A far from humdrum robotic hummingbird developed by Purdue University
A recent tweet made use of the word ‘humdrum’, which set All Change Please! wondering what sort of a musical instrument a Humdrum actually might be.
The suggestion from out there in the electronic universe is that humdrum initially comes from the word ‘hum’ (as in to hum a tune). The word hum was later applied to the hummingbird to describe the thrumming sound of its rapidly beating wings. Hum is an imitative onomatopoeic word, and the repetitious ‘um’ in humdrum is probably meant to capture an idea of dreary, monotonous droning, and so has come to mean boring, uninteresting, commonplace, routine, dull, etc. As in the sound of a teacher’s voice droning on endlessly at the front of the class.
Meanwhile the ‘drum’ also possibly derives from the sound of someone ‘drumming’ their fingers on a table-top. As in the sound of a bored student sitting at a desk or table, drumming their fingers, staring at the ceiling, ignoring everything the teacher is saying and just waiting for the bell to ring to signal the end of the lesson.
But let’s get back to the tweet in which the word humdrum was used. This brief, but provocative, exchange involves the BBC’s surrogate Education Correspondent, your very own Miss_BS.
It’s yet another example of far-right propaganda that deserve a little deconstruction. To begin with, let’s accept that Coltrane practiced his scales as a boy, and that Shakespeare learned the works of Plutarch off by heart. Well, actually no, let’s perhaps instead accept that Shakespeare read the works of Plutarch, was influenced by them and referred to them in his plays. And that Coltrane, born into a musical family, as he was practicing scales was at the same time listening to and absorbing a wide range of creative music, and doubtless playing some melodies of the day too.
The problem with using the humdrum as the basis for the school curriculum is that for the vast majority of active young adults, desperate to forge their own identity and approach to life, the boring old humdrum is the last thing they want to engage with, especially if it’s presented in an academic context which seems to have little relevance to the real world. That’s not to say that practicing scales and learning things by rote should never be undertaken, but the need for it, and the recognition that it has value, has to grow out of an initial creative exploration of the world.
The traditionalists believe that you can’t be creative until you’ve been told and memorised all the relevant knowledge, and that’s what young people should be doing exclusively during their time at school. In reality, rather than coldly following forth the humdrum, creativity and knowledge closely interact, each feeding off each other, working together as two closely interwoven strands. It’s a bit like the ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ conundrum. It’s impossible to say whether a creative idea or the relevant knowledge came first – and as ‘progressives’, who tend to be more open-minded and creative teachers, know and understand well.
Or to put it another way:
The traditionalists just don’t get that.
And our entire education system gets it wrong with teaching because of that one simple misunderstanding.
Well of course the sentence above, like the one in the tweet, is nonsense. There are a whole range of reasons why teaching is not always as good as it might be, but it’s quite ridiculous to suggest it’s all down to whether learning is humdrum or not.
All Change Please! remains curious as to which schools all these so-called extreme left-wing progressive teachers actually teach in en-masse, because all the schools it has ever visited have been staffed by teachers who are essentially academic in approach and largely devoid of creativity. At the same time it wonders how many such schools the hard-core trad tweeters have actually visited, and suspects they exist largely in their own fearful imaginations.
It’s a shame there has to be a propaganda war between so-called traditionalists and progressives – it’s not really very helpful and both sides expend far too much energy fighting each other. Fortunately in the majority of schools there’s some sort of balance between the two approaches, so young people get exposed to both approaches and make their own minds up as to what sorts of learning suit them best. But at the same time, teachers willing to take risks and break away from the past need to be encouraged and supported and feel confident they can stand-up to the barrage of criticism that is hurled at them by the traditionalists.
Learning in the past
Meanwhile, in other related news, the Df-ingE recently published its new music curriculum with a loud triumphal fanfare. Except disappointingly it doesn’t include any ‘new’ music at all, with the required listening being firmly placed within historically well-established genres categorised as ‘Western Classical Tradition (and Film Music)’, ‘Popular Music’ and ‘Musical Traditions’ (i.e. music from other cultures). It seems no mixing of genres is allowed, despite the fact that this is an important characteristic of much contemporary music. And of course there’s a regularly repeated chorus of humdrum traditional musical notation theory thrown in for good measure.
To be fair, it’s good that the ‘model’ curriculum promotes a wide range of influences but there is no inclusion of any music that involves improvisation, or is not based on the use of conventional melodies. There is no reference to composers who took creative risks, experimented and pushed the boundaries of music on during the 20th Century, such as Stravinsky, Stockhausen, John Cage, Steve Reich, Miles Davis, Hendrix and Bowie.
Sadly it has largely become the same with art education these days. In too many schools it’s become a well-rehearsed formulae of choose an established artist, learn how to copy their technique and use it as the basis for your own painting. Whatever you do, don’t take risks, be too experimental or try anything new in case you fail to get your top exam grade. On no account be intuitive, spontaneous or express yourself, don’t ask questions, and above all don’t make too much of a mess.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with learning about and been influenced by a wide range of historical exemplars, but what’s more important is to understand what’s happening today and to be able to anticipate and create the future, and not to just live in the past.
Tweet Of The Day
And finally, our Gav, Df-ingE Secretary in a State about Education has recently been widely criticised for claiming that children’s behaviour will have deteriorated during the pandemic and teachers will need to be extra strict as a result and deprive them of the opportunity of learning how to learn using their mobile phones. This recent Tweet Of The Day provides an alternative, much more positive message to send to the nation’s young people:
Any change of swapping Gavin for Gary?