Looking Back Into The Abyss

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Like most people my age who were educated in American schools, I spent my school career being given assignments with strict guidelines and expectations: “Read this book, and write a 5-paragraph essay on the author’s use of metaphor.” In luckier circumstances, some choice was offered: “Choose one of these four books, read it, and write a 5-paragraph essay on the author’s use of metaphor.” In the best-case scenarios, these assignments involved an activity that interested me, or at least seemed useful. I loved reading and exploring the art of writing, and I saw the practical value in learning the science of how the world works.

Math was another story. While I recognized that I needed to learn basic arithmetic, I struggled to understand what use geometry, trigonometry, and calculus were going to be to me in life. Even though I had teachers who were knowledgeable, engaging, and dedicated, the relevance of these higher math skills continued to elude me. While I did the work that was assigned and tried to maintain good grades, it was difficult to retain a true understanding of the concepts I was being taught. Every bit of calculus knowledge that I acquired during my senior year of high school was gone by the time I started college, never to return.

Geometry and trigonometry turned out to be a different story. Many years after my last high school math class, I took up woodworking as a hobby. As I began designing and building projects, mostly furniture and guitars, geometric concepts that once seemed very abstract and academic suddenly became very practical and necessary. I had to revisit these things that I had long since forgotten in order to take my ideas from design to execution. The process was different this time around, though, because my motivation was different. Rather than being driven by the need to complete an assignment, earn a grade, and pass a class, I was motivated by the desire to invent and build things that were relevant to me and my life. I learned the things I needed to learn in order to do the things I wanted to do. And this has meant that rather than completing assignments, I’ve achieved an enduring understanding of mathematical concepts that I once simply memorized, regurgitated, and forgot.

This kind of student-centered deeper learning and understanding is at the heart of what Harapnuik, Thibodeaux, and Cummings (2018) have termed the COVA+CSLE approach: using student choice, ownership, and voice through authentic learning opportunities to create significant learning environments. This approach is at the core of the Masters of Education in Digital Learning and Leading program at Lamar University, which I am now concluding. The program is designed to give learners experience in this learning framework, in hopes that these same learners can bring these ideas to their own students.

When I first began the DLL program, the idea of essentially determining what activities I would complete in order to achieve the desired learning outcomes was both exciting and terrifying. On the one hand, the notion, often reiterated to me and my classmates, that the intent was for us to learn by creating materials we would actually use in our own work environments was welcome. It was much more appealing to think of spending 18 months developing useful content for me and my students than to imagine spending those same months working on abstract assignments and then trying to apply those lessons to materials I created for my own classroom. It was also clear by the end of my first course that the program’s intentions were being realized; a presentation and set of activities explaining the growth mindset that I created in July and August of 2018 became the backbone of a growth mindset focus that I incorporated into all of my music classes beginning that September.

The terror, however, was real. It’s a challenge to be asked to learn (or teach) in a way that one has never learned before. After an entire school career spent being told exactly what I was supposed to do, of following a prescribed and uniform track to achieve the learning goals I was told were expected, the prospect of having to figure all of that out for myself was daunting, to say the least. It took a major realignment of my thinking, as well as struggling through my first few assignments, to become comfortable with this uncertainty.  One significant step toward reaching this comfortable state was letting go of the deeply ingrained idea that a good grade equals quality learning. Once I began to move away from being concerned about what steps I needed to complete to finish my assignment and get my “A,” I became much more focused on what I was actually learning, and what I needed to do to improve my understanding, and I became much more motivated to do thoughtful, high-quality work. Ironically, this approach has led me not only to feel as though I have a deeper understanding of the material I’m exploring, but to achieve a higher GPA as a graduate student than I ever earned before–after completing 11 out of 12 courses in the DLL program, I have a 4.0 GPA. I care less about this number on its own than I did when I started the program, but achieving this milestone still brings a certain sense of satisfaction, especially when I consider that it feels much more like a reflection of deep learning and valuable accomplishment than any other good grade I ever received.

