The Beatles and informal learning


David Price, OBE, is probably best known in Australia for running courses for teachers and schools on Project-Based Learning. He recently caused a bit of a stir on Twitter with the following:

There followed a long exchange where various people pointed out that the Beatles amassed a huge amount of musical knowledge and that they practiced a great deal, not least through all the hours spent playing clubs in Hamburg (an issue I addressed here). Moreover, they were managed by Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts drop-out, Brian Epstein. Early Beatles material was derivative compared to the songs they are famous for now, and so amassing musical knowledge made a key difference.

However, to be fair to Price, he does have a point. The Beatles did indeed lack knowledge of musical theory. Later in the thread, Price points out that the musical knowledge they gained was through informal learning rather than formal lessons – they researched, discovered and created that knowledge for themselves – and I think this is an important point.

If you feel compelled to become a world expert on mushrooms then you are going to have to gain this knowledge informally. Even if you are lucky and your local university runs a course on mushrooms, it will only take you so far. At some point, you will have to take to the internet and start reading research papers. You will have to do it yourself.

Informal learning of this kind is not only possible, it is ubiquitous. We research and discover things all the time. Nobody needs to make a case for the idea that we can independently learn new information and concepts because it is an established fact.

However, by its very nature, informal learning involves an element of chance. If you are lucky, you will meet the right people and have access to the right resources to send you off in the best direction. If you are unlucky then you will not. It is clear that the more privileged a young person is, the more their access to the right people and resources and the better their odds in this particular game of chance.

For instance, The Dragon School in Oxfordshire, an independent prep school, seems to supply the world with a disproportionate number of successful actors. Acting tends to be a profession for those from wealthy backgrounds because a trust fund helps with irregular income. Even so, The Dragon School is still punching above its weight. I don’t know how they achieve this, but I suspect it is not as a result of lots of formal lessons. Teaching may indeed be a part of it but I suspect a lot of the success is about providing the right conditions for informal learning to take place for those with an interest.

The difference between formal learning and informal learning is that formal learning tends to be more effective for the greater number of students (which is why even highly privileged schools still utilise a lot of formal learning). If we look at whole language versus phonics instruction, for instance, it is clear that children can learn to read from both methods. The difference is that phonics leads to a greater proportion of students learning to read and appears not to harm those who would have learnt through whole language. Whole language, despite being used as a classroom approach, is far less formal and so it is affected more by chance and privilege. Phonics is a more formal approach, it reaches the greatest number of children and is therefore more equitable.

This is why we created mass education in the first place. We decided that the ability to read and write and do basic mathematics should not be left to chance and the vagaries of informal learning. Instead, we decided that we should at least attempt to bestow these gifts upon everyone in our society; an egalitarian, big government, left-wing aim.

Over time, we have become even more ambitious and decided, as a society, that science, history, literature and a range of other academic pursuits should also be open to children of any background and we therefore extended formal methods for teaching these subjects to all children. Yes, a child from an affluent middle class family may teach herself to code or to read Japanese but this does not falsify the need for systems of formal education. Children learnt to read long before the advent of formal education, they just tended to be the more privileged children.

If we work backwards from unrepresentative outliers such as the Beatles and assume that we need to make school education less formal, we will unavoidably make it more of a lottery. As a young person, I never even considered the possibility of becoming an actor. My experience of drama at school did not change this as, from memory, we would largely create and perform our own plays about social issues such as bullying. It was a system of informal learning where nobody ever told me how to breathe or use my voice or any of those other things that I expect a formal drama education would contain but that I do not know about. Instead, drama was just a vehicle for addressing some issue that we would supposedly find more relevant than drama itself. I did not find it relevant, generally messed around and gave up drama as soon as I could.

That is what will happen if you replace formal lessons in history and science with project-based learning. Instead of the subject being seen as worthwhile in it’s own right, it will be diminished as just a tool for achieving some relatively mundane end or addressing some worthy issue. Students from backgrounds that are light on science will never really come to understand what it is and will never see themselves as potential scientists. They will never appreciate the beauty and power of scientific understanding. Students whose parents are science professors at the local university will complete projects about DNA and win the science prize.

Formal learning works because it leaves less to chance. It systematically teaches everything in an area of knowledge, wiping out the advantage of those students who happened to know some of it already. Informal learning is great, but its serendipitous nature makes it largely unfit for an education system.

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13 thoughts on “The Beatles and informal learning

  1. Indeed! Ans speaking of outliers, how many millions of garage bands have come and gone – some with much musical knowledge – that haven’t added squat to the development of music? Typical logical fallacy reasoning namely “the exception that proves the rule: Arguments that make generalisations based on anomalous examples are fallacious as they ignore the rest of the data that suggests such rare examples are outliers that cannot justifiably be generalised to the rest of the data.

