservatory and then spent time with us afterward discussing his approach and his philosophy.
Mr. Zander believes in the possibility within each of us. He believes this so deeply that he co-authored The Art of Possibility with his wife, Rosamund Stone Zander. And he demonstrated possibility during his class. The students in his class are some of the best musicians in the world, all seeking graduate degrees in their instrument of choice.
A young lady played the first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the piano. She played beautifully, transporting all of us back to our youth and the first time we heard it. At the end, Mr. Zander congratulated her on her excellent playing. But then, he asked, what had Beethoven intended? Intended? Didn't he compose the Moonlight Sonata? Well, not really—the name came thirty years after the composition. He wrote it as quasi una fantasia—a semi-fantasy if you will—that should be experienced as a fantasy. Through the discussion, Mr. Zander also elicited from his students that Beethoven had originally composed the sonata with different timing.
He had the young lady play the movement again, but now using Beethoven’s timing and giving herself to the fantasy within the music. Electrifying! None of the class had ever heard it played that way before! Even those of us without musical training found it exceptional! Mr. Zander had helped her find the possibility within herself to improve on excellence.
The way she had first played was traditional, students in the class confirming they had learned it that way as part of their lessons when they were six or seven years old. (These are truly accomplished musicians.) At the end, as Mr. Zander asked students to explain what they felt about the change, one young man said, “I felt…cheated…” and he paused searching to better explain himself. Finally, “I felt…cheated by tradition.”
Cheated by tradition. Such a powerful metaphor for the tension we have within the world of education. We have traditional ways of educating, yet the changes in ways students can communicate and collaborate wrought through advances in technology are challenging those traditions. Which traditions do we keep and which do we change? We have to ask ourselves as teachers—are our traditions cheating our students or are they promoting excellence, allowing students to find the possibility within themselves? And we have to ask ourselves as parents—are we insisting on excellence in education for our children so they can find the possibility within themselves, or are we asking for our children to be cheated by tradition? We can debate both sides of these questions and debate we must. But what we cannot do is not ask the questions.