iPad: A Question of Aesthetics

Seven short days ago I was getting up at about this time in order to get in line at the Apple Store. So with a full week under my belt I'll go ahead and give you my thoughts on the iPad.

I don't think you need one.

Wait, what?

Look, I just think it's easier if I get that thought out of the way up front, so we can focus on what this device is about. I'm not trying to convince anyone to get an iPad. The fact of the matter is that, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, you just don't "need" one. There is nothing you can "do" with an iPad that you can't "do" with something you already own. That's the truth.

But iPad isn't about what you do, it's about how you do it. It's really about aesthetics. As a music teacher aesthetics that is wired into my life on a daily basis. The "how" and "why" of things matter to me. Since my generation (those of us who had TRS-80s in high school) grew up around the advent of computers, we sometimes struggle with the concept of computing being a pleasant experience. Many feel it should continue to be a proving ground for those who can "get under the hood" and tinker, troubleshoot, etc. In my opinion, the biggest reason Apple products have become so popular with younger (and older) generations is because those people don't bring that history with them to the computing experience. They want things that "just work" to the point that the device itself sort of disappears. The content is the focus, and the device should serve it. I certainly identify with that mindset.

So, for example, if I am at my desk, I prefer to work on a laptop. At work I am primarily creating content, and for that I want a large screen, printing, a physical keyboard, and feature-rich software. The iPad doesn't give me those things. Can you type on the iPad? Yes of course, and it's fine. But typing on the iPad, like the iPhone, is utilitarian. Though there will probably be some who can type just as fast on the iPad as a laptop, I prefer the typing experience on a mechanical keyboard, particularly Apple's latest "chicklet" style keyboards. And yes, Apple has released the iWork apps so you can create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on the iPad. Still, content creation, for me, will continue to primarily happen on a laptop because it is the richer experience.

That being said, when I want to consume content, whether in my leather chair or laying on the couch, the iPad excels. The ability to hold the display close and navigate quickly with your fingers is a far more pleasing way to surf, read, and view images and movies. The design is exquisite, the battery life is astounding (I'm regularly getting 11 hours or more) and it doesn't heat up (if you have spent any time with a laptop on your lap you are quite familiar with the heat issues). The iPad is the best consumption device I have ever used, and it is changing the way I experience media. And when I say "best"  I'm not talking about a side-by-side list of features, I'm talking about an overall aesthetic.

Book reading is much more pleasing on the iPad than on a laptop or an iPhone. The "pages" are about the size of a physical book. This of course brings up the point of whether physical books are better. Well, there is a tactile aspect that cannot be denied. If you prefer that experience, then the iPad will probably leave you wanting. But the iPad has some aspects to it that are either impractical or impossible with "real" books. For example, you cannot read a book in the dark, but you can do so on the iPad. You can also "carry" hundreds of books and magazines with you and have any of them at your disposal instantly. And of course the search, dictionary, and font capabilities are fantastic. For me it is the best way to read. I can't imagine we won't see student textbook migrate to this device. Chiropractor bills alone could justify the cost of an iPad for many students.

The web surfing experience on the iPad is great. Even though the Facebook iPhone app is excellent, I much prefer to interact with the actual site. If you have ever tried to do that on an iPhone you should try it on an iPad so you can understand what a difference the screen size makes. The "pinch" technology is very smooth and accurate, and touching links is very intuitive and quick, even more so than on the iPhone because you don't have to be quite as careful since everything is larger. I would much rather surf the web on my iPad than on a laptop or my iPhone. To those of you wondering about Flash, I won't go into the full discussion now, but just notice how fewer and fewer sites are using it. Whether you agree with Apple's position or not, there are about 85 million of their mobile devices out there now, and web developers are not going to ignore the fact that Apple prefers HTML 5 standards over Flash. Sorry Adobe but that's how it's going to be. But I digress.

