Marco Torres: It's about teaching and learning

Like Alan, Marco likes to start with examples: partly because of nerves, partly because he’s aiming for balance between examples and ideas and the balance starts for him with examples.

Pretty good idea for this audience, which will say “awww” not only for puppies (Kathy Sierra did that for us yesterday) but for neat pieces ‘o gear, like the portable mini-keyboard from Korg he shows us as he begins his demo with GarageBand. He advises using the black keys (“you can’t mess up the songs”) and the string presets (“string instruments have great range”). He demos John Williams’ two-key melody from Jaws and shows how the iPhone can map the dissonance, then plays a perfect fourth for us to show how the story can have a happy ending (“Free Willy”).

He seems to be driving toward the idea of musical storytelling.

(Musicians have long debated the way(s) in which music might convey meaning, from the “program music” of something like Scherezade to something as remote and abstract as Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (I hope I spelled that correctly). I actually went down this path in some research back in grad school, and found that musicians have widely varying ideas about the nature of musical expressivity. There are some interesting angles to pursue here with regard to the specific natures of particular media–films are not illustrated books, photographs are not the same as paintings, etc. It would be interesting to complicate the idea of creativity along these lines.)

Torres had an uncle who produced what he calls “some of the worst movies ever to come out of Mexico.” His mother was a photographer. These influences brought home to Torres (literally) the nature and importance of story. The relationships here also taught Torres that trust and collaboration were crucial to the creative process, especially with storytelling, because no one of us knows everything. Story gives stuff a purpose. The purpose isn’t in the stuff itself. (He connects this idea to material in Sierra’s presentation yesterday–a good connection indeed.) Narrative yields meaning. The search for meaning elicits narrative. (I wonder: is this true for music and the visual arts, always?)

Receive, create, produce, broadcast: here are today’s channels:


Receive, create, produce, broadcast: here are the channels we had when the average principal was in school:


What to conclude from this difference? Are we stuck on assessing the products of pen and paper? What should we do with the varieties of expression we have available to us now? How do we move from students as recipients of information to students as producers of information? Another important point: we may bring information in through one channel, but produce or make something with that information in another channel. We may be auditory learners but visual creators.

At this point the talk turns to what-do-we-need-to-know, and does knowing that stuff confer expertise? Einstein says “don’t ask questions that you can look up.” (True, but there’s more to truly knowing facts than simply being able to repeat them. Schools may not know this yet, of course. But I’m not sure that finding the fact on Google is exactly the same as having memorized the fact yourself. My own memorization, if it’s done well and in a meaningful context, will have assocational ties that stretch in many directions, the way a word has connotations even when I “know the meaning.” A complicated issue.)

Torres mentions in passing the need to teach the grammar of math and not just the facts of math, by which he means the context and uses of mathematical knowledge and procedures.

Now the talk turns to the need for school not to suck. Most folks in the room here think their 9-12 grade education was “boring.” Last year Torres worked with Alton Brown. He shows us a couple of videos, one an ad for the show itself. Great stuff. The melancholy bit comes when Torres recounts Brown’s production team’s description of their process: “we just do what you educators do.” Yeah, right.

Now to Mythbusters: Don’t watch guys teach you. Watch guys learn. They don’t know the answer. We’re in the journey together. Now the audience are participants. And we see not only the result but the process (which is the story).

Schools are trying to perfect routine cognitive skills, but what we need are complex cognitive skills. Learning takes place in a complex web of relationships. Schooling interferes with learning. Schooling is more like “Frogger” and learning is more like “Call of Duty.” He’s also going through the example of the learning networks that have assembled around Lost. (I need to see Lost and I’m looking forward to getting into it, but I do have a small concern that puzzles will become the gold standard for learning, the model by which we understand all aesthetic and narrative experiences. Seems a bit narrow. And having Gilligan’s Island stand in for all TV in the 1960’s is rather a straw-man argument. There are plenty of brainless shows on now as well, and some with much less charm than clumsy old Gilligan’s Island.)

Torres now plays us some excerpts from his students’ work reimagining songs from Star Wars in a mariachi mode. Very creative stuff, very funny. He observes it’s also helpful to be friends with George Lucas so he doesn’t sue you. The point is that it was important to provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate learning and mastery in multiple modes, not just in text and print. It’s important for students to find the channels for their greatest strengths to grow and produce. His student David wanted to learn; he was “desperate to learn.” The challenge is to find a way for schooling to nurture and encourage that desire, not to block it.

As I wrap up this post, I wonder if Torres’ frequent and heartfelt connections to Kathy Sierra’s presentation yesterday will help elicit and frame some of its more subtle depths. Just because someone is a dynamic speaker with a message they carry in much the same way from venue to venue doesn’t mean the person or the talk is superficial or inauthentic. If learning is self-help … or vice-versa … bring it on.


One thought on “Marco Torres: It's about teaching and learning

  1. Well written and interesting thoughts on making learning more fun! I would like to share another fun way of learning and which is more student centric and allows collaborative study groups which is what makes it exciting and a sense of satisfaction through contribution.

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