This morning I saw this incredible video of Nandi Bushell covering “In Bloom” by Nirvana. Nandi is 9 years old! I was struck by her talent and exuberant emotion as she played. I have watched it over and over even as I write this because the video is so compelling to me.
But do you know what Nandi is not?
Original. On this video and others, Nandi plays covers on the drums while she listens to the original song on headphones. She does an excellent job of mimicking the drummers, but no one could argue that she is creative here. She doesn’t even put her own spin on the songs’ beats. The novelty here is that she is only 9 and is too cute with how she plays (perfect formula for YouTube views).
If this was school, we might be tempted to criticize her for “copying.” She is not playing her own music or writing her own songs. Where is the creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving? But on the internet, she goes viral and gets to meet her heroes-the actual musicians who wrote and perform the songs that she loves.
It’s hard to be very creative in anything that you have no background knowledge or skills in. The first step needs to be mastery of skills before prolific creativity can happen. So musicians start out playing covers as they learn their craft. Then as they become confident, they find their voice and start to write their own stuff. Often it takes years before musicians ultimately find their niche.
So for teachers, the first time that you attempt Project Based Learning in your classroom, you might not create your own project from scratch but borrow ideas that you found on the web. It might not be novel or 100% authentic for your students. When it’s completed, the local media might not show up at the school showcase, making your students the stars of today’s news.
And it’s all good!
It’s ok to start off PBL “playing covers” of other teacher’s projects. Not everything has to be original to be powerful and meaningful for students. Given the opportunity, students will start to riff and make the project theirs.
For students, we can’t expect them all to produce incredible, high quality work the first time that they are introduced to PBL. We may need to gradually release them with sentence stems, scaffolding, models, and mentorship.
But for many students, they will get to use some of their talents not always acknowledged in core content. This will build confidence that leads to more participation, higher quality work, and eventually creativity.
Note this does not mean that we lower expectations, but that we are realistic about growing students from where they are to the next step on their path toward mastery and self-management. It is about a culture of effort with permission to fail, but support that keeps students pushing onward toward ultimate success.
It also doesn’t mean that students can’t reach the high levels of Blooms before learning skills. It just means that their first attempts will be messy, rough draft thinking and will need proper scaffolding. Nandi is playing complex songs, not just beginning music lessons. She is obviously motivated to improve her skills by the creativity of the best drummers in the world, not by some “Drumming for Dummies” type of music lesson. Her drumming is highly skilled; it’s just not original yet.
I am confident that Nandi will not spend her whole life playing covers, but is on a path where she will soon perform her own rocking songs.
If you are new to PBL, try a proven project from another teacher. You will soon be writing your own projects customized for your students as you experience the power of student and community centered pedagogy. And as for your students, encourage them to try things that they aren’t experts at yet. An open culture that is pursuing mastery will lead to growth and creativity naturally!