Where Kids Can Be a Kid

The slogan always made my skin crawl.

When I first heard it, the place was called "Show Biz Pizza." Eventually the name was changed to "Chuck E Cheese's," with ads featuring the eponymous mouse in both costume and animatronic incarnations interacting with children, and usually concluding with a child falling, in slow motion, into a ball pit. I never actually visited one of these establishments until I had children of my own, but I knew from the moment I set foot in the place that there was far more evil at work here than just a grammatically abominable jingle. Eventually that slogan was cleaned up so the subject and predicate could be in agreement--"where kids can be kids"--but in my mind the name should be changed to "Migraine Manor," "Ulcer Alley," or possible "Tantrum Town." Walk through the door and one is instantly besieged by the clamor of video games, background music, and shouting, screaming, wailing children. It's hard to know if it's fun for them at all--and yet told they're going there for a party, they erupt into shrieks of delight. Finally, blessedly, they outgrow it, and the parent makes a blood oath to never darken the door of that holiday hell again--until dragged there by grandchildren, of course.

All that aside, the original slogan has inspired me to write about Outcome Based Education and why it's problematic in the general music classroom.

My first Orff workshop was led by Doug Goodkin, who eventually became my guru. Doug is a master educator who can, in seconds, hold a room full of human beings of any age or musical ability in the palm of his hand, leading them through a learning activity that seamlessly transitions from running around in a circle to pattycake to an African dance and song accompanied by complicated polyrythmic percussion performances without ever speaking a word of instruction. As brilliant as these experiences are, Doug is also an articulate idealist and a passionate advocate for the arts and their role in creating a just world. That first workshop, in October, 2005, was ostensibly on the topic of assessment in the music room. Doug touched on that, toward the end, but mostly he just led us through a delightful collage of musical experiences, teaching by showing rather than telling. The message at the end: our job is not to grade students. We have too many of them to do it properly, and even if we had the time and resources to do it, why would we even want to? Immerse them in a culture of musical play, and they will become musicians. Make them take tests, and music becomes like any other class, outcomes dictating activities.

OBE--Outcome Based Education--was big in the 1980s and 1990s. Like most trends in public education, it never really went away; the same ideas just get rebranded (not unlike Showbiz/Chuck E Cheese). The idea is to gear the classroom toward a goal, rather than an activity. Lessons are backward-engineered to be sure that all the necessary skills are taught, with mastery being the ultimate aim. When I was in college, the keyword was "behavioral objective"; most recently, I've been hearing about "learning targets," but really it's all the same stuff.

As long as there have been general music teachers, there have been school administrators trying to impose the same assessment criteria on them that are used on classroom teachers. We're expected to have objectives, outcomes, learning targets for every lesson we teach. We're supposed to assess our students according to these outcomes, and assess ourselves by how successful they are in attaining them.

And really, if we're teaching private lessons or directing a band or choir, or even a more academic course in music theory of literature, that makes perfect sense. When one of my piano students plays a scale, I can easily assess him or her on how well that task was performed.

But that's not where I spend most of my teaching time. Things have to be different in the general music classroom, particularly the Orff classroom.

Orff starts with the experience, not the outcome. The one outcome desired of every Orff lesson is having an enjoyable musical experience. Yes, we're teaching concepts, and from time to time we will pause to put a label on those concepts; but that's not why we're doing this. We're taking the musical impulse that is in every child's heart and nurturing it, encouraging it, inspiring it through play, through experiences that make the child want to go deeper, to be more fully immersed in the joy and wonder that is music. This is completely natural for them: children sing, skip, march, dance, clap, without any of the self-consciousness that keeps adults from freely doing these things.

Or at least, they do all these things until someone comes along and grades them, and if their performance is found wanting--as most child performances will be according to adult criteria--some of the joy will leak out of that experience. Enough negative evaluations, and the child will grow up convinced, as so many adults I have met are, that he or she just isn't musical. And this is why I rarely issue any grade but "passing" to an elementary music student. Just being there, having the experience, is learning enough for my gradebook--and, I imagine, for the gradebook of any general music teacher with 600 students to assess.

Of course, as musicians, we do want our students to perform well, to create something that is beautiful, and we do rehearse them, help them improve. Our goal as we work with a piece of music is always to make it better. But here's the difference: I know my recorder class is never going to sound like a serious consort. Their plastic flutes will be off-key, many of them will overblow or leak air through their awkward fingers leading to shrill squeaks, and I'm never going to get all of them to put their left hands on top. However, if I can get them to start together, play a song recognizably and, most important, stop together, they'll feel how much better that is than just noodling around without regard to anyone else in the room.

And they can feel it. I see it on their faces when everyone cuts off together, and the sound is left hanging in the air: yes, that was so much cooler than when most of us stopped, but Ryan and Lisa kept playing. When a whole class of third graders can hear the magic of two different mallet parts working together, and nail the landing on the final chord, they feel it, too. When all the first graders are performing a clapping game together, and come out of the partner activity into the chorus without a break, they know it's better.

What's happening is they're assessing themselves, and finding the outcome of a quality performance really is preferable to the outcome of musical chaos. Ultimately, that's when OBE works best: when it is the student, rather than the school, imposing their own standards. It's best if the outcomes are embraced by the student, rather than imposed by the teacher, but getting there is tricky.

Which brings me back to kids being kids--or kids being a kid. The goal of OBE is identical to that of No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Curriculum: holding every child in America to the same set of standards so their performances can be compared to each other, so the diploma awarded at the end will mean the same thing in every case: mastery of essential concepts. In the end, OBE wants every student to conform to this model of the ideal student, to know all the same things, be able to perform all the same tasks. We want our kids to be A Kid, The Kid, the child who meets all the criteria for adulthood.

In my classroom, though, whatever outcomes I may have in mind for a lesson have to take a backseat to the kids I have before me at this moment. They come in with a host of expectations. Some didn't get enough sleep last night, some are worried about a parent who's sick or in jail, some are experiencing a divorce. Some are having birthdays, and expect the entire class to revolve around them. Some really want to learn, and are frustrated by the others who just want to pound that stick into the floor until it splinters, or blast that recorder in someone's ear regardless of the number of times the teacher as told them not to do it. My task is to guide these children into a set of experiences that will channel their energy musically, that will help them express their feelings through movement and song, that will be playful enough to get their minds off how much they'd rather be outside, but structured enough that the result will not be a clamor of Chuck E Cheesian proportions. Most days, I accomplish this with most of my classes. For those I don't, I'm always worrying away at what didn't work, trying to take the no-fun lecture out and inject the happy collaboration back in. But I never get there by working backward from the outcome. For my kids to be kids--as opposed to being a kid--I have to create experiences for them that give them enough freedom to find the music in themselves and discover, on their own, how joyous it can be.

As experiential as this is, I do still care about an outcome. I know I've taught a successful lesson when, on the way out the door, children smile and thank me for making music fun. The job doesn't get any better than that.


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