  2. Despite my total lack of talent in these matters, singing and dancing are universal human behaviours common to all cultures. This is not to say that they are natural to the extent that walking and talking are–the nature of each culture’s song and dance is specific to that culture and has to be learnt through some sort of instruction, even if it is largely absorbed informally. For instance, the maternal ancestry of American blacks was once traced through the characteristic rhytms used be various African peoples, which presumably the babies picked up whilst strapped to their mothers while they were washing clothes and pounding grain. But I seriously doubt that the Fab Four just picked up guitars and discovered all the chords just by messing around; it still required some kind of instruction.

    As did whole language–even extremists like Kenneth Goodman was relaxed about the possibility that kids might just accidentally get a bit of phonics. And although most children did indeed succeed with minimal instruction, one of the most telling results of the Clackmannanshire experiment was that all children learned much faster. In other words, it wasn’t just a matter of eliminating the long tail of underachievement; results on tests of spelling and decoding improved for all pupils. Whole language experts made a big deal of the fact that ‘reading comprehension’ results were little better than average, ignoring the fact that to even achieve average scores with a seriously disadvantaged intake was almost a miracle. I’m afraid that Kirschner, Sweller and Clark have unearthed a universal principle: minimally guided instruction just isn’t as effective as explicit instruction; only an educator could be daft enough to think otherwise. Sadly, we live in an age where such obvious matters have to be proved–and are still continuously contested even after they have been established to the satisfaction of anyone outside the magic tent of progressive theory.

    1. I googled quarryman (sorry I didn’t know it was the original name of the band). The wiki page contains a lot of info on how Lennon’s mum taught them basic chords and how they were originally a skiffle band, a musical style that required little formal knowledge. Pretty good lesson plan, teach some key concepts and apply them in a restricted drill.

  3. The final word in your quoted David Price tweet is THEORY.
    Therein lies the problem for teaching and teachers. Of course the source for education theory bubbles relentlessly from schools of education. These university influencers are largely controlling the teaching profession even though they tend to be dominated by those with little or no familiarity with the classroom. They also promote education research in defiance of warnings by those who acknowledge the futile nature of engaging in such activity. Leaders in schools of education put the careers, income, impact and influence of their faculty before the interests of pupils. End the theorising.

    1. Nothing wrong with theorising. It is the refusal to update them so they explain the data which makes it frustrating.
      Progression isn’t wrong because of it’s hypotheses, it is wrong because the data didn’t match the predictions.

  4. One might want to consider where the Beatles would be if they had indeed learned music theory. A formal study of music seems to have been beneficial to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, after all. As an old punk rocker, I think the Sex Pistols would really have been a much better band if Sid Vicious had actually learned to play that base.

    In sports, nobody would come up with the idea that new football or boxing talents are best cultivated by letting them do without all that scientifically controlled diet, exercise and tactics provided by a squad of trainers, masseurs and physicians, and instead just play around by themselves.

  5. Price is making a very odd argument. Based on his example schools should be doing their best to get the next Lennon to drop out so that they have the best chance of making a change in the world.

    It seems in discussing education ideas it is very hard for people to articulate that they are dealing with a tradeoff and argue their option is the right balance or make the case that they are somehow moving both ends of the balance in the right direction.
    So you have more work verses more play – literally as options when discussing math in Ontario, behavior management verses fostering agency, high standards verses fostering creativity, teacher led verses student engagement, or knowledge rich verses cultural identity. I am still trying to figure out that last one.

    I am not suggesting some of these are not false dichotomies but that the debate often ignores that their might be a tradeoff.

  6. I refer to this type of argument as a ‘Branson’ argument in which a student says something along the lines of “Richard Branson didn’t go to university and now he’s a billionaire” conveniently overlooking the point that the reason Richard Branson is held up as an example is precisely because of how rare it is to find a billionaire with little formal education.
    Yes, The Beatles may have had very little formal musical training, but many, many more successful musicians did, spanning the whole spectrum from Deep Purple (Jon Lord and Don Airey,) to Psy (of Gangnam Style), Slash from Guns and Roses, and Elton John who famously won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.

  7. Funny he should pick The Beatles. They’re already fading from view.

    Despite how much the generation that grew up with them adore them, the current generation don’t care for them at all.

    The Beatles were a phenomenon, but won’t advance art any more than Snoop Dogg will.

  8. Something that is often ignored is that they were taught by George Martin, who had an excellent theoretical knowledge, and a team of first rate engineers. Many of the Beatles innovations and developments were a direct result of this influence:
    1) The counter melody in ‘Help’ was a result of McCartney learning about counterpoint from G.Martin
    2) The string quartet in Yesterday was arranged with McCartney and G.Martin side by side on a piano
    3) Eleanor Rigby is in essence a simple (albeit well written) folk influenced pop song, made special by a string arrangement guided by G. Martin

    There are many more examples, but Martin’s influence and tutoring of the Beatles allowed them to develop their talent.

  9. The argument is silly on two counts; the Beetles were adults, albeit young, and could make adult commitments. They were deeply attracted to and interested in music. Just try that as an approach to learning matrics. They were part of a music culture (ever heard of an imaginary numbers culture?) with lots of informal learning, I’m sure. But above all, music is a practice with instant feedback and sticking at it one would pick up a lot of skill with even a modicum of talent. Try that as an approach to stoichiometry.

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