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All that Jazz

“Perhaps replacing the metaphor of the school administrator as manager, CEO, orchestra conductor, or architects with the metaphor of the school administrator as leader of a jazz combo would be appropriate.” (Smith & Ellet, 2000)

The landscape of school improvement and change management is peppered with theories, approaches and suggested reforms. We rely so much upon external researchers, consultants and the frameworks and processes they offer it’s easy to forget that we really only need one thing to happen for richer student learning to occur; effective classroom teaching.

Of course, there are few things as complex as a classroom or a school. There’s a great visual representation of these complexities in Peter Senge’s book Schools that Learn reflecting the inter-connected influences that impact schools, one glance at the graphic is enough to make one’s head spin. This is the work we do, everyday and, with all this complexity, it’s not an accident that we look to the experts to help us. We see school systems as large, complicated entities with many players in need of coordination, direction and conducting, like an orchestra. We forget that we really only need one thing to happen for richer student learning to occur; effective classroom teaching.

I stumbled across a reference to an interesting article in Allington and Cunningham’s Schools That Work. The article by Wade Smith and Chad Ellett asks us to think of a school leader as more like the leader of a jazz combo. I’m not a great jazz fan, nor am I qualified to offer expert opinions on the aspects and components of jazz, but I do know that jazz requires creativity, the ability to improvise and a responsiveness to both the audience and the other musicians in the group. Wikipedia  differentiates classical music from jazz by noting, Jazz, however, is often characterized as the product of egalitarian creativity, interaction and collaboration…” Sound familiar?

I believe, for the most part, our focus on mandating standardized and prescribed practices  for assessment, planning and instruction in schools reflects a noble stance and is well-intentioned on the part of school administrators. However, I’m wondering if,  in doing so, are we focusing too much on the systems to the detriment of the classrooms? Are we orchestral composers and conductors trying to plow through a score when what we really need to be leading jazz combos?

This week I will pick up an instrument, join the band and teach a few lessons. This week, I’ll interact and collaborate with teachers to create something in the classroom. After all, we really only need one thing to happen for richer student learning to occur

  1. April 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I would say that this is an apt metaphor for the classroom teacher as well.

  2. April 10, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    The interesting thing to note is that there is good jazz and there is bad jazz. It is imperative that the musician be not only good at creative inspiration, but also have some technical mastery of the instrument. This requires dogged practice of scales and a deep understanding of the instrument. The skilled administrator and the skilled teacher will have developed a very strong understanding, will have practiced rigorously, will have hit many “wrong” notes on the way to putting the right combo together to achieve success. I believe much of what happens in a class/school is the result of extremely hard work. This hard work does involved understanding what the research says, working with other skilled practitioners and even sometimes bringing in outside expertise to inform the direction.

    • April 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm

      Thanks for the considered reply and for helping me deepen my thinking. My personal and ongoing struggle is being mindful that ‘technical mastery’ does not become the prime goal, we have a need for passion and creativity; and that we don’t lose sight of the importance of diversity in our teaching and leadership practices.

      • April 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm

        And to continue to build the metaphor, there is something in jazz that requires a set framework, given chord structures and the sense of direction that all can improvise around. Whether it be a 12 bar blues or a more sophisticated modal chord progression, there is an agreed upon approach to the delivery of the music (otherwise, musical chaos is possible). However, it is also true that we don’t continue to have only one or two types of jazz and that Dixieland is not the final word on the evolution of the music. There has been evolution and even some revolution (Miles Davis, Coltrane etc).

        Learning evolution and revolution will require some working around current standards and frameworks and the courage to move outside the current norms to find newer models that work and are attuned to the “ear” of a new learning generation.

      • April 10, 2011 at 3:24 pm

        Leading to support a structure or framework, the simpler the better, to guide and direct the complexity. This is my goal. Thanks for sharing the musical expertise 🙂

  3. April 10, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Like the metaphor. Don’t think anyone actually “leads” in a jazz performance as we use the term, as much as they complement and extend by listening and feeling. Wondering how your playing went?

    • April 10, 2011 at 2:09 pm

      Thanks for the response 🙂 the idea of the leader working to ‘complement and extend’ works for me. As for my playing, I’m pleasantly delighted with the willingness and enthusiasm the teaching staff show towards co-teaching.

  4. April 10, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I am a teacher who would welcome the type of interaction and collaboration you are writing about. I really like your emphasis on “effective classroom teaching”. Thank you for being a role model in this area.

  5. Christine Smith
    April 10, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    I love the analogy, and welcome you to join the ensemble in grade five this week since we really only need one thing to happen for richer student learning to occur!

    • April 11, 2011 at 9:15 am

      Look what happens when a colleague from school actually reads their administrator’s blog:)

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