Memory Medic

How to improve everyday memory.

More on Jazz-band Teaching and Learning

Learning thrives when there is operant conditioning and deliberate practice.

I probably need to explain a couple of learning principles mentioned in the original post on jazz-band teaching and learning. 

One principle is operant conditioning, which is inherent in band classes. It will truly pay off to find creative ways to employ operant conditioning in academic-course classes, because it is the most powerful teaching technique I know of. I assume they teach this in colleges of education, because kindergarten teachers do a version of it all the time with the “gold-star” reward paradigm. Fully implemented, the idea is that little successes bring little rewards, and as the desired behavior becomes established, the bar is raised for further reward, or positive reinforcement as the psychologists call it. A repeated process of “successive approximation” can lead to astonishing results in short order. I think that something like this is operating in band class.

The reward in jazz-band, and that includes orchestra band class, is the immediate gratification a student gets when playing a few new notes or chords, for example. In band, learning something new is usually done in small readily accomplished steps, and there is immediate feedback from hearing what is played and/or comments from classmates or the band director. Contributing successfully to the band effort is also rewarding, because all students know they are “on the team” and making a needed contribution. For emphasis, I repeat the four key elements of operant conditioned learning: 

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  • learning occurs in small successive steps
  • with each step the student DOES something
  • feedback is immediate
  • positive reinforcement follows.

The second key principle is “deliberate practice,” which is also an inherent feature of band class. The idea is not only to practice but to plan specific strategies and tactics for the practice. Teachers, of course, have a plan for teaching each given content item, but that is not the same as the student having a learning plan. Teaching and learning are not the same, and the problem in schools is usually traceable to inadequate learning.

The best learners bring conscious design, awareness, analysis, and correction of error to their learning efforts. This is exactly what has to be done in band class. For example, the learner, guided by the band director, has to develop an approach to move from each small step of mastery, such as playing a few new bars, to learning the whole sheet-music score.

 “Memory athletes” use this kind of memory practice to rise above their own innate memory capability, which is usually not much better than anyone else’s capability. This is the kind of practice performed by superstars in any field: music, art, business, sports, science (and straight-A students and stellar jazz-band players).

Superstars reach that level of achievement by:

  • Having the passion, resources, and time to learn their craft. This means making a commitment to becoming a better learner.
  • Working hard at their craft with smart, intentional planning to improve their basic competencies in very specific ways. In the process of mastering a specific learning task, they are also “learning-to-learn.”
  • Raising their goals to new and more challenging goals. This includes identifying people to compete against.
  • Structuring practice in ways that provide constant and detailed feedback.
  • Continually expanding their knowledge base. This includes learning the tactics others use successfully in study.
  • Focusing on improving weaknesses.
  • Receiving encouragement and help from others. This means having access to a circle of friends and mentors who value achievement. 

In band class, the help referenced in the last bullet item often comes from fellow students, because they need each other to perform well and share in the applause when they perform in public. Peer support is central to success of athletic teams. Academic classes would surely benefit from finding ways to develop team spirit.

All of these things require students to be motivated. I emphasized this in the original post, in the context of the passions generated by jazz. Passion is harder to generate in academic classes, but it is no less important.

Some readers of the original post probably are awaiting my reply to the many comments that have been made. I will do that in the next post, my last on this jazz-band issue.


William Klemm, Ph.D., is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University.


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