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Marching Bands or Soccer Teams?

In his book Strengthening the Heartbeat, Tom Sergiovanni draws a parallel between schools that function as marching bands and schools that function as soccer teams. He makes his comments in reference to thinking about schools as a community. In this post I am taking his ideas and applying them to something that most schools say they aspire to--professional learning communities.

Marching bands are judged by their ability to make uniform movements. In order to be a successful, a marching band must depend on every member doing what he/she is supposed to do, when they are supposed to do it. There can be no creativity. There is no option for "making decisions on the fly." Success is never measured by outstanding performances of individual members.

Soccer teams, on the other hand, are judged by their ability to achieve a common objective: scoring goals while at the same time preventing the opposing team from scoring goals. Winning soccer teams do this by depending on the fact that players, aware of the objective, will make individual decisions to further the team's chances. Soccer teams depend on individual members' ability to make independent decisions (pass the ball, keep the ball, shoot the ball).

I argue that schools are increasingly aiming toward functioning as marching bands. Common assessments serve as one piece of evidence for my assertion. If teachers are to give students across a grade level or subject one common instrument to measure mastery, it follows that common instruction will be the vehicle most likely to produce the desired results. I honestly have no problem with this, provided the assessments are created collaboratively and there is consensus around the fact that the assessment is a reliable and valid predictor of mastery.

Where I have a problem is that the marching band schools also sing the praises of professional learning communities. The goal of these groups is to consider results in light of practice and make the alterations necessary for continuous improvement. For me, this is where the system breaks down. To stick with the marching band example, the trombone section, is probably going to be discouraged from meeting as a professional learning community and deciding upon how to adjust their piece of the performance. While claiming to operate as professional learning communities, marching band schools work against those very principles by requiring compliance and judging success by uniform action, not individual greatness.

To me, this goes beyond being an issue of semantics. I truly believe that the success of public schools depends upon our ability to function as professional learning communities. Marching band schools do a disservice to that notion by stressing uniformity over individual practice, implementation over experimentation, and delivery of instruction over student outcomes.

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