What Education Can Learn From Rocker Eddie Van Halen

TALK OF TOMORROW | by Ted Fujimoto

Back in the day, Van Halen’s concerts were over-the-top productions. While most concerts pulled up in several semi trucks loaded with equipment, Van Halen rolled up with nine. His concerts pushed the envelope in all different kinds of ways. Popular press pinned him as a prima donna with wild expectations.

One such expectation was buried in the middle of his phonebook-sized contract with each venue, in “Article 126”—which read: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” In other words, the venue had to supply a bowl of M&M’s with all the brown ones removed—or else!

What many people didn’t realize as lead singer David Lee Roth explained in his biography, was that this infamous “M&M clause” had an important purpose. Writes Roth:

Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets…And there were many, many technical errors—whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors were not big enough to move the gear through…So when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl…well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.

For the Van Halen production, the M&M’s were an important performance indicator.  When the band rolled into a town, they didn’t have the time to double check everything specified in the contract to ensure the venue was in full compliance—but if the show were to go on—they needed to know.

In education, what important performance indicators do you have? In this era of high-stakes assessments and standards, we ask educators to measure, double check, and check some more. We implement sophisticated and expensive data systems in schools or entire school districts to make it easier to measure more.

Still, the overall performance and student completion rate of our country’s public schools doesn’t seem to get drastically better—maybe a bump up here and there—but nowhere near solving the education crisis.

We need Van Halen-like performance indicators that can be assessed quickly by nearly anyone in the school at any time—without having to rely on our sophisticated assessments or complex data systems.

Van Halen-like performance indicators for schools preparing kids to live successful lives could include the following:

1. Know each student well. How well? Pick 25 at random. Your teachers should be able to name each one’s strengths and weaknesses. Could your teachers describe the child’s family? Siblings? Their unique family situation?

2. Students never need to ask why they are learning something. Are we truly making what they’re learning relevant to them? Do they even have to ask why they’re learning something? They can certainly ask why, but they should never have to ask why they’re learning something.

3. Do our children have ambitious dreams and aspirations and does your school team know what those are? Does your team encourage students to dream big? Do your students have some rough idea about the steps it would take to achieve those dreams?

4. Is learning kid-driven? The human brain learns best in an inquiry-based way—are we practicing this with how we help kids learn? In this mode of learning, children should be asking for information, versus adults trying to cram information into the children.

5. Do our children have the skills to thrive and compete in the world’s best colleges and universities and, more importantly, in the world’s best companies? Content knowledge is just as important as how to construct and manage high performance teams, how to innovate, how to solve tough problems. Do you know where your kids end up after being with you, where they work, what they innovate, how they thrive?

What’s truly amazing is that all of these Van Halen-like performance indicators can be figured out by observation, maintaining strong relationships with our children even after they graduate, and asking questions. You don’t need sophisticated data gathering or measurement systems to get a strong sense about the quality of education you are delivering for each individual student.

Do schools benefit from high-stakes standards and assessments such as common core standards? Perhaps—but with one big caveat: Students won’t do well on any standard or assessment if we don’t know them well enough to personalize their learning, if they aren’t engaged, if they don’t have ambitions and dreams, if we go against the latest in learning research, if we don’t help them learn in an inquiry-based way, when they don’t know why they are learning something, and where we aren’t giving them the opportunity to learn and practice skills that will help them thrive in life.

If you start with powerful relationships with your kids so that you can tailor and make their learning deeply relevant to them, then students will have the foundation necessary to reach the highest levels of rigor.


Ted Fujimoto helps communities and school districts create and support 21st-century schools. As an entrepreneur and consultant, he has helped develop business strategies for Bay Area Coalition of Essential Schools, Big Picture Learning, Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, Partnership for Uplifting Communities, Linking Education & Economic Development, California Charter Schools Association and the New York Charter Schools Association. His work represents more than $150 million in funding. He was instrumental in designing and founding Napa New Technology High School and the New Technology Foundation that now comprises 62 schools nationwide, with dozens of new schools opening by Fall 2010. Write to: tedf@consultLandmark.org

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