Photos are gorgeous on the iPad. Sitting it in the dock and pressing an icon turns it into a digital photo frame with typical Apple elegance. In the hand it is a much nicer photo viewing experience than either the iPhone or a laptop.

Movies are perfect for the iPad. Yes it is doable on an iPod Touch, iPhone, or laptop, but they just don't compare to having a decent size screen in your hands. Pair a set of Bluetooth headphones and you are in for a treat. ABC and Netflix have jumped on the iPad band wagon and I suspect we will see many more content providers release apps in the coming months.

And speaking of apps.... even after one week it is easy to see how the app experience is going to be qualitatively different on the iPad. There is so much more information that can be included on the screen, and developers are taking advantage of that. I think we're going to see some excellent educational apps that will will make the classroom more interactive, productive, and provide the teacher with much more individual input about student learning. Clickers are nice, but just wait and see what iPad developers bring us, I think it's going to be exciting and if done right, far more immersive and engaging for students than cumbersome laptops when reading and interacting are called for.

So there you have it, my thoughts on the iPad. Clearly there are those who feel it is "just a big iPod Touch." For those who do not value the "how" as much as the "what" that will probably hold true. But for me, the iPad is my device of choice for content consumption. The aesthetic experience it provides is unlike anything else, and for me that is significant.

Teaching: Profession and Professionalism

mugged Recently I stumbled upon a blog post by Will Richardson talking about professional development for teachers, specifically in the area of technology. In the subsequent comments under the post the discussion between David Warlick and a few others took an interesting turn from professional development to whether or not teaching iteself is a profession. David posted additional thoughts on his own blog:

If you think of teaching as something you do in one room, beside the room of another teacher, beside the room of another teacher, delivering content or directing skill development, checking off standards sheets, and doing pretty much the same thing year after year — then I would agree with Sheryl.  Semi-profession might actually be generous.  Much of the job, especially as addressed by NCLB, is more like being a technician, applying prescribed, researched, and government-approved techniques on students, based on high-precision measurements.

I suspect that the term professional, has described teachers because they’ve earn a college degree, and years ago they were among the only people in many communities who were educated to that level.

I agree completely with the spirit of David's thoughts. Yet it concerns me that there is a tendency to use terms like profession, professionalism, and professional development interchangably. I know some may think it's just semantics, but I think there's more to it and we need to be more intentional about our word choice. Do some of us really believe that teaching is not a profession?

There is little question that there are some teachers who lack professionalism. Nor is there much doubt that some teachers need more professional development, especially in these times of exponential change. We've experienced administrators, board members, and legislators who may not treat teachers professionally. While a profession, the conduct of those within it, and the treatment of its members are certainly related, they are still clearly distinct. Furthermore, these are the realities of any profession. Can you think of a profession that does not have these same challenges? The bottom line is that the challenges we face do not change the fact that teaching is a profession.

"A profession is a vocation founded upon specialised educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain".[1]

By any reasonable definition of the word (like the one above), teaching "meets or exceeds" the definition of a profession. We hold college degrees and state/national certification. We provide service to others, are directly compensated, and teach without expecation of "other business gain." If teaching is not a profession, what is it? And what careers are professions, if teaching is not chief among them?

Having said that, if someone is qualified to enter the profession, does that mean he will surely conduct himself professionally? Will she continue to develop her teaching skills throughout her career? These are important questions of conduct within the profession, or professionalism. We must not confuse the two, nor use the terms interchagably.

We can (and should) discuss educational professionalism without any doubt that what we do is a profession. Let's be sure we are choosing (and using) our words carefully.  To my mind, teaching continues to be one of the most essential professions on this earth, and we would serve ourselves well to not only keep that in mind, but believe it to the core. If we don't, why would anyone else?

