Sunday / June 16

Wanted: Master Learners


I have been a trombone player since fourth grade, and I have played off and on for the better part of four decades. Though I wouldn’t consider myself truly an expert, I know quite a bit about how to play the trombone. I have played jazz, classical, and pop music, and I’ve seen many different styles and approaches to writing parts for trombone players.

Trombone is a unique instrument. To change pitch, instead of pressing a key or a valve, it has a slide. The length of the slide is one factor that determines the note a trombonist produces, and because you can change the length continuously by sliding in or out, the trombone is the only wind instrument that can produce a true glissando: a smooth slide from one note to another with no skips or gaps. The range is relatively narrow, however, and a trombone cannot produce a “gliss” between every possible pair of notes.

Composers like to use this idiomatic sound in their works because it can be used to create interesting effects. But as a trombonist I can tell when a composer doesn’t understand the nuances of the instrument because they will write one (or more) of those impossible glissandos.

Does that mean every composer needs to learn to play every instrument? That might be one way to understand subtle issues of orchestration, but there are other ways to learn the intricacies of an instrument, such as this article by professional trombonist Michael Clayville that explains how a glissando works on the instrument and what combinations are feasible.

A composer also needs to know the technical theory of music composition and orchestration. Extensive familiarity with the history of music is similarly important. Being conversant in just one of these may allow the composer to create serviceable music, but deep and broad knowledge in all dimensions is what makes the composer an expert.

The Misguided Yearning for Master Teachers

There is a pervasive belief that if we could only find more master teachers (and fire all the bad ones), education would improve. I think this yearning to find or create more master teachers is misguided. It’s not that master teachers aren’t important; it’s that they aren’t sufficient.

A master teacher is like the composer who completely understands music theory without yet understanding how the performers produce the sound. He is like the chef who has perfected the sous vide technique but has not yet developed a refined palate. She is like the soccer player who is a genius at ball handling and game strategy, but has not yet mastered on-field communication with her teammates. In short, the master teacher is a superb technician, while the master learner is both technician and artist.

Teachers must not merely be master teachers; they need to become master learners. Learning is the entire point of everything we do, so it only makes sense that professional educators would be experts in learning.

Four Lenses of Master Learners

There are four lenses through which we need to understand learning and that will drive our own professional growth as learners ourselves. Master teachers use two of these lenses, while master learners use all four.

  • Pedagogy. It goes without saying that an expert in learning does need to understand how to create and nurture that learning. Pedagogy is the toolbox we use to construct an environment and experience that make learning not just possible but probable.
  • Content. There was a time when I thought pedagogy was far more important than content knowledge for a teacher. After all, we should be facilitators, not transmitters. But a teacher who doesn’t have a deep understanding of the material he or she is teaching will not be able to lead students to grasp the depth or nuance of the subject.
  • Psychology and Neurology. Learning is an artifact of the brain, so if we are to be experts in learning, we can’t avoid knowing and understanding the biology and psychology of the learning process. “Brain-based learning” is truly a redundant statement. It can’t be just another fad collection of techniques; it has to be the foundation of our practice.
  • The Student Experience. Just as the composer needs to consider the audience and the chef needs to consider the diner, so does the educator need to understand what it is like to be a student. The experience of learning is a part of the learning itself.

Practice the Five “R’s” of Professional Learning

To become a master learner, then, one must continually practice learning through all of these lenses. The following five practices, all conveniently starting with “R,” will take you a long way on your journey to becoming a Master Learner.

  1. Read. Often, widely, and deeply. Read books, read blogs, read about your content area and about pedagogy and about completely unrelated subjects. Sometimes your best ideas and greatest professional growth will come from reading that has nothing to do with education. Read your own handouts from the point of view of the student to ensure they say what you intended.
  2. Reflect. Think about what you read and think back on what you teach. Make connections between ideas that accidentally collide in your mind. Consider what works and what doesn’t. Process your experience from multiple perspectives.
  3. (W)Rite. Taking thoughts and putting them into words, whether just for yourself in a journal, or for others in a blog, newsletter, or journal, is a guaranteed way to deepen your own understanding of the learning process.
  4. Relate. We learn more and more deeply when we have varied perspectives. Seeing through the four lenses above is important, but when our only view of the student experience, for example, is our own, it is still limited. Connect with others and learn from and with them. Get active on social media and form learning groups within your school. Take courses and make friends.
  5. Refresh. Never be satisfied with where you are. I decided long ago that the day I believe I know everything I need to know about teaching and learning is the day I should retire and leave the work to someone who is still growing.

Tom Watson, one of the world’s greatest golfers, used to go to his teaching pro every year at the beginning of the season and tell him, “Teach me how to golf.” They started–every year–with the foundations: grip, stance, alignment, swing. As you are just getting started with this new season, think about taking a fresh look at your work through the four lenses of a Master Learner and begin practicing the five “R’s.” You will not regret it, and you will be much less likely to give your students an impossible glissando.

Written by

Gerald Aungst has more than 50 years of personal and professional experience fostering curiosity in learning through play and making stuff. During the last 25 of those years, in his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, Gerald has worked to create a rich, vibrant, and equitable learning culture in schools. Gerald is currently a gifted support teacher in the Cheltenham School District in suburban Philadelphia. Gerald is also one of the organizers of Edcamp Philly and a founder of His book, 5 Principles of the Modern Mathematics Classroom, is available from Corwin. You can also connect with Gerald on Twitter at @geraldaungst.

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