David Wish
Ashoka Fellow since 2011   |   United States

David Wish

Little Kids Rock
In the form of a different approach to music instruction, Dave Wish offers children and teachers heightened opportunities to engage with each other as fearless co-creators and active, inspired…
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Little Kids Rock

This description of David Wish's work was prepared when David Wish was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


In the form of a different approach to music instruction, Dave Wish offers children and teachers heightened opportunities to engage with each other as fearless co-creators and active, inspired learning partners.

The New Idea

Dave is introducing an approach to learning music that builds 21st century skills, helping children see that they can generate content, fail without fear, iteratively advance toward a goal, and work in teams. The effort has students composing and improvising from day one, and seeing themselves as powerful and active creators of content, not passive receivers of content. Staffed by teachers of all sorts—35 percent are not trained music instructors—the approach supports teachers along a similar learning path. Online portals and competitions and full-day, district-wide concerts/workshops make visible and explicit core principles, as teachers play songs composed by their students, children perform their own compositions, and everyone celebrates the group creative process. Dave’s approach gets students and teachers laughing and co-creating, and transforms the experience of school—not just music class—in profound ways. Begun in 2001, when Dave transitioned from a ten-year career teaching first grade, the effort now reaches 118,000 students and 700+ teachers in twenty-five cities in the United States.

The Problem

With an increasing focus on more and more tests, music education, like recess, is frequently cut out of school budgets and earmarked as a “nice to have” offering. And often, with reason, as much of music education today fails to contribute to the kind of overall learning and skill building that schools aspire to deliver.

Here are some of the challenges of traditional approaches: The pace of music acquisition is incredibly slow and the approach does not put children in charge. Students sit idly in class for months trying to grasp notation or theory before they even pick up an instrument. To a generation accustomed to real-time feedback, this is hardly engaging. What’s more, the traditional music “streams”—orchestra, jazz band, marching band, and chorus—don’t speak to today’s students; it’s just not fun for them, and doesn’t connect with what they spend hours listening to at home. As with most other subjects, music is taught with a “this is right, that is wrong” approach that makes children reluctant to try, for fear of messing up Mozart! More importantly, few music education methods allow and inspire students to create their own music and see themselves as music initiators—singly or in groups. Play, fun, and the powerful creative potential that music can promote are lost.

Teachers, for their part, are similarly cut out of fun and learning, for many of the same reasons: The content and methods don’t appeal to students. Even adventurous teachers can’t stray too far from the canon—they lack instruments and face resistance from principals, districts, and parents. Instead, the prevailing approach is to force memorization when, as Dave shows, music acquisition can liberate and open a rare space for teachers and students to co-create—a potential that can be transformative beyond the classroom walls, particularly in low-income districts where there are few bright spots for students and teachers.

The Strategy

Dave’s approach significantly redefines the methods of musical instruction; inspires teachers of all backgrounds to engage and equips them with free instruments, instruction, tools, a peer community; and engages with schools and districts so that the effort has buy-in and support from the bottom (teachers and students) and the top (school administration). Tying this together is a social networking platform that allows students and teachers and administrators to engage as a community, sharing best practices and lessons learned.

Dave is advancing his approach through a national organization called Little Kids Rock (LKR), currently with an eight-person team based in New Jersey that works with teachers and funders across the country. Initially designed for elementary school, the organization has expanded to middle and high schools. At present, 65 percent of LKR teachers are in elementary schools, 13 percent in middle schools, 6 percent in high schools, 15 percent in K-8 schools, and 1 percent in special needs schools. Its participating schools are at least 50 percent free and reduced lunch schools.

