Learning by Copying

Jazz band Mostly Other People Do the Killing created an interesting controversy in jazz circles recently; they released a cover of the classic Miles Davis record Kind of Blue. The controversy here is that that didn’t so much interpret it as they slavishly reproduced it note for note, right down to the late 50s tape hiss!

This album has generated lots of discussion. One negative opinion I’ve heard expressed a couple of times is that the album–which, again, is very hard to distinguish from the original–doesn’t “swing.” My first reaction to this view was dismissive (if it sounds the same how could it be said to swing less?), but it is certainly true that experts experience the world differently than the rest of us, at least as it relates to phenomena within their area of expertise, so there could well be something to it.

What a fantastic opportunity for the band, though. How much they must have learned during this project.

It reminds me of a wonderful movie I saw recently, Tim’s Vermeer. This Penn & Teller movie is the fascinating true story of an inventor, Tim Jenison, who set out to recreate a Vermeer painting despite having no painting experience.

At the end of the movie, we get to see the painting, but not in a way that let’s us critically compare the painting to the original to learn from the differences. Unlike Tim Jenison, Mostly Other People Do the Killing had made their labor of love available so anyone can listen critically for differences, which is interesting and instructive.

It’s not obvious how recreating a master work in order to learn a craft deeper would apply in all arts. Writing, for instance. If I wanted to be a better novelist, is it somehow possible to rewrite a great novel in order to better understand what, say, Salinger’s craft? Maybe. (Read a chapter, put the book away, attempt to write the chapter, compare against the original, revise, and so on? And if I ended up with Catcher in the Rye word-for-word, would it swing?)

Didn’t Benjamin Franklin learn to write this way?

As someone interested in how people learn, these projects are very attractive to me and got me thinking about my field of instructional design and why there isn’t really a repository of great works that other instructional designers can recreate as a means of growing their craft.

Teachers do, in a sense. Repositories of lesson plans exist that teachers can use as blueprints to recreate classes taught by master teachers. Is that really the same thing as Mostly Other People Do the Killing or Tim Jenison did, slavish recreation of a master work to learn from it? It feels similar to me, a key difference being that it is hard to tell from a lesson plan what the actual original course felt like, and therefore hard to compare how well you reproduced it–if slavish reproduction is even possible (or desirable) in a classroom.


One thought on “Learning by Copying

  1. vasquezam

    Reblogged this on vasqam and commented:
    I agree with the author, a repository of great instructional design works should be available. However, I feel that the designer must create his/her own form of the design, not reproduce it as it is based on the need in the classroom.


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