Do not accept the concept of failure. You are Antifragile.
The idea of antifragile is one of the concepts that I am asking my students to experience this year as they learn to sing, work, and learn together during rehearsals. I am asking them to trust me and take a vacation from some of their defeatist self-talk, unsuccessful habitual learning behaviors, and sometimes just basic laziness.
I discovered the term Antifragile (Taleb, 2016) while reading The Coddling of the American Mind, How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up A Generation for Failure (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2019). One aspect of the book discusses how complex systems such as our muscular system, economics, and I submit music learning require a certain state of strain or pressing tension to promote adaptation and activate growth.
The problem is, a number of my music students will side-step and back away from uncomfortable and challenging learning and default to their musically gifted peers and let them lead. Throughout my career, I have searched to find ways to help all my students lean into, wrestle with, and move through learning challenging concepts and skills.
Mikhail Bakhtin and The Polyphonic Novel
The inspiration and foundation for the Polyphonic Classroom lie in the work of the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin and his concept of the polyphonic novel. Bakhtin contends that Dostoevsky created a new novel genre as multiple independent and distinct characters in his novels were given equal voices, and each had valid individual perspectives. Polyphony in fiction allows the author great freedom as characters or voices can be interdependent and allows the freedom to interact, coexist, develop feely, and are not subordinate to each other. The Agile Classroom interprets Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony and provides the teacher and student the opportunity to present and experience many different voices and understandings in the music classroom.
In the same way, the polyphonic music classroom provides an environment in which all students’ voices -literally and figuratively – are treated equally and are valued. Music students’ perspectives, learning styles, and abilities are given the opportunity and freedom to interact, coexist, develop feely, and are not subordinate to each other.
The Voice of an Open Mindset
To help my students relate with the concept of antifragile and move towards being more self-regulated, I incorporate the work of Carol S. Dweck and her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success into my rehearsals. I use this poster to remind my students that learning and growing take hard work and discipline. When the students experience a challenging rehearsal and encounter uncertainty and frustration, I quickly review the open mindset characteristics, and we dig in.
Adams (2019), in her article Developing Growth Mindset in the Ensemble Rehearsal, encourages educators to teach and reinforce the open mindset, develop and strengthen positive achievement strategies, and provide the students the opportunity to apply these new skills for their future music learning. Promoting and creating an open mindset in the classroom is the first step in helping students develop their awareness of and label their habitual responses to frustrating and challenging learning experiences.
The Voice of the Agile Classroom
I believe that each choir is enriched and enhanced by all its members’ unique gifts and talents. In my classroom, each choir member receives the title of Subject Matter Expert (SME). One soprano SME has the gift of observation and is keenly aware of a melodic line’s lack of precision and expression. In the alto section sits another SME with an aptitude for languages and helps the choir learn Spanish for Esto Les Digo. A bass SME has the gift of rhythmic accuracy and helps the bass section learn how to TaKaDiMi their part for Fair Phyllis.
I believe each student has something musical and non-musical to offer the ensemble.
The concept of teaching individuals collectively integrates the philosophy of valuing both the individual within the group and valuing the group which contains the individual. The emphasis of the individual within the ensemble, and the ensemble as the sum of its members, establishes the foundation of the Agile Development Instructional Framework and dynamic teaching.
The Voice of Multiple Intelligences
To help my students become more aware of their musical and non-musical abilities, I spend a short amount of rehearsal time at the beginning of each year and introduce them to Gardners’ Multiple Intelligences. Dr. Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of neuroscience from Harvard University developed the Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) in 1983. According to Gardner, human beings have nine different kinds of intelligence that reflect different ways of interacting with the world. Each person has a unique combination of all nine intelligences, and no two individuals have them in the same configuration – similar to our fingerprints.
Using this handout, my students learn that they and their classmates have unique musical and non-musical abilities and talents that all help the ensemble learn, grow and perform better. Choir members come to realize that they do not need to have the perfect voice, be the best sight-reader, or have extra-special musical insights and instincts. They begin to become more antifragile through learning about their strengths and weaknesses and come to realize that others have theirs. Now, if one of my ensembles struggles with a song’s movement, I can call upon choir members who identify with the Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence, and they help lead and teach the choir.
The Voice of Crosscutting Concepts
The awareness of MI in the classroom is much like our science colleagues, who now use crosscutting concepts in their curriculum. Crosscutting concepts as defined by the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education are “concepts that bridge disciplinary core boundaries, having explanatory value throughout much of science and engineering. These concepts help provide students with an organizational framework for connecting knowledge from the various disciplines into a coherent and scientifically based view of the world.” To move toward being antifragile, I consistently encourage my students to bring their expertise and corresponding skills from other disciplines into the choral setting.
The Seven Science Crosscutting Concepts
2. Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation
3. Scale, proportion, and quantity
4. Systems and system models
5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation
6. Structure and function
7. Stability and change
If you go back and review the list above, you will notice that all seven crosscutting concepts in the Next Generation Science Standards can not only be applied to studying music but also most disciplines. All of our students are successful in some field of interest and study. The Polyphonic Classroom validates these skills and experiences and asks our music students to bring all their abilities and skills to the rehearsal room – musical and non-musical.
TLDR – The Voices of the Polyphonic Classroom
To achieve a new conceptual understanding in any subject, students must actively experience, wrestle with, and move through conceptual reconstructive changes. For our ensembles, this learning transformation may feel counter-intuitive, uncomfortable, and frustrating. The struggles and discomfort they feel when learning new skills are how knowledge and understanding enter the mind and body.
The Polyphonic Classroom style of instruction requires students and teachers to modify their thinking, music processing, and how they relate to learning in general. The awareness and development of 1) applying an open mindset, 2) cultivating each students’ contributions to the ensemble (SME), 3) becoming aware of the Multiple Intelligences, and 4) applying Crosscutting Concepts across disciplines empowers all our students and strengthens the ensemble.
The paradigm of teaching individuals collectively integrates the philosophy of valuing the individual within the group and the group which contains the individual. The emphasis on strengthening each individual within the ensemble establishes the foundation of the Agile Development Instructional Framework and the Polyphonic Classroom.
Ackles, Brian O., 2018. Agile Development Instructional Framework (ADIF): A New Strategy for Student-Centered Music Education. Choral Journal, September 2018. Vol. 59, No. 2.
Adams, Kari. “Developing Growth Mindset in the Ensemble Rehearsal.” Music Educators Journal 105, no. 4 (2019): 21–27. https://doi.org/10.1177/0027432119849473.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House Publishing Group
Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure. United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2019.
Nesari, Ali Jamali. (2015) Dialogism Versus Monologism: A Bakhtinian Approach to Teaching. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 205: 642-47. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.09.101.
New York State Arts Standards: Music Standards At-a-Glance
Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional-guide
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House, 2016.
Agile Development Instructional Framework (ADIF)
All activities, rehearsal strategies, and projects developed through applying the Agile Development Instructional Framework (ADIF) and Skills Quests are research-based. They contain elements of the following teaching models and instructional theories: Self-Regulated Learning, Self-Directed-Learning, Experiential Learning Theory, Understanding by Design, Cognitive Coaching, and the Universal Design for Learning.