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.