Education Desk: Cultivating Curiosity In The Information Age
Five years ago, Pete Carney and a friend wrote a little textbook and got it printed up at Kinko’s. Within a few months, it was adopted by the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. It’s now used in more than 200 schools, several colleges and universities, and is up for adoption by the Los Angeles school district. It recently beat out McGraw-Hill to be adopted for use in middle schools and high schools across the state of Florida.
That’s not bad for a guy with zero credentials in education.
It’s the kind of class students take to fulfill some requirement, and hopefully get an easy A. The existing textbook was your standard history of orchestral music, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and other ancient Europeans. As a musician, attuned to audience feedback, Carney could sense that the kids were not into it.
“I had had that experience maybe as a performer on stage,” Carney says, "trying to reach out to audiences to make sure they could feel the music. So for me going into the classroom, it was sort of a natural step of, ‘Wait, if you guys aren’t feeling this, then I know you’re not enjoying it and you’re not learning anything.’ I think the system that I walked into was just a flat approach of teaching what’s in the book.”
The book presented a couple of barriers. One was its chronological approach.
“It was like starting in the Middle Ages. That’s like, you’re just like, I mean you’re trying to kill people when you do that, you know?” Carney says. "I wasn’t comfortable with it and my students weren’t responding to that format…. It’s too far back in the time machine.”
But the bigger problem, Carney realized, was that nothing in the book could compete with the bottomless well of information students could access on their smart phones.
“It was a discovery for me that, with the evolution of Wikipedia, and using the internet in general, my students all had access to the information that we used to only have access to as the teacher,” Carney says.
"So if everybody has the same information, how do we change teaching?”
This is where many teachers adopt the simplest change possible: banning cell phone use in class. Carney took the opposite approach.
“I started with just creating worksheets,” he says. "I started with just one exercise at a time. Where I found out that I could get my students to do their homework if the homework was on YouTube.”
The standard textbook the class was supposed to be using provided all the music on a CD.
“But nobody will listen to the CD, for whatever reason,” Carney says. "It’s always been like that. But by asking them to listen to YouTube, they could access it on their phone, it almost didn’t feel like homework, and they were more interested in doing it. … And it was just that change in the delivery method of the homework that opened up my classroom.”
Carney had students learn to identify the sounds of various instruments by finding samples of a bassoon, a viola, a Moog synthesizer and a flange pedal online. He had them analyze pieces by Count Basie, Jimi Hendrix, Claude Debussy and Astor Piazolla. He had them watch videos of famous conductors presiding over rehearsals. This method changed the class from an exercise in memorization and regurgitation into something deeper.
“You’re asking them to participate, you’re asking them to construct knowledge, you’re asking them to do their homework on YouTube and listen and bring stuff back to class,” Carney says. "Bring your observations. It’s not a one-way street. It’s a two-way conversation.”
The beauty of this method is that it works with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms — and even the Middle Ages.
“I always try and start with: There’s a way for people to be curious. You know, there’s a way for people to be interested in this," Carney says. "So how do I make that bridge to these people -- to the dead white guys? There’s a way, because they had tough lives too. The hard part is just the bridge. It’s not the music. You can’t change Beethoven. It’s beautiful stuff. You just have to change the way for people to get over there, to get across to the music.”
Eventually, Carney and another part-time teacher, Brian Felix, collaborated to create their own textbook, called “Interactive Listening.” In 2011, they started marketing copies bound at Kinko’s for $20 apiece, and sold enough to move production to a national printer. Carney took a course in filmmaking and created an interactive iPad version that became a No. 1 editors’ pick on Apple iTunes. School districts began adopting the textbook, and -- Carney says -- major textbook publishers came calling with offers.
“Yeah, we definitely had interest from the big publishers, but it was more of a ‘We’re definitely interested in buying you out.’ But it didn’t feel right, you know? We feel like we’re doing something different," Carney says. "l like we’re teachers that are doing this, and it would be sad if we quit now.... We’re kind of disrupting the textbook industry in some very small way.”
But their small disruption is growing in new directions. They get requests for textbooks about other subjects -- academic subjects like algebra and biology -- because educators recognize that Carney has identified a concept that, at its heart, applies to more than just music.
Q: One thing that you said to me, long ago, was, ‘I think the question of our time, as teachers, is how do you teach when people are surrounded by information, but they are not curious about it.’
A: That’s been my life mission I think since about 2006 when all the sudden everybody had this device in their pocket that changed everything. I think it’s a big moment in history. … But I really feel like learning is a personal thing. You can’t force somebody to learn. And I think at the beginning I was frustrated that I couldn’t force our students to like read this whole chapter. And I started to think well maybe there’s a way to change the system that people are open to participating. And I think we’re just so much better at problem-solving than reading facts. That’s a big difference to me in teaching right now. … If you’re just lecturing, people may or may not pay attention. But if you can find a way to involve them, then I think you have a chance.
Q Has there ever been a moment when you’ve said, ‘Man, I wish I’d taken some education courses so I’d know how to teach’?
A: No! I did take some education courses eventually and I think education courses kind of reaffirm the system as it is. But if the system needs to change, you know, I felt like I had to find my own pathways for new ideas.
Carney left City Colleges in 2012 to pursue a doctoral degree, and recently earned his PhD in jazz studies at the University of Illinois.
He has also presented a TEDx talk about his teaching concepts. You can watch it HERE.