Upon reflection, I probably should be less surprised by this than I am. One program assignment that I found particularly useful and enjoyable was part of my course in Creating Significant Learning Environments. The objective was to explain my own personal learning philosophy, something that I was a little dismayed to realize that, after 20 years as a teacher, I had never really done. When I truly began to explore what I believed about learning, I discovered that my philosophy already embodied some of the key elements of the COVA+CSLE approach. As a guitarist and guitar teacher, I am constantly employing the constructivist principles of COVA+CSLE, namely that “learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it” (David 2015). The musical techniques such as scales and chords that I study myself and guide my students through learning are not there for their own sake, but for making music with personal significance to those who play and hear it. My learning philosophy also owes much to the COVA-friendly theories of Vygotsky (1978). My students spend a great deal of time exploring Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: projects that are just outside of their current capabilities, but are within the realm of things they can achieve with the help of More Knowledgeable Others (like me). I believe the ZPD concept is very closely related to the COVA notion of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Students become motivated to move beyond this slight discomfort by seeking out the knowledge to move beyond their current ZPD and into a wider one. This is how I have approached learning in some of the most significant areas of my life, like music, and is how I feel my students can best make their learning experiences relevant and meaningful to them. 

Being more aware of the details of my learning philosophy and examining it more deeply through the COVA lens has also affected how I approach my role as a leader and change agent in my school organization. As someone who has often preferred to lead by quiet example and not always been comfortable being an open and vocal advocate for change, having to develop an innovation plan for my organization placed me squarely in my own ZPD. My DLL program courses in Leading Organizational Change and Developing Effective Professional Learning made it necessary to think about how to accomplish my goal of making professional learning in my district more useful and relevant to teachers (by, among other things, making use of COVA+CSLE principles), and how to convince others to join me on that path. Leading by example was clearly not going to be enough; in addition to demonstrating the “what” and “how” of implementing my learning philosophy, I was going to have to show my colleagues and other school district leaders the “why.” This turned out to be just as much about assessing my confidence (or lack thereof) in my own level of professional credibility as it was about concepts like disciplines of execution and sources of influence. Realizing that my two decades of teaching expertise had value to my colleagues even before the letters M, E, and D were added to my professional title was a challenging but vital accomplishment, and being able to articulate justify my ideas and beliefs about learning through the principles of COVA was essential to that realization.

Understanding that much of the way I have structured my teaching throughout my career has been reflective of COVA ideas, even before I had a name for them, has helped me to better embody those ideas in the classes I now teach. I already made it a point to try and give my students assignments they would find engaging and relevant; at the start of each school year, I always tell my beginning guitar students that my goal is to help them to be able to get rid of me, by helping them acquire the necessary skills and tools to make the music they want to make. Now, not only is this a goal, it is the very heart of the class from day one, both for my guitar students and for my music technology students, who learn about audio production by creating original music. 

This is also one of the key tenets of my innovation plan. Teachers participating in this plan will study audio production and creation by making music that is important and relevant to them, and by creating audio activities that can be used in their actual classrooms. These teachers will learn about COVA principles by experiencing them as learners. Again, it can be challenging to be asked to teach in a way in which one has never learned. Teachers who have experienced the value of COVA will be far more inclined and far better equipped to implement those principles in their own students’ learning environments than those teachers who have only known the one-size-fits-all models of education that American schools have championed in the past.

“I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me… Will I then have to lose myself in this abyss of freedom?”

–Igor Stravinsky (1942)

The abyss Stravinsky writes of is familiar to anyone who has ever sat before a blank page and wondered what to put on it. When we are free to go in any direction we choose, the result can be paralysis, fear, and inaction. The comfort of traditional American school practices is that they are in fact familiar, and they provide a path to travel on. Many people, teachers and non-teachers alike, feel supported and protected by those paths, secure in the knowledge that what they are doing has worked before and so will likely work again. Mapping new ground, however, requires cutting new paths. Learning under the COVA+CSLE approach has helped me see how this type of trailblazing can work, and how necessary it is if our students are going to become the self-motivated, deep thinking learners that the challenges of tomorrow’s world are going to require. 


Covey, S., Huling, J., & McChesney, C. (2012). The 4 disciplines of execution. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.

David, L. (2015, June 20). Constructivism [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/constructivism.html

Grenny, J., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R., Patterson, K., & Switzler, A. (2013). Influencer: The new science of leading change (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Harapnuik, D.K., Thibodeaux, T.N., & Cummings, C.D. (2018). Choice, ownership and voice through authentic learning. Available from http://www.harapnuik.org/?page_id=7291

Stravinsky, I. (1942). Poetics of music in the form of six lessons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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About the author

I teach guitar, technology-assisted music, and music theory at James River High School in Chesterfield County, VA. I hold a Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Richmond, and a Master of Education degree with a focus on Digital Learning and Leading from Lamar University. I believe that every person has the need, the desire, the ability, and the right to learn, and that as educators we must meet our students wherever they are, and help bring them to where they want and deserve to be.

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