How A PLN Can Make You Filthy Rich

Origami dollar t-shirt

I'm starting a new association for music educators. We are going to meet monthly. The dues are one dollar per month, per member. However, each member will also receive one dollar for every member in attendance. So, if there are 100 people at the meeting, each member will give one dollar, but leave with 99 dollars. No strings attached. Pretty amazing model, wouldn't you say?

If that idea was guaranteed not to be a scam, would you do it? Of course you would! A one dollar investment that returns 99 dollars, every month? You would have to be crazy not to participate. So what is my point? It's this: although money doesn't work that way, ideas do. If, in a group of 100 teachers, each teacher shares one idea, everyone gets 99 new ideas.

Unlike money, educational ideas can be shared without losing their value.

And this is exactly what Professional Learning Networks are all about. The problem is, not enough teachers are sharing. They may think their ideas are not good enough. They may think they are too busy. They may be worried about being judged. All I can say is... if that describes you... get over it, and quick. You are cheating yourself, your students, and many other teachers (and their students). Teaching music is not a competition. All of our students deserve the best instruction.

My PLN lives in three main areas at the moment: A Facebook group of about 1,500; A Facebook page of about 600; and about 400 people I interact with on Twitter. It boggles my mind to imagine what we could do for students if each one of those people shared one idea per month. The number of participants in a PLN doesn't mean much if only a small percentage are sharing what they know.

You don't have to start a blog (but congrats to those of you who are trying it), you can simply start by posting a thought, idea, or link. Put it into the comments below this post, or post it on Twitter, or in your Facebook status. I can promise you that if we all share, we'll all get far more in return than we give.

So... do you want to be filty rich or not? Get your dollar on the table!

Discover Simple, Private Sharing at Drop.io

Professional Learning Networks for Teachers

Wheel of Friendship

I wanted to address something that has been on my mind for some time now regarding the teacher-networking movement taking place. For those of us who are "longtime" users of Facebook, Twitter, and other networking tools, it has been exciting to see our colleagues begin to dip their toe into the Web 2.0 water. While we are witnessing a clear acceleration of the networking adoption rate, I am hoping to address an important semantics issue before we reach critical mass (something I expect to see within the next 24 months).

The common term being utilized for teacher interaction via the web is Personal Learning Network, or PLN. While I think that label is appropriate for people who share a common personal interest (for example, woodworking), I am concerned about using that term to describe networking within the teaching profession. We must give careful consideration to the connotations associated with the word personal (for example, taking a personal day). There is a clear dichotomy between "personal" and "professional" and I think those of us on the ground floor of the teacher-networking movement need to make sure administrators, board members, parents, and even our colleagues understand that online networking is a critical component of our professional development efforts.

Therefore, just as PLC stands for Professional Learning Community, PLN should stand for Professional Learning Network. Indeed in many ways a PLN can (and does) function as a networked version of a PLC Team. For some of us... particularly music teachers... the PLN is even more essential since most music teachers are a "team of one" in their buildings. In many cases the only way for music teachers to collaborate and share knowledge in a consistent and meaningful way is by networking with other "like content" professionals via the web. So it is imperative that we present this movement in a way that makes it abundantly clear that teacher-networking is professional development, not a "personal" or "social" pastime. Professional Learning Network fits the bill.

Networking is one of the most exciting things that has happened in my twenty-year teaching career. Web 2.0 technologies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Docs have allowed me to collaborate with nearly 2,000 other music teachers, and the number is rising quickly. Yet we know that there are people who consider "social networking" to be frivolous or something that detracts from "real work." Should we get to a point where administrators tell us that networking be done on personal time (and that day is already upon many of us), we had best redouble our efforts to create a clear understanding that teacher-networking efforts are professional.

Long live the Professional Learning Network.

Discover Simple, Private Sharing at Drop.io

Don't Mind Me, That's Just My Heart Breaking

Free A Child's Cry

Yesterday one of the largest school districts in Illinois said it intends to cut 164 staff, a move which will reduce the music teachers in the district by about 50%. As a bellwether for the state, it is a flat out scary decision to see and should concern all arts educators in Illinois. Superintendents don't just communicate with one another about whether they should take a snow day. Rest assured a green light for deeper arts cuts across the state was just lit. If District 204 (with two GRAMMY recognized high schools) thinks a 50% music reduction is acceptable, who is next?

