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Friday, December 09, 2011

No mistakes on the Bandstand



As someone who appreciates Jazz, I highly recommend this video. Stefon Harris talks about the importance of paying attention to the teammates when doing improvisation. He gives a great illustration of what it means to go with the flow, and how that's different from commanding the team to do something specific that one has already set one's mind to. 

This talk is also a great metaphor applicable to many interactive activities that an academic is involved with. Whether it is working with Ph.D. students, research collaborators, or even in class while teaching, there has to be a lot of give and take, and mindful awareness combined with a certain letting go of the ego makes for a richer and more rewarding experience. Even seemingly discordant notes are an opportunity to go someplace new. 

I have been experiencing this increasingly in the classroom, myself. I am finding that the more open I am to new ideas coming from the students through their comments and questions, the more willing I am to digress from a pre-set path, the more interesting, the more creative, the classroom experience is for all of us. This allows us to stray away from well-trodden paths of textbook exercises to occasionally discovering entirely new problems. This semester, for instance, based on student questions in my wireless networks class, we formulated and solved an interesting new variant of the problem of power allocation across parallel channels to maximize total rate (a classic Information Theory problem that is solved using the so-called ``waterfilling" algorithm). This variant was similar enough that we could use the same approach, but different enough that we could appreciate resource allocation at a deeper level. And because it was motivated by questions the students themselves had asked and clearly something new to all of us, I think it might just have made a more lasting impression at least on some students compared to the usual routine. 

In light of the ongoing debates about online education, it also occurs to me that this kind of improvisational interactive classroom experience is precisely what cannot be replicated in mass-marketed pre-packaged instructional videos.

2 comments:

Thanassis said...

What a great presentation through performance!

This indeed is the essence of improvisation. Several years in theatrical improvisation have taught me this.
(improvisation skills -whatever the form- are surprisingly identical)

Bhaskar you are making a great connection to education which can be expanded to life in general. There is a lot to be gained by embracing the improviser's attitude and honing the skills: active listening/awareness, letting go of the self/ego, essentially letting go of the desire to control.

Thanks for the pointer and the discussion expanding it to your own experiences in education.

Bhaskar Krishnamachari said...

Thanks, Thanassis!