Saturday, June 21, 2008

Attentiveness, Flexibility, Collaboration

The narrative which follows is one chunk of a somewhat longer piece of writing I've been wrestling with in which I am trying to pull together a number of different threads of connection around the concepts of attentiveness, flexibility, and collaboration. I'm working with a group of teachers at my school on a task force which is directing the self-study we need to conduct in order to prepare for the visit of the WASC accreditation team, scheduled for the spring of 2010. We have been framing our conversations in such a way as examine and reflect upon the ways in which the school provides and shapes environments which promote attentiveness, flexibility, and collaboration both on the part of the teachers and on the part of the students.

I got to thinking about Tim Kelly during a conversation with a student at the end of this year when I was trying to explain the whole notion of 21st century learning skills why I believe that process skills and habits of mind (including, of course, attentiveness and flexibility and collaboration) are closer to the heart of my mission as an educator than, say, memorization skills or test-taking skills. We wound up talking for a while about grades and the logic of grades, which got us into a discussion about competition for grades, and then about competition more generally. And that's when I found myself talking about Tim Kelly.

Back in the 70’s, when I was first out of college and just beginning to teach and to raise a family, I met Tim. Tim was a musician, a piano player, and we used to get together pretty regularly for a couple of years there to play tennis or basketball or chess. We were fairly evenly matched in all of those endeavors, and the competition was enjoyable for both of us.

We were not fairly evenly matched musically. Tim had been playing piano since childhood and actually had musical talent to start with; I had started playing guitar only a few years before and had, as far as I could see at that time in my life or at any time subsequently, no real musical talent at all besides a certain pigheaded stick-to-it-iveness. When Tim said we should get together and jam, I was skeptical, but willing to try.

In our jams, Tim took on the role of servant leader. He favored a style of musical collaboration he called modal improvisation. He would create simple melodic structures that I could follow with my limited assortment of chords and my crudely executed scales, and then create little openings within the structure for me to improvise. After I had rather quickly exhausted my repertoire of licks within one of those spaces, then I’d switch back to rhythm chords and create similar spaces which Tim would fill with elegantly elaborated little rills and trills and arabesques. We spent hours together whiling away the Time in this manner. Even though we were mismatched in terms of talent, we were able to create something together that had some sort of aesthetic quality and that satisfied both of us.

Once we had been playing music in this way for some months, Tim and I began to talk about whether we might be able to transfer this experiment in collaborative exploration into our other areas of interest. At the time I was teaching in a small elementary school, and I had a key to the gym. On Sunday mornings a group of us would get together and play basketball. Up until I had met Tim, basketball had existed in my mind as a purely competitive exercise. There are historical and psychological and familial reasons why I had turned out to be a fierce competitor at this time in my life, but up until that time basketball was for me what chess had been for Bobby Fischer, an opportunity to impose my will upon the opposition, to keep the pressure on until I could feel the opponent’s ego break. Not that I always, or often, succeeded at that. I wasn’t that good. But that’s what I was trying to do, and that’s where I took my satisfaction, when I was able to achieve it.

Tim helped me to start thinking differently about that. He suggested that we try playing basketball as a form of modal improvisation. We would contrive to put ourselves on the same team, and then we would try to play together in such a way as to raise the aesthetic level of the game. We would work together with great attentiveness and patience, trying to run our pick-and-rolls smoothly and to perfection, trying to find the right angles for the elegant pass, trying to make the game something that was satisfying not so much for its result as for its shape, its architecture. We began making a conscious effort to rely less on one-on-one moves and more on collaboration. The best move one could make in our re-framed hierarchy of basketball values was not the corner jumper or the reverse spin move but the artful assist.

This way of playing, this mindset, changed the experience of being inside the game. It gave me access to more and different kinds of pleasure during the game, and de-emphasized the result. The primary criterion for success was whether we had played well together. If we had, we felt good about the game, even if we had lost. If we hadn’t played well, we were sobered and disappointed, even if we had won. After the games were over, we often were not even sure what the score had been. Our post-game conversations would involve re-creating and re-living our own little highlight film of the moments where the game had gone right.

The old sports cliché is “It isn’t whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” I had heard that throughout my life, but Tim was one of the people who helped me eventually to understand how that might actually work in practice.

This is a narrative which is most obviously about collaboration. But it's also a narrative about flexibility — being able to shift your orientation and redefine your goals within a system with which you are already familiar — and about attentiveness as well. What you choose to attend to, what modes of attentiveness you have available to you and how you select from among them, has everything to do with what you wind up deriving from an experience.

It's been interesting, over the last few weeks, to see how powerfully these three concepts interact with one another. More to follow.

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