He was born in Russia but came to America with his family because they feared the animosity toward those of Jewish faith. Working as a young boy to feed his family, he sold newspapers. His first exposure to music was standing outside of saloons. He would sing songs as he sold papers.
He left home at 14 to reduce the burdens on his family. His formal education also stopped at that age. His life’s ambition was to be a singing waiter in restaurants. Eventually, he taught himself how to write music. He was able to get a job at a music publishing house based upon being discovered at a saloon. One of the things he learned was the type of music people liked. Although he had no formal training in music, he was able to create music that stirred people. Eventually, his musical scores comprised Broadway musicals.
His music has become central to what is called the Great American Songbook. What would Christmas be like without Irving Berlin’s White Christmas or Easter without hearing Easter Parade? How many of us have joined in singing God Bless America at a sporting event or tapped our feet when we hear Alexander’s Ragtime Band?
Those of us who are older probably have fond memories of hearing What’ll I Do, Always, Blue Skies, or Count Your Blessings with a loved one. Irving Berlin wrote over 1500 songs, scores for 20 Broadway shows, and the music for 15 movies.
Berlin’s songs tell the history of America and have formed a shared culture of those who grew up in over half of the 20th century. All of us know his music, but probably don’t know that all of this remarkable music came from someone who was self-taught.
Learning by doing is the highest form of learning. There is a limit to what we can learn from books and professors. Theory is fine, but hands-on experience is the only way to embed knowledge, skills, and abilities. We need the experience of being in unscripted situations. True innovation only comes from those who have “touched the stove.”
Unfortunately, our educational systems have gone away from the learning by doing aspect of the curriculum. Labs are so scripted, they are like cooking lessons. Internships are too hard to make work, so we abandon them. Faculty often don’t have practical experience in what they are teaching. As a result, their classes are very theoretical. There is limited time devoted to teaching students how to learn by doing.
Imagine what our society would be like if our focus shifted to more learning by doing. How many Irving Berlins might we create? In fact, much of our high-tech industry has been created by those who decided they could learn more my doing than staying in school. Innovators shouldn’t feel like they needed to drop out of school to pursue their dream if our educational systems were more flexible in learning by doing.
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“You don’t’ learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and falling over.”
– Richard Branson (British Entrepreneur)