The Rubenstein Effect


Recorded Music vs. Drawing Room Performances

The widespread availability of recorded music in the early 20th century had a profound effect on the quality of music that people heard.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in the realm of classical music.  For the first time in human history anyone could listen to almost any piece of music at any time.  What’s more they could treat themselves to a flawless performance by one or another of the greatest artists in the world. Now, with the touch of a button (or drop of a needle) I can have Arthur Rubenstein play any of Chopin’s works for me.  I can even bring in Horowitz and have him play the same piece so I can compare them to each other!

Previously, wealthy folks paid musicians to perform for them in their salons. Poor folks went to an occasional public performance or simply went without.  However, if you were not the Archduke Ferdinand you were unlikely to ever hear the greatest performers of your day.  Most music was performed by serviceable but not brilliant musicians who happened to be available and may or may not have delivered a good interpretation of the piece on offer.

Today, it is simply unnecessary for me to ever suffer through a second rate performance of a great work of music – unless I am at my son’s recital…

So why do we make teachers, good or bad, deliver on-the-fly renditions of what amount to the canon of works for the k-12 teacher?  There are essentially several thousand works of performance that make up the entire body of k-12 educational lectures.  Every topic from every course in each year of a student’s life are an endless series of hit-or-miss performances by less than world class performers.  Why shouldn’t every student see an introduction to the solar system delivered by Neil DeGrasse-Tyson?  Why does my son’s English teacher have to try to reproduce a lecture on the Hero in mythology that has been performed masterfully by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers for PBS? It simply doesn’t make sense.

Sal Khan of Khan Academy talks about “inverting the classroom”.  That is, having the students watch the lectures at home and then do exercises, in school, under the watchful eyes and helpful tutelage of the teacher.  The idea is that lectures are really not the highest and best use of a teachers time.

What’s more, having the lecture delivered at the exact same pace to each student may not work well either.  It is a near certainty that one student in a room full of 9 year olds’ attention will wanders for a few minutes in the middle of a 20 minute lecture on past tense verbs.  Should the teacher start over? No.  Should that one student ask the teacher to recap the lecture after class? Not practical.  What happens now?  The student is left to figure it out on her own.  Wouldn’t it be better if the student could just press pause and then go back 3 minutes without wasting anyone else’s time?   Obviously.

There is no technological reasons holding this change up now.  Delivery of simple video is within the capabilities of devices that cost far less than a standard textbook and are already in the pockets of the vast bulk of the students in our school.  All that is left is for the educators and administrators in our schools to do the non-trivial work of changing the way they work.  This isn’t simple, of course.  Things have been done the same way for a very long time and the stakes – children’s education – is very high.

Still, I don’t know anyone who would choose my rendition of Chopin over Rubenstein’s.  Why should our children have to do the same for their history lessons?

8 thoughts on “The Rubenstein Effect

  1. EW

    Interesting article. Do you know of a school today that is taking Khan’s idea to heart? If so, have they been able to measure how effective they are vs. the standard lecture paradigm approach?

    1. milt Post author

      There are schools using Khan Academy in the context of an “inverted classroom”. Check this article from a while back in Edudemic.
      Measurement is one of my biggest questions about EdTech in general. The whole concept is fraught with concerns about data collection, privacy, teacher evaluation etc. etc. Definitely a topic for another post. I have collected a ton of info about it over the years.

      1. milt Post author

        I have heard about School of One. It is one of a number of new approaches that include personalization combined with careful assessment that seem to be generating really interesting results. I’m not sure what exactly constitutes the “secret sauce” in each of these successful experiments but I am heartened to see innovation starting to show promise in K12 education.

  2. Kim P.

    What a cool concept! It would definitely allow for more opportunity to tailor a student’s education to their areas of interest, and cover foundational subjects from a host of different angles/topics.

  3. DJM

    This is an exciting concept and an important one to think about using in such a way that maximizes school time used for ALL types of critical growth: intellectual, social and emotional (and I’d add physical, as well). This could free up teachers to do more in depth group work, challenging projects, etc, that would allow students to learn using many modalities.

    It’s worrisome how much time children spend on screen time. It is critical for brain development for them to spend time interacting, playing and learning with real people of all ages. As long as a flipped classroom allows for more interacting amongst students and with the teacher, more opportunities for students to question their own and other’s ideas, more demand for students to communicate their thinking, etc, it could be a very powerful teaching tool. Lecture time is often not very effective teaching time. If the flipped classroom creates more isolation, I find it problematic.

    As is the case with most teaching tools, in order for the tool to be powerful, investing in professional development is critical so that teachers know how to use it effectively.

  4. admin Post author

    Hi Rex,

    That does sound really interesting. I think we are at a phase now where we need lots of innovative educators to try new things and see what works and what doesn’t. Obviously not every school has the resources to write their own code and run a 6:1 student:faculty ratio. One of my hopes for technology is that it can make better use of the most expensive and valuable resource schools have – teachers. For most schools teacher salaries are the vast bulk of the cost, and reasonably so. It just kills me to see teachers do things with their time that could be better done by a computer or a youtube video.

  5. milt Post author

    Hi Christine,

    Homeschooling has always sounded too intimidating for me. That said, I have known people who have had great success. I have a friend at Autodesk who did the same for most of his children’s education. He recommended an organization called Calvert Eduction as a resource. You might find it interesting.

  6. Doug Stein

    Lecture – the process by which information moves from the teacher’s notebook to the student’s notebook without passing through the minds of either.

    Another way of saying this is that the lecture is the default crowd control mechanism for a batch/factory model.

    Lectures aren’t bad in and of themselves; a great lecturer transmits more than merely content, but also something of their enthusiasm and love for a subject. However, even the best lecturers don’t “connect” with every student.

    What do we do? We offer a large (and redundant) curated set of materials to instruct, formatively assess (assessment FOR learning), and prepare students to apply, integrate, and create using what they’re learning. (It’s only when you can create something new – and explain it to someone else – that you have learnED.)

    The rise of recommendation engines (like Knewton) are intended to provide Amazon-like recommendations so at each point a student is offered a prioritized set of useful “next steps”. The goal is to get a group of students to the point where they can put something of themselves into a project or discussion and also apprehend what their peers have learned.

    There are schools and universities doing this (as mentioned in previous comments), but it’s not widespread in K-12. Why? Not because the technology and pedagogy are lacking, but because the organization of schools assume a batch processing model. Sometimes the funding model (Carnegie unit, anyone?) or staffing model (union contracts) make it difficult to do more than nibble around the edges.

    At any rate, our host’s thesis is correct. “Lecture” is an inefficient way to spend class time – for teacher and student. Reallocating class time so each student can wrestle and triumph individually and in small groups is a good start – so moving the lecture to the home and letting students pace themselves is a good start.


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