How Schools Work

David Byrne, in his wonderful book, How Music Works, suggests that creativity is dependent on context. This, as Byrne explains, is “the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion…[We] unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats.”

For example, says Byrne, it’s “usually assumed that much of Medieval music was harmonically simple because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies.” But such music would have sounded terrible in stone-walled cathedrals where reverberation time is as much as four seconds. “Shifting musical keys would invite dissonance as notes overlapped and clashed…Slowly evolving melodies that eschew key changes work beautifully and reinforce the otherworldly ambience…Creatively, they did exactly the right thing.”

We can maybe see the effect better in reverse. Last year I attended a Dan Mangan concert at the Orpheum, a concert hall in Vancouver. The Orpheum is built to feature dynamically and harmonically complex work, such as a symphony or perhaps some jazz compositions. Mangan’s steady-state and percussive music reverberated, collided with itself and became a sonic mush. Mangan writes for a club scene or outdoor concert

There is nothing slavish or fatalistic here. Passion and genius are still present. But when we see greatness, Byrne argues, we are seeing creativity perfectly adapted to the context or environment. What we are admiring, unconsciously, is the perfection of the adaptation, the seamless alignment, rather than the created object itself.

Like Byrne, I feel a slowly-dawning realization that this insight about creation is true. I am more and more impressed by the way the structure of schools (the organizational structure, the social rules and the physical environment) shape and limit behaviour.

So now I want to ask, if we have just one kind of school structure (I think I can argue that all public schools and most of independent schools form a monoculture built on a single structure) we will have, at best, only one kind of genius? And next, is our current structure of schools capable of delivering the kind of genius we are asking for in our critiques of contemporary education, i.e. creativity, collaboration and so on? I don’t think so. My hunch is that if we want to see the innovation we asking for we are going to have to create another venue for it.

One Comment

  1. Reply
    david theriault May 25, 2013

    The venue is just a spoon. The venue matters as little as the clothes they wear. What will matter is DIY projects, #geniushour, 20% time, professional blogging experience, creating companies and experiences- the big shift can happen when we stop treating school as if it is preparing them for something important that happens later and start allowing them to interact with the real world NOW. We don’t have time for later- we need the genius of youth, their passion and energy NOW.

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