Bobby McFerrin: master teacher and model

It seemed like such a good lesson plan as I sat at my desk in the quiet hours late last night. But within minutes of the class starting, the inadequacies of the plan had been exposed. Over the course of that hour (which felt as though it would never end), I discovered that two of the girls were in the middle of a feud, several students found it constitutionally impossible to sit still, some resisted when I tried (unsuccessfully) to organize some group work, a boy spent the entire lesson asking those around him for something to eat (it turned out he hadn’t eaten all day), a sizeable group ignored or complained about anything that involved reading or writing, one girl looked deeply sad or even depressed, some students down the front kept complaining that they couldn’t work because of all the noise, and an obviously popular boy kept diverting the attention of half the class away from me and onto him. I spent my time suppressing my anger at their ingratitude and rudeness (I’d spent hours on the lesson plan), and the other half thinking that I just wasn’t cut out for this job.

This was the scenario I presented to our Grad Dip students last Tuesday afternoon, and I asked them to reconsider lesson plans they’d created in the light of the likelihood, indeed the inevitability, that they’d teach classes with this kind of mix of students. How could they modify their lesson plans to avoid such an outcome? Or were some classes just impossible to teach, no matter how resourceful the teacher?

It’s this question that is keeping some of our pre-service teachers awake at nights: can good preparation help us avoid this kind of hellish lesson?

So, last Tuesday, the Grad Dip students worked (on their own, or in pairs, or in small groups), discussing the question and modifying their lesson plans.

Some tried to take explicit account of each of the individuals or sub-groups I’d described: the feuding girls, the hungry student, the attention-seeker, the restless ones, and so on. A few discovered that this approach meant that their lesson plans soon became bogged down in contingency plans to take care of every conceivable possibility.

What’s the way out of this thicket? How can we plan a lesson, knowing that there are so many different (and often unpredictable) student needs and dispositions?

Take some time to enjoy the following video of the musician, Bobby McFerrin, working with a group of amateur singers.


Have close look at the the people in this group. They’re a very ordinary looking crowd. A typical, every day group. It’s not inconceivable that there is someone in that group who is depressed, another who is hungry, a couple who hate each other, some who normally can’t sit still, a few who usually need silence in order to concentrate, some who think they can’t sing or have no sense of rhythm, and so on. But Bobby Ferrin has managed to transcend these possible barriers to learning.

Bobby McFerrin

How has he done it?

Well, first of all he is a genius. That has to be acknowledged!

But there’s also a great deal in common between what Bobby McFerrin has done here and what good teachers (like Courtney) do all the time.

First of all, he knows his stuff. He’s in charge of his material. He’s highly skilled. If you’re teaching something, being a specialist in your subject is important.

But there’s more to it than just that. Bobby McFerrin’s ‘lessons’ work because he follows some basic pedagogical principles, all of which can be worked into a lesson plan.

He makes sure that his ‘students’ are active. He doesn’t just talk to them. He doesn’t just demonstrate and get his students to discuss his demonstration. He doesn’t just signal out the ones who can do it. He gets everyone actively involved in the experience.

Secondly, he gets his students working together in groups, supporting each other. There’s collaboration. Singers are bunched up close together, so that the less confident can feed off the more confident. One singer might be particularly good at keeping the beat, another the melody. They rely on each other.

Thirdly, there is a balance between helpful repetition and momentum. He tries not to move on before everyone has had a chance to get the parts. And yet, at the same time, there’s a real sense of momentum. The group is working together to produce something that is growing, deepening, becoming more and more musical. There’s a sense of the group becoming more adept as musicians as the ‘lesson’ progresses.

Fourthly, the work is challenging. It’s not easy. The ‘students’ have to work hard. (Research and our own experience both tell us that we like to be challenged, that we misbehave when we’re bored.)

Fifthly, the experience is tightly structured. For all its wonderful creativity, you can see the way Bobby Ferrin has broken the complex task down into manageable and achievable chunks. Yet the relationship between the chunks and the big picture is always visible (or at least felt) by the students.

And finally, the activity is obviously connected to these people’s interests. In a way, this is easier for Bobby McFerrin than it is for us. They chose to come to his concert! But it’s a reminder of the importance of establishing a connection for our students between what genuinely matters to them and what we are going to teach them. Students behave well when they perceive that the lesson is worthwhile. And it’s connected in another sense, too; every new skill or melody he teaches is connected to what they can already do. There are no insurmountable gaps.

The learning is active, collaborative and is moving somewhere.

The teaching is challenging, structured and connected.

If we can build these qualities into our lesson plans, we’re less likely to have lessons that go pear-shaped.

Alfie Kohn puts it this way:

Alfie Kohn

One of my own major (albeit belated) revelations as a teacher was that behavior problems in my classroom were not due to students’ unnatural need for attention or power. The students were acting up mostly to make the time pass faster. And given the skills-based, decontextualized tasks I was assigning, who could blame them? Back then, I was thinking about a new approach to discipline. What I really needed was a new curriculum. (Alfie Kohn Beyond Discipline: from compliance to community, Virginia, 1996, p19)

Or, perhaps, a new way of teaching it. Bobby McFerrin is not a bad model to learn from.


2 thoughts on “Bobby McFerrin: master teacher and model

  1. This idea of needing a different curriculum (eg Kohn above) keeps coming up, also in Phils wk 6 lecture.

    Is the idea that one takes the ‘given’ curriculum then, applying something like ‘alternative student-focussed pedagogy’ then makes up an ‘alternative curriculum’ guided by the students, for the students and do so just in time for them to learn from it, and then like a snowflake, it disappears… and the only evidence it was there is the work, solid growing learning about how to learn, and the sense of a community of learners that is left …?

  2. Love the snowflake image Jodie. The older I get, the less satisfied I am with the idea that learning to learn and community are enough. I’m committed to both, but for me there has to be some residue excitement about the content too. I loved English not just because it helped me learn how to read and write etc, and not just because it helped me feel a part of an interesting classroom community, but also because it introduced me to authors who excited me. What do you think?

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