Monday, September 21, 2015

Teach, Then Ask

In my last post, I wrote about “The Trouble with City Planning” by Kristina Ford.  Although I suspected that the message of the book had been muddied through the editorial and publishing steps, I appreciated much of what Ford wrote, finding it a good common-sense explanation of why city planning often stumbles.

However, I took issue with one position she espoused.  The difference is probably more a matter of degree than absolutes, but meaningful regardless.  A story from my long-ago youth will illustrate.

I don’t recall having a long-standing dream to make music before the fourth grade, but when my classmates and I were offered an opportunity to take up a musical instrument early during that school year, I and many others quickly signed up.  Perhaps I thought that blowing sweet music on a trumpet would prove irresistible to the fourth grade babes.  (Kathy Fitzpatrick, where have you gone?)

 But the school district in which I attended fourth grade didn’t hand out instruments or instruction to anyone.  They insisted on spending resources only on those who showed a degree of musical aptitude.

So I found myself a week later soon in a cafeteria of fourth-graders, gathered to have our musical skills tested.  The test began with a severe looking grey-haired lady playing two scratchy snippets of music on an aging school district record player.  After the second snippet, she asked “If the first selection was correctly in tune, was the second selection sharp or flat?”

And immediately, fifty fourth-graders were looking at each other, wondering what was meant by sharp and flat.  Sensing our puzzlement, the lady gave a pursed lips lesson, explaining that sharp meant too high in pitch and flat meant too low.

Even though the explanation didn’t provide much assistance, the test nonetheless continued with seemingly innumerable questions about sharp versus flat, which quickly degraded into random guesses.  Sharp-sharp-flat-flat-flat-sharp-sharp seemed equally possible as any other pattern of answers.

As I recall, the test eventually moved onto questions such as distinguishing trumpets from violins from clarinet, but it was too late for most of us.  Our dreams of wooing female classmates with sweet music were gone and we were down to our athletic prowess and/or clever wit as attraction devices, neither of which seemed promising.  (This was a two years pre-Beatles, so the thought of gathering in a garage with guitars was still on the far side of the horizon.)

The problem, of course, was that none of us had been exposed to the type of questions being asked.  I can’t speak for my fellow classmates, but I came from a household where music was a regular part of life.  But I never once hearing anything like “Bing Crosby was a little flat on that version of ‘White Christmas’” or “The French horn was sharp in the Brahms’ Concerto.”  I’d never been introduced to the skills needed to succeed on the test and therefore failed badly.

I know that there is much current opposition to “teaching to the test”.  I concur with the concern, but the musical aptitude test was the complete reverse and it was an even worse approach.

And that’s the problem I have with author Ford.  She puts great weight on citizen input into the land planning process, effectively granting overall control to the citizenry, with the principal function of planning staff being to write down and to administer the rules needed to implement the citizens’ vision.

And while I agree that input from the citizenry is essential, often providing insights about the community that aren’t visible from the planning office, that input has to be informed.  Ford seems to think that a good public meeting at which well-formed presentations are made is sufficient.  I believe that understanding good land use requires far more background.

Furthermore, there is a fundamental difference between fourth graders and adults in how they respond to situations in which their information is inadequate to the task.  Fourth graders look perplexed and get quiet.  Adults become more convinced of the rightness of their limited grasp and become more bellicose.   And that’s not helpful to good land use planning.

To be honest, I don’t know what the right solution is.  It’s hard to convince citizens, no matter how motivated they are to improve their community, to spend the time necessary to grasp the complexities of land use.  Perhaps our current system, in which citizens provide input based on their limited background and understanding, leaving the task of using as much or as little of that input as appropriate to planning staffs and planning commissions, is the best model possible.  If so, we’ll continue to muddle through.  But even if this is the case, exalting the citizen input isn’t helpful.

Nor am I trying to put myself on a pedestal for knowing more about land use than many of my fellow citizens.  It’s true that because of both vocation and avocation, I’ve spent far more time than most in studying and pondering the conundrums of land-use planning.  But, in keeping with the dicta that the soul of wisdom lays in knowing what you don’t know, I’m still coming to grips with what I don’t know.  Continued study and thought lays in my future.

Land use is a messy, complex subject.  To a large extent, Ford acknowledges the messiness and complexity and I recommend her book for that.  But I think she slips a bit on the value of citizens’ input.

If anyone is wondering about my still-born musical career, I can provide a coda.  A year and a half after the fourth grade testing debacle, my family moved to a town where aptitude testing wasn’t used.  And I certainly wasn’t about to admit to my earlier, ignoble failure.  So I was issued a trumpet and instruction commenced, beginning a seven-year journey through the brass section.

By my senior year of high school, I was playing trombone in one of the best high school jazz bands in California.  It was a truly talented band, with at least four of its members later playing professionally.  But the trombones were the weakest section in the band.  Only one trombonist had much skill and I wasn’t that guy.

However, the band instructor recognized the weakness and stayed away from music that would have been beyond the capabilities of the weak end of his trombone section.  We played in the background, looking good, while others made great music.  The last time my lips touched a mouthpiece was a few weeks before high school graduation.  I still think about my days of playing the trombone, but don’t expect to ever return to music making.

Perhaps that’s because I never became good at tuning my instruments, with sharp and flat continuing to bedevil me.  Whether I truly lacked a good ear or whether my fourth grade failure had left a mental block, I don’t know.

In my next post, I’ll acknowledge the beginning of fall with some thoughts about post-summer, pre-holiday reading lists.  Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns recently offered his reading list ideas, which I found striking for someone of his background and interests.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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