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The Disadvantages of Competitive Learning

 Earlier this month, I spent a very long day with 118 middle school musicians from 28 schools in northern Michigan. The event was the MI School Band and Orchestra Association District Two Junior High Honors Band, and it was a blast, start to finish. The day began as most band rehearsals do, with (boring) long-tone warmups. Then we struggled through cold-reading five pieces of music in varying degrees of difficulty, playing together for the first time. The day ended, 12 hours later, with a solid, energizing concert performance.

I was the guest conductor of this very big band and proud of what we accomplished—a minor miracle, when you think of it. But I can take very little credit for the outcomes—the parent-pleasing concert, the day of new musical learnings, that gorgeous chord that made us all a little breathless, mid-afternoon.

There were also 28 music teachers present, and they were teaching their hearts out all day long, running small-group workshops, providing instruction on techniques required by the music that some students hadn't yet learned, and tweaking the occasional out-of-tune saxophone. Most of them, in fact, drove their students to the Honors Band site, Kalkaska, in an area of Michigan where schools are tiny and far apart. It was a taxing, extended day for them, as well—long drives ferrying their middle schoolers over snow-slick roads early in the morning, returning home after at 9:00 p.m. 

It was a genuine pleasure to hang with these teachers for a day. Many of them are in their first years of teaching, and responsible for all the music classes taught in a rural K-12 district, involuntary job-embedded training in jack-of-all-trades music pedagogy. They were cheerful and upbeat through two (count 'em) pizza meals, pulling out their own instruments to improvise some rambunctious jazz dinner music, entertaining the students and having a good time themselves. When they weren't on duty, they were chatting about band literature and budgets and trill fingerings.

They were collaborating, and not in the overused, edu-jargon sense of the word.

The day was a great success on many fronts. The remark I heard most frequently from the teachers? This is so good for my kids.

One the reasons for that was the lack of competition built into the structure of the day. Each school selected four musicians to participate—whichever students teachers thought could benefit. While there are a couple of larger districts in the northwest quadrant of Michigan, most of the students in the gathering play in small (small but mighty, their directors might say) bands. To sit in a huge band, surrounded by capable musicians their own age, and make glorious music, is always a high-water mark in musical learning, no matter what their daily instruction was like.

While we pursued excellence all day long, correcting and fine-tuning the music, we were trying to be excellent together. None of what we were able to accomplish hinged on who was the "best" player, school-to-school rivalries, or the arrogance that is often fostered in competitive school music programs. We were making music for the right reasons.

Mitchel Resnick observes that pushing kids to compete around things that don't require competition (4th grade spelling tests, in his case) skews the purpose of learning, elevating winning and prizes over the joy of simply doing well. In the Honors Band, the kids were having a creative experience with good music and living up to their potential. And eating a lot of pizza.

About halfway through my 30-year career as a band teacher, I eliminated the typical bandroom custom of chairs and challenges and tried to strip unnecessary competing out of daily classroom practice. I had about 120 eighth graders in two performing groups, and shifted from having a "top" group (skimming off the best players for an elite band), to building two relatively equal bands.  I gave them neutral names—3rd hour band and 4th hour band—rather than Symphonic Band or Cadet Band.

This was confusing to students at first, mainly because they couldn't figure out who the winners and losers were. I told them the truth: I had assessed their prowess as musicians in 7th grade and tried to divide the groups evenly, so nobody would be in the "top" band or left behind. Our job was to play well all the time, to live up to our potential as performers—not to be better than the other band.

It took a while, but this policy eventually led to greater achievement, especially from students who did not start out at the top of the skills spectrum. (And yes, of course there's always a spectrum of accomplishment and talent.) By Year Two, both 8th grade groups were playing as well as my previous "top" group. Dividing students by perceived ability had never yielded great results.

And so it was with the Honors Band—students collaborating with students, teachers sharing tips and camaraderie, parents treated to an entertaining evening. It was a splendid day, and everyone came out ahead.

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