The Musician’s Rule and GenAI in Education

Over four years ago I described what I called the Musician’s Rule. The key insight behind the Musician’s Rule can be grasped by reflecting on two short scenarios. Imagine what would happen if:

  • a person with no musical training is given a $1M Stradivarius violin and asked to play it.
  • a person with a graduate degree in violin performance and decades of experience playing in recitals and concerts is given a $30 middle school orchestra rental violin and asked to play it.

Which music will be the most enjoyable? Take a minute and really try to imagine what each of those mini-concerts would sound like. One hundred times out of one hundred, the music made by the person with training and experience sounds the best.

Here’s how I stated the Musician’s Rule back in 2020:

It doesn’t matter whether you give a person a $30 student violin or a $1M Stradivarius. If you don’t also give them violin lessons, they’ll probably sound terrible.

In the context of music, this principle seems obvious. But the point I was trying to make is that Musician’s Rule also applies to instructors being given access to educational technologies. 

It’s well documented that the overwhelming majority of college and university instructors have never received any formal training in how to be effective teachers. Their grad school coursework typically focused exclusively in their discipline (economics or literature or physics, etc.), meaning that the extent of what most of today’s instructors know about teaching is what they learned from watching yesterday’s instructors (who also received no training) teach them. And if instructors have never been taught how to teach effectively (i.e., if they’ve never “had music lessons”), why would we expect to be able to hand them an educational technology (“a violin”) and have them teach effectively with it? Generally speaking, using an educational technology to teach effectively requires you to already know how to teach effectively so you can use the educational technology to accomplish that purpose.

I’ll note here that another group of people who generally have never received any training about how learning happens or what effective teaching looks like is software engineers. And the idea that the UI/UX of a product can be so easy and intuitive that users don’t need any training to use it misses the point. If I don’t know how to accomplish the task without the tool, giving me the tool isn’t going to make it any easier for me. For example, if I don’t know how to frame a wall, giving me a hammer isn’t going to help me get the job done. And the problem isn’t that the hammer is too complicated for me to figure out how to use. The problem is that I don’t know what to do with it. Or, if you prefer a more academic example, if I don’t know how to analyze a specific data set to answer a specific question, giving me a point-and-click statistics software package like SPSS isn’t going to help me get the job done. And the problem isn’t that I don’t know how to point and click. The problem is that I don’t know what to point at or what to click on.

The Musician’s Rule was true back in 2020, but it feels more important now in 2024 in the context of generative AI. If I’ve never been trained in effective teaching, why would you imagine that giving me a tool like generative AI would make me a more effective teacher? It doesn’t matter how powerful generative AI is, I still won’t know how to use it to improve student learning. 

I recently saw Jacob Collier in concert for the second time. If you don’t know this once-in-a-generation prodigy musician – multi-tracking singer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer – and six time Grammy winner, take 30 seconds to check out one of the first videos he posted on YouTube ten years ago (when he was 20):

This is what can happen when you give tools to someone who knows what they’re doing. Jacob is a master of both music theory and its application in practice. Amazing things can happen when people have both theoretical understanding AND access to great tools. Just to illustrate the point, when you provide people with tools but don’t give them training, you’re likely to get the Portsmouth Sinfonia (a group of “players who were either people without musical training or, if they were musicians, ones that chose to play an instrument that was entirely new to them”).

We have to provide instructors the support they need to leverage educational technologies like generative AI effectively in the service of learning. Given the amount of benefit that could accrue to students if powerful tools like generative AI were used effectively by instructors, it seems unethical not to provide instructors with professional development that helps them better understand how learning occurs and what effective teaching looks like. Without more training and support for instructors, the amount of student learning higher education will collectively “leave on the table” will only increase as generative AI gets more and more capable. And that’s a problem.

If we’re ever going to close the academic equity gap that has historically existed between BIPOC and/or low-income students and their peers, we’re going to have to improve student learning. There are some pretty obvious, pretty powerful opportunities to improve student learning right in front of us. But taking advantage of these opportunities is going to require more than a ChatGPT Plus subscription. In part, it’s going to require us to invest more in our instructors.