Dave’s instruction method builds from his own experiences teaching in a bilingual school and learning Spanish as a second language. Music instruction works, he realized, when barriers to trying are lowered, allowing students to “acquire” the language of music, much as they do any other language. (Fear of making mistakes is a huge impediment to language acquisition and many other learning functions, he believes.) His approach has kids picking up and using guitars right away and feeling their way through, encouraged by real-time feedback. Importantly, Dave adds a fifth music stream—contemporary music—that makes the content relevant to young people. This seems an obvious addition but the system hasn’t until now been updated to include music that kids actually know (and like, and buy lots of). And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dave’s approach puts students in the driver’s seat from day one: They are not only interacting with music by playing songs they know, they are creating actively—composing, improvising, demonstrating authorship to themselves and their collaborators, which includes their fellow students and teachers.

The same principles of accessibility and iterative acquisition apply to participating teachers as well. Any full-time classroom teacher can apply to be a LKR teacher (and they self-identify as such). They need only to know a few chords, demonstrate passion, love of teaching and love of music, and have the support of their principal. New teachers must attend a two-day starter workshop, maintain an active profile on the LKR social network site, and enroll all their students in the national program and website. All are encouraged to share the classroom games and teaching methods that they find to be successful—they do this by sharing videos on the LKR site, writing little blog posts, and so on. This is great for learning, sharing, and peer community-building, and it also allows Dave’s team to lightly monitor and stay apprised of what’s happening in LKR classrooms across the country. At present, there are 700 active LKR teachers. Of these, about 65 percent are officially music teachers, and about 35 percent teach other subjects, agreeing to hold at least one class weekly during their LKR tenure. Many participating teachers report that LKR has transformed their approach to teaching and their relationship with their students. They also rank the LKR workshop as one of the most stimulating professional development opportunities of their teaching career.

Recognizing that teachers are overburdened at it is, LKR makes available a number of online and offline tools and aids to help teachers. These include very simple things like posters and stickers that teachers can use as little prizes (and that also market the effort), as well as more robust supports, like lesson plans, games, and an easy-to-use library of 1,000 contemporary songs that allows teachers to easily target songs for various levels. The expectation is that teachers will contribute valuable content as they run across or create it, and share with the network, adding to the overall intelligence and efficacy of the teacher community. For teachers who want to engage at a more intense level, Dave has opened up “Ambassador” roles and there are currently fourteen Ambassador LKR teachers.

LKR supplies free guitars to participating teachers. It is, however, careful to say that it is not an instrument supplier—it guards against teachers “using” LKR in this way. The team designed a special guitar that works for children and their smaller hands: It has nylon strings (easier for kids), but a slim trunk. They order in bulk and assume the cost of roughly $70/instrument, including shipping. For teachers who need more, they buy their own but can use the LKR discount.

Dave sees that appealing to teachers without buy-in at the school or district level is a shaky way to advance, and so he requires MOUs with each school and teacher that clearly spells out intent and expectation. This brings visibility to the effort, and opens the way for successful teachers to work with their school administrators to grow the effort locally. Showing the success visibly and in ways that allow teachers to meet other teachers and students in other districts is key. Dave encourages “summits,” which are day-long concerts/workshops that are teacher-organized. LKR seeds the summits with a modest sum—around $1,000—and helps them publicize the day to the entire district. In year one, there was one in LA; year two, two; last year, four; and in the 2010/2011 school year, there were plans to ask each Ambassador to hold a summit—so 14. The summits engage from three schools to twenty-five, and attract as many as 300 to 400 participants.

Dave’s team is revising their online community for ease of use. There is a teacher-only site and student-only site. The student site was unidirectional, but that changed in 2011, allowing kids to post and share their own compositions (with parental consent) and participate in monthly song composition competitions for prizes (like a free guitar), or a jam session with a famous musician.

Moving forward, Dave wants to root the effort locally in every city that houses an LKR effort. He is starting with non-governing Boards in San Francisco and New York. Eventually, he’d like the local groups to hire two staff whose responsibilities will be to significantly expand the effort in their city, coordinating with the national team on standardized tools, teacher onboarding, and other guarantors of quality and impact, such as MOUs with schools. He is also paying attention to vertical alignment of participating schools, so that LKR elementary school students can follow along with the approach through high school graduation. In some of the country’s largest districts—Tampa and Dallas—he is reