Signals in Education: How one Music School is Predicting the Future of Learning

“The future is already upon us, but is happening in niches.” — Bruce Sterling, Smithsonian Magazine

The concept of signals in innovation and futures thinking is a powerful one. A signal is a new trend that shows signs of being a catalyst for big change in an industry, location, or demographic. The term “weak signal” means that the trend is a flickering light, utilized successfully in one area, and could soon be amplified or widely adopted for meaningful change. These signals are important to keep an eye on, as signifiers of upcoming trends in any field.

Now, hold that thought for a second and press play on this song while you read the rest of this article.

What you are listening to is a top-quality jazz big band called the Crescent Super Band. They have toured the world, won dozens of industry awards, and have former members in various Top 40 musical groups, and have performed or recorded with members of Dave Matthews Band, Maroon 5, Tower of Power, Toto, Rolling Stones, and more.

Oh, and they are all between the ages of 14 and 18.

This group, and 20 others, are part of Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse — a music school founded in Utah and now franchising across the globe. This school is revolutionizing music education and bringing jazz to new generations (something that is especially exciting to me since I have a background that field and I am a huge jazz fan).

But most importantly, Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse school is a “weak signal” for the state of education in general. Here are six reasons why we need to keep an eye on this company (and its innovative founder, Caleb) as an important inspiration for educational models.

  1. The CC Soundhouse teaching methods challenge the traditional music education model.

Typically, when students are learning music for the first time, they are taught classical music and are enrolled in a concert band or orchestra program. Many such students cannot relate to classical music, may not especially enjoy it independently of their instrument, and are taught heavily about technique and not much else. Caleb likens it to teaching students the English language by first having them read War and Peace. It might get the job done, but it won’t get kids excited about reading, and may even turn them away from it.

However, at Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse, musicians get to play jazz as well as current popular songs with a hip twist, with a high level of musical integrity. They play music that they are excited about, while learning technique. Interestingly enough, they are also the highest-caliber classical musicians, when they do play classical.

One of the junior high school level student groups at Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse, La Onda Caribena, performing at the Jazz Education Network conference. Photo by Suzette Niess.

2. It does not disregard the traditional music education system.

In order to be enrolled at Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse, musicians must also be enrolled in their local public music education program. Also, Soundhouse helps its musicians get scholarships to colleges and collegiate music programs. Exactly 100% of students who go through this school have received a scholarship, averaging $1 million each year (and last year was $2.5 million!). The goal is not to take away from the traditional experiences, but to teach skills that are useful for the existing programs. As a bonus, these kids are even more engaged in these programs, and they get to infuse the innovative energy into their schools.

3. It teaches necessary marketable skills.

Musicians are placed in other important roles in their groups in addition to playing their instruments, such as business savvy, managing a band, audio engineering, marketing, time management, and more. They get to manage the band, its recording process, rehearsals, shows, etc. I know from firsthand research that there is high demand for additional skills in the music industry. Plus — these skills are highly transferable. One Soundhouse student I met a few years back (who was the “manager” of the Crescent Super Band at the time) told me he aspired to go to medical school after graduating and the skills he learned in and around the band directly prepared him for that.

And, of course, you don’t need me to tell you that learning music changes your brain in incredible ways.

(Are you done with the song? Here’s another one. Press play and read on.)

4. Education needs to be holistic and real-world-based.

In the case of music education, teaching kids to play or write music simply isn’t enough to set them up for success, even if they are really strong musicians. They must also learn a bit about showmanship, about business, about marketing, about networking, about professional development, about finding opportunities. And in business, learning one skill isn’t enough. We must also adopt an innovative mindset, learn how to manage people, and learn emotional intelligence, among other things. It is the combination of these skills that will lead to great work and being a meaningful member of the workforce. Having opportunities to lead each other and manage their music projects is a perfect start.

5. A top-quality education doesn’t necessarily require sitting in a classroom for X days a week.

Musicians at Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse rehearse together only one day per week, which is quite a feat, considering their caliber as artists and performers. Even though the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) trend has significantly disrupted education (such as Kahn Academy or LYNDA.com), I think there is still a meaningful signal in finding efficient ways to engage learners in person without requiring a lot of time in classrooms.

Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse CEO Andrew Surmani, Amy Keys of the GRAMMY Foundation, David Paich of Toto, Caleb Chapman, me, and musician Jordan Rippe

The future of education is also moving towards learners who are doing more than solely studying— about 40% of current undergraduate college students are also working full time (mentioned by Jane McGonigal in her 2016 SXSW talk). Having flexible time commitments will make education accessible to so many more people. An added benefit to this helps learners become more efficient in their own preparation, so that when they do meet as a group, they can accomplish more together. Perhaps this can all be a great lead-in to the modular learning that Jane pitches in the above mentioned talk, called Edublocks.

6. A similar education model is already happening in business.

Schools like General Assembly and Hyper Island, teach coding, marketing, design thinking, data science, and more. They challenge the typical bachelor’s degree or MBA models, helping students develop real-world case studies, learn on their own schedule quickly and efficiently. These are basically hip trade schools for the future, addressing important demand of skills, from both professionals and companies. There’s a reason that General Assembly was named as the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company a few years ago. This model doesn’t have to be limited to business — imagine how powerful it would be if it were applied to other topics, whether niche or mainstream!

It is my hope that the public music education systems all end up adopting this model.

But since that will likely be a slow change, right now, it’s enough that Soundhouse is setting an example for any kind of education. Plus, there are also adult groups as part of the program. What if playing in a high-caliber jazz or rock band in an educational setting was part of a professional development activity for adults? I know I’d dust off my jazz violin chops and sign up immediately.

During an IDEO U Creative Confidence Series webinar, I remember somebody asking David Kelley about how one could convince members of an organization to get excited about change. I can’t remember the exact quote, but he said something along the lines of this: pick a few people who understand what you are trying to accomplish and do one thing with great excitement. Everyone else will see how much fun you are having and then will ask you if they can be part of it.

Another of the student groups rehearsing for their performance at the legendary Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado.

The lovely people at Soundhouse are having so. much. fun. It’s only going to be a matter of time before everyone else asks to join in.

Caleb Chapman’s Soundhouse is currently franchising. If you’re interested in opening a franchise in your city, you should reach out to their team.

(Disclaimer: I’m not paid to promote this program — I just want them to open up in all the countries so that if I have children or nieces/nephews, I can have my choice of Soundhouse programs around the world).


Love talking about cool new companies that are changing the world? Me too! I interview leaders in design thinking, service design, and futures forecasting on my podcast, Why Service Design Thinking. Head over to whyservicedesignthinking.com and have a listen!