Imagine a class full of teenagers toward the end of the school year. Their topic for the day is a critique of Communism, focused mainly on events that took place a few generations before they were born. The expected picture might be of kids leaning on rows of desks thinking about summer while watching a teacher talk, not energized small groups vying for a chance to give an oral report on what they discussed for the past hour.
For some lucky classrooms in southern California, the latter experience came to their their schools in the form of KlabLab, a education platform that encourages learning through music. KlabLab has developed an interactive lesson plan that gets students to collaborate in making songs and yet still fits the teacher’s curriculum goals.
“It’s a gimmick that gets kids to write a report and give it orally at the end of class,” says KlabLab co-founder Dave Haberman. “They think critically and do more than just regurgitate back the facts.”
Music has a long association with education. Most of the GeekDads and GeekMoms grew up with Schoolhouse Rock being a pleasant interruption between episodes of Scooby Doo and Superfriends. More recent efforts at helping kids learn through song include Vocab Rock, Rock the SAT, and Flocabulary. According to Haberman, educational music traditionally packages the songs in a corny way that turns students off. That is something KlabLab looks to the students to fix.
The Sound of Knowledge
Haberman initially pursued teaching credentials at San Jose State University but left after recognizing limitations in the bureaucratic approach to education that would make it difficult for him to engage students the way he wanted. Already with experience recording an album, he reached out to high school friend Doug Allen, a professional musician and music producer with a social conscience, to help develop a new way to get kids motivated to learn.
“I started writing songs based on the curriculum I was teaching, and the response I got was amazing,” recalls Haberman. “Doug started making songs that sounded like they could have been on the radio, but instead of being about your ex-girlfriend they were about the order of operands or cell structure.”
Haberman leads the in-class workshops and guides students through the process of writing songs. Allen, who created a mobile recording studio in a tour bus, is responsible for an expanding library of original song templates, spanning a half dozen genres including rap, country, reggae, and dubstep. “One of the things I pride myself on,” says Allen, “is having an eclectic taste and the ability to produce different kinds of music.”
The constraint of a couple dozen pre-tracked songs doesn’t limit creativity. It may inspire it. Allen points to one hip-hop template that has been used repeatedly, but with different subject matter, lyrics and choruses.
“They felt like completely different songs,” says Allen. “That’s one of the more concrete things we have to prove that this creative thing works.”
Haberman works directly with teachers to ensure the activity fits the pedagogy: “The teachers would say, ‘What do you want from me?’ I would have to turn it around and say, ‘Actually, what do you want from me? I want to write this in a way you don’t have to even think about how to incorporate it into your lesson plan.'”
Before entering the class, KlabLab solicits input to understand both what the teacher is trying to communicate and the music preferences of the students. Upon arrival, Haberman helps break the class into groups of four students, each with a particular role — engineer (records all the lyrical ideas), manager (keeps the group on task), producer (make sure lyrics are on topic), and artist (performs their song). The small groups vigorously discuss the subject of the day for an hour before any recording begins.
While most of the classrooms have been teenagers, KlabLab has worked with students as young as fourth grade. Their experiences with that age have them considering going even younger.
“We thought it was a tall order for young kids, but they were amazing,” Haberman recalls. “First of all, they have no inhibition, so they had a great time with it. And the lyrics they came up with were great. They had us sign autographs the whole time, we felt like the Beatles.”
KlabLab has visited 10 schools, conducting 86 workshops with 40 teachers and over 3000 students. The Sound of Knowledge Tour 2012 is their latest contest, encouraging students to write, perform and record their music with professional musicians. Groups can submit their songs for public scrutiny that could earn students free iPads and their school $10,000.
“The end game is that they record what they did and share it,” explains Haberman. “They have fun creating their song, and others have fun later when they access it on our site.”
More Than Music
KlabLab is more than just a music-in-education activity. The company wants to start a revolution in classrooms around the nation by giving a platform to creative teachers everywhere.
“Music is great, but the hook isn’t necessarily music,” says Haberman. “The hook is engagement. We’re trying to sell engagement through creative learning. We happen to be musicians.”
Teachers are always looking for ways to engage their students. Teacher-generated lesson plans are a growing market for educators, and the KlabLab founders believe many of those activity creators need a louder voice. At a charter school in the Bay area, Haberman and Allen heard about a teacher who created a last-man-standing kind of game around The Hunger Games. The students were outside, where they could run around as they played. When they came back to the book, the kids were able to relate that experience to what they were reading.
Haberman laments that such innovative teachers have a sphere of influence limited to their school or district. By evolving KlabLab into a clearinghouse for creative learning ideas, those ideas get a chance to spread to anyone who can access their site.
The KlabLab songwriting workshop is just the first example of the kind of creative activity they want to promote. Both the musicians and their sponsoring teachers have been pleased with the educational benefit and level of engagement seen in kids, some of whom are otherwise silent or struggling in class. One student stayed up all night writing about World War II just to get a chance to record his song before the studio bus rolled away.
“We have students who, when we say time is up, they say, ‘Oh, no no no! Can we have five more minutes?’,” says Haberman. “Did you just beg me for five more minutes to write about the Cold War?”
KlabLab makes their own song templates available to teachers for free, encouraging any adventurous enough to try out the method in their own classrooms. Allen considers their initial workshop engagements — which are done free of charge to the school districts or teachers — as “an experiment with a focus on sharing ideas for creative learning.” The Sound of Knowledge Tour serves as market research to help the startup and their angel investors understand where they can make their money to sustain their mission to become a hub for creative learning tools.
“If students come up with something amazingly musical, that’s a bonus,” says Haberman. “More importantly, they talked about science for an hour.”