Teacher as DJ


The notion of teacher as DJ may have been implied when people started applying the “rip-mix-burn” metaphor to education, but lately I can’t seem to get it out of my head. The similarities were there even when teachers worked primarily with paper textbooks and printed research articles, but is even more pronounced now in the era of digitized resources.

There are the obvious similarities… Both start with a collection of existing materials – acoustic resources like songs, sound effects, and samples, and educational resources like simulations, tutorials, and articles. Both sequence and blend these materials in interesting ways. Both do quite a bit of planning (think syllabus as playlist), perform in discrete blocks of time (think course meeting as set); and both have to make meaningful connections between the resources they choose to employ (think lecturing and discussion leading as beat matching).

Beat matching means getting two records perfectly in sync with each other, then using the crossfader to switch between them. Beat matching is a skill that every DJ must master. When you’re playing a rave, party, dance, or club, being able to segue (move smoothly) from one tune to another without losing the beat will help you keep the dance floor full.
from Beat Matching Tips

But it’s the similarity expressed in this last sentence that has kept me awake the last few nights. Clubbers vote with their feet, and generally do so very overtly. Learners vote with their attention, and generally do so very covertly. How do we, as teachers, “keep the dance floor full?” A skilled DJ can feel the energy coming off a crowd and respond very quickly when that group is starting to feel restless (and starting to abandon the dance floor). A skilled teacher can feel the energy coming off a class and respond very quickly when that group is starting to get restless (and starting to doodle, read books, play games on their cell phones, etc.). The DJ responds by playing different music, sticking with genres that the crowd likes. How does the teacher respond? By using different examples, sticking with the kinds of explanations that the learners resonate with? By understanding the rhythm of the class, by knowing when to “play a slow song?”

I believe that this exchange of energy between people is critically important. In all the talking we do about effective teaching, we frequently overlook this obvious, social component. I’m not sure why we expect learners to simply sit there, regardless of how unresponsive we are to the cues they give us, taking offensive if they behave as if they’re bored or complain about our classes. How would the dynamic change if learners felt free to vote with their feet like the clubbers, to walk off the dance floor whenever a class became too lame? This is exactly what online education enables them to do, and this is exactly why paying attention to the social component of these experiences is so much more critical in online learning. We must set up channels through which people can exchange this energy, and those serving as teachers must be ready and willing to respond to that energy. We must move beyond the idea that we can burn a 3 credit class onto a CD (or upload it into WebCT/Blackboard/Sakai) and hand it off to a learner with a “see you at the end of the semester.” We are DJs, and it is up to us to keep our learners on the dance floor.

6 thoughts on “Teacher as DJ”

  1. Interesting metaphor, though I wonder how many of the teachers I work with would really follow it (and maybe there’s the rub!!!)

    But the DJ essentially serves passive consumers who, apart from the right to “walk” or threaten to do so by fidgeting or looking at their cell phones etc., have little room for manoeuvre. To what extent are they really participating in the direction of events, the way things flow on that dance floor? Are our learners to be understood as dancers following someone else’s beat?

    I’d rather mine weren’t on someone elses dance floor, paying through the nose for tapwater. I’d rather see mine out on the street, or in a flat somewhere, banging on their own bongos.:)

  2. How can we keep the beat of online learning? Well, first, we have to trade in our equipment – the LMS – and start gathering a variety of tools that all have a social component to them – the social software toolset. Then we have to work really hard designing and orchestrating energetic, social learning experiences. Then we have to evaluate what we have done, identify the wekanesses and do it again.

    Like the DJ, you keep building a library of infectious tunes.

  3. Wow i have never thought of teaching like that, im a teacher (computer), i’ve been teaching the last 5 years in an elementary school here in Honduras, im also a Dj, just started like a year ago.
    And as a teacher i can tell you that students will pay attention only if they can relate to the topic of teh class, and if they cannot relate, then we must use examples that they can relate to, that is why planning and preparation is a KEY ina good class. As a Dj you also have to prepare your SET, although a good dj will “feel the vibe of the crowd” you must have a list of possible tunes to play that night or event.

  4. I don’t think of the DJ’s audience as passive or consumers. The audience plays the instruments as the DJ creates and distributes them. That still means there’s a difference between DJ and audience, but the difference isn’t one of activity. It’s one of role, and of relationship to the event. At its best, the occasion merges performance, performers, and audience into one being. Cf. Pete Townshend’s “Lifehouse.”

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