Congress acted swiftly to save our largest financial institutions, telling us that the country was on the brink of another great depression. I don't disagree that we were, however fast forward a year and Wall Street has miraculously paid out over 18 billion dollars in bonuses. In one short year Wall Street has moved from the edge of the cliff right back into their Central Park condos. Meanwhile the states are under water dealing with the continued tax revenue fallout from the housing bubble which was largely caused by the inappropriate lending by many of these same financial institutions. Ironic? Something isn't right with this picture.

Worse yet...and in classic legislator fashion...the problem is now being passed on to our children. Every time there is a political campaign we hear about solving spending problems so they are not put on the backs of the next generation, which is nearly always an empty promise. But this time it is far worse: They're not passing on a broken system (like Social Security), this time politicians are making decisions that impact the education of students right now, today. They have no problem using children as leverage. In Illinois Governor Quinn is holding education hostage in an effort to get a tax increase. But even if he gets an increase it won't be enough to fix the damage already inflicted. Illinois is not alone,  the education funding problem is a national epidemic. And where is Congress in midst of all this? Stalemated in a healthcare debate.

A bailout for AIG? No problem. A bailout for our children? Pound sand, we're too busy pointing fingers. And what about the White House? It seems they are too busy praising the firing of teachers and creating a Race To The Top to notice what is really happening. Does anyone really think that test scores are going to improve by increasing class sizes and cutting the creative arts? Talking school reform in the midst of state budget crises is like arguing about best practices in fire prevention while your home is ablaze.

The old adage is that when education funding is cut, the arts are first to go. True, but we must realize that there is far more to it than fewer concerts. We are robbing students of essential means of developing their thinking, creativity, and expression. This isn't about teachers, it isn't about the arts, it is about stunting the intellect of the next generation. We know that the next generation will need to be more creative to deal with the myriad of problems being passed on to them. We're currently making certain that they won't be equipped to deal with them.

Don't mind me, that's just my heart breaking.

Three Pillars of Teaching Music

Pillars of Education

In my mind there are three pillars to successful music teaching: Content, Craft, and Concern.

The Content Area: Music

Perhaps you had a music teacher who was organized and dedicated, but didn't understand how to select repertoire, create a beautiful ensemble sound, or catch the little details that make music leap off the page. Teaching music requires a deep and unwavering commitment to serving the music. Any great teacher must be passionate and knowledgeable about their content area, and for us that is music. How much time do you spend researching repertoire? Is your ensemble balanced, and if not, why not? What weaknesses in your training need to be addressed? How expressive is your conducting? If I asked your students, what would they say about your musicianship?

The Craft: Pedagogy

We've all had a teacher who was knowledgeable about the content but didn't particularly care whether or not we learned anything. The stereotypical case is the performance major who picked up the education degree as a "fall back" position. Another example is the director who considers the ensemble as their own personal tool for professional achievement. Teaching is an honor, and in music education it is our job to teach students to take ownership of their own musicianship. It takes constant reflection, trust, research, and planning for the sake of one's students. Being a solid performer yourself is not enough. You must have command of ensemble techniques, a solid philosophical foundation, and a clear sense of whose musical experience is the priority... yours or theirs. If I asked your students, what would they say about your teaching?

The Concern: Students

I hear music education majors and younger teachers talking about whether or not students should like them. This is really a very simple issue. The question isn't whether students like you or dislike you. The question is whether students believe you are concerned about them. Notice I didn't say you should like them, I'm suggesting you need to care about them. If you genuinely care about your students, guess what? They will like you. It has nothing to do with being friends with them. It has everything to do with valuing them as individuals. Stop looking at an ensemble as a singular entity and take notice of the individuals who sit in front of you every day. What do you know about them? If I asked your students, what would they say about your concern for them...not as musicians, but as people?

