Sunday, August 07, 2011

Education at its very best - Brighton Rocks!

Rockshop – education at its very best

Last night I saw the fruits of what I regard as an ideal educational experience, run during the school holidays, yet none of the participants or observers would have seen it as ‘educational’ in any sense. Here’s what happens. Seventy to eighty kids attend a five day event called ‘Rockshop’ run by Herbie Flowers, who played with the likes of Lou Reed and David Bowie. He has several tutors who ‘tut’.

Goal driven

On Monday morning they have a goal: write some songs and perform them live, to a paying audience, on Friday night.

Learn by doing

The tutors don’t deliver formal lectures or lessons, they simply facilitate the process, helping where and when they can. The whole point is to learn by doing. The kids learn together, from each other and from the tutors, as they write, refine, practice and perform real songs.

Work with strangers

What’s great is the fact that many of these kids work with people they’ve never met before, which teaches them social, communication and work skills. They learn with and from other people who are not in their normal peer group. They make new friends, in some cases I’m sure, lifelong friends.

Good social mix

There’s kids from a range of social backgrounds; private schools, state schools and kids with special needs who have found they have a talent for paying an instrument, and the whole group clearly support each other (give or take some teenage ‘attitude’!).

Peer learning

There’s classically trained violinists, singer song writers, mouth organists, jazz fans, drummers, base players, guitarists, keyboard players and brass players. And it’s cool if you’re not as good as the others – because they all know they’re there to learn, not to judge. They’re showing each other chords, base lines and twinning up on stage so the strongest can help smooth out the weakest. It’s all good.


The goal brings focus, so forget about lack of concentration and attention. They’re full on, 9-5.30, then evenings at home. Many even popped out to busk at lunchtime!


There’s no need for formal assessment as it’s all about real performance. This is what brings out the best in these teenagers is that the pressure comes not from the exam but something they care deeply about, their own performance and competence. And boy did they respond.

Family and friends

Friday night came and a sell-out audience, largely the friends and relatives of the performers, was waiting eagerly – no expectations then! I was particularly impressed by the number of young people in the audience who were there to see and support their friends. My lad had his parents, grandparents, two cousins and a friend watching – that’s pressure. But it was the whole family thing that made it work. Suddenly it was cool to have worked hard and practised. It was cool to learn.

The quality of the songs was outstanding both lyrically and in musical composition. We had jazz, soulful ballads, a sophisticated live, looped composition, rock and folk. And the finale, with all of the kids on the stage rocking out with the audience on their feet, was great. The kids had busked at lunchtime and gave the cash to Herbie and he promised to use it to subsidise the tuckshop!

Share it

But that’s not all. All the sessions and loads of photos will/have been uploaded to YouTube and Flickr. So the show goes on and performers, their family and friends can enjoy what they’ve achieved. It’s also archived for future use.


For some kids, learning is best done out of the confines of school and exams, by professionals with real stature. Herbie’s one of those people, as is my son’s drum tutor Phil and their Tae Kwon Do master, Howard. None of these people have teaching qualifications, but they’re among the best teachers I know. These people have enriched my children’s lives and deserve all the support they can get.

But what really fascinates me is the way in which institutional language and approaches are almost completely absent. There’s no talk of ’learners’ and ‘learning’. No one sees this as a course with lessons, sitting at desks and bells. There’s no ‘teachers’ just tutors who, as Herbie says ‘Tut don’t teach’. And there’s no written exam, just pure performance where everyone walks away with an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, having grown as people, in terms of confidence and competence.

I have to declare an interest here as I’m the Deputy Chair of the Brighton Dome and Festival (a Concert Hall, two additional theatres and England’s largest annual arts Festival). Our wonderful Educational Director, Pippa Smith, supports this event which is run every year. There needs to be more of this during the summer months.


Anonymous said...

Ok, but that is for writing some songs. Please now convince me with some simliar examples on chemistry, physics and mathematics.

Rob Alton said...

= Intrinsic motivation

samwisefox said...

^ Why is it always the 'Anons' that spew doom and negativity?

I found this to be a nice & positive read for a Monday!

Donald Clark said...

Anon - look at the work of Roger Schank who taught Maths at Yale and does Masters level work with students based on a 'learn by doing. model.

Physics & Chemistry - Feynman, one of the greatest physics teachers ever highly recommended solid lab wok as the primary mode of learning, not lectures. Mazur has introduced peer learning to Harvard physics courses. I could give lots of examples here. Similarly for chemistry.

Languages - I have no doubt that shorter, intense, immersive courses, learnt in the country where the language is spoken is far superior to most school language teaching, which results in catastrophic levels of failure.

I could go on and on...

Wilfred Rubens said...

Education should be meaningful. This is a precondition for intrinsic motivation. Often, it isn't. "Brighton Rocks" is (for these kids). Great example.

Jeroen Duijsens said...

One aspect that remains implicit here is the physical aspect of playing music. (Or maybe I just didn't see it :) It's not a mental act, it's an act that involves the body. So it offers those people whose talents and sensitivities or not primairly in the 'head', the possibility to participate and be seen and heard.

Rudi Clause said...

Would it all so work in a formal context? I doubt it. Never the less it is a fantastic experiment.

Rudi Clause said...

Would it also work in a formal context? I doubt it. But never the less it was a fantastic experiment. Thank you for sharing this.

Donald Clark said...

For thise that see this as 'merely' a physical activity, you must rethink your idea of what constitutes cognition. These kids, my own included read music, and the process of writing songs (lyrics and composition) is a highly complex cognitive activity. You may also be missing the planning, organisational skills, management skills, commuication skills and many others that are an integral part of this process.

Can it take place in a formal organisation - yes it can but only if we reboot education, with longer sessions (not 50 min periods and kids pounding the corridors from one class to the next), external involvement and avoiding the all too obvious trap of seeing education as a purely academic enterprise.

Jeroen Duijsens said...

I didn't say 'merely' Donald. I agree on your statement of playing being also a complex cognitive activity. But maybe I was unclear. The physical aspect in playing music (and especially in playing it together) appeals to a broader intelligence than the cognitive alone. It involves more senses en provokes a physical reaction/sensation as well. What I see in jam sessions or in training (formal ones by the way :) when I introduce music is that people are able to open up/ access parts of their being (knowing) that remain hidden most of the time.

Donald Clark said...

Jeroen - reread your post. Sorry I got the wrong end of the stick. I agree that for many it opens up a more 'rounded' educational experience, where they have to interact, create, reflect, organise, rehearse and perform together. It's the range of skills they acquire that I like.

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