These three areas show us why teaching is one of the most difficult professions. Being a content expert, mastering the craft, and caring for each and every student is an absolutely exhausting endeavor. If you are truly pursuing the profession in this manner then you know you earn your salary each and every day. No one expects you to have the three C's in perfect balance. What is reasonable to expect is that you're always striving to improve. It's not any different than what we expect from our students.

Keep looking in the mirror, keep the faith, and never give up.

Video Postcard from Japanese Elementary Musicians: Wish You Were Here

I've been thinking a lot about this astounding performance by elementary band students in Japan  that showed up on Youtube. At one point in my career a young lady moved to the U.S. from Japan and enrolled at our high school. She had only been playing trumpet for a year, but my colleague Jim and I soon found out that she would strive to achieve whatever was asked of her, and at light speed. Jim gave her state-required scale page (majors and melodic minors) and asked her to learn it. She came back one week later and it was done. She just about broke Jim's heart when she told us she was moving back to Japan two years later (right after we got the invitation to the Midwest Clinic...ouch).

Having had the opportunity to host a high school band from Japan, I know a little about their structure and approach to music. It is not uncommon for students to specialize in something during high school, almost like choosing a major in college here in the U.S. If a Japanese student specializes in band he or she may spend three to five hours in band after "regular" classes each day. Most of that time is not spent in full rehearsal, but rather in small group technique work which is often led by the older students. Technical perfection is the constant aim.

This week at our state convention I had the opportunity to catch up with
James Lambrecht (Augustana) who was asked to work with the Musashino Academy Band in Japan for ten weeks this past fall. These college students displayed a work ethic and commitment unlike anything he had ever seen. Every technical aspect of a new piece of music was completely worked out by the students prior to the first rehearsal. Dr. Lambrecht said he had to work hard to keep from laughing during the first read of a piece because it was so unusual to hear technical mastery as a baseline approach to beginning a rehearsal cycle, as opposed to something you achieve throughout the rehearsal cycle.

He is concerned that wind and percussion students here in the west are in for a rude awakening in the coming years. Having served as a dean of admissions at a major conservatory for five years, I share this concern. I regularly witnessed the top string and piano scholarships being won by international students from Japan, South Korea, and China. And these are also the students who are increasingly winning the orchestral auditions and the international piano competitions. Watching the video above, is there any doubt that Dr. Lambrecht is right about winds and percussion being next? These students are putting in many (many!) more hours and outworking our student musicians, those are the facts.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Outliers that you should read. He feels that most of the world's greatest artists/athletes/innovators had something important in common: they accumulated and surpassed the 10,000 hour mark in purposeful practice. How many hours do you think the elementary students in this video have already accumulated? With a conservative estimate of four hours per school day and a 280-day school year (yes, much longer than our own) music students in Japan are accumulating over 1,000 hours per year, and that doesn't include practice time at home in the evening, weekends, or during vacation. That means that all of those musicians will reach superstar levels before graduating from college. Whether or not you agree with their model does not change that fact.

By specializing, students in Japan are not considered "well-rounded" by American standards. Yet I have often wondered if we are doing our students any favors by enabling a sort of nationwide broad-based mediocrity, whereby students are getting involved in lots of different things, but not doing any of them with unequivocal excellence. While Japan's approach may seem extreme, and it clearly not tenable in the U.S. for a variety of reasons, I have to think that somewhere between their approach and ours lies a journey that would favor more depth than our students currently have, and perhaps a little more breadth than their students experience. Regardless of that, I have to admit that even though I spent five years teaching elementary band (and thought I did a pretty good job) my perception of what an elementary band student can be expected to achieve has been altered, and I'm sure I am not alone.

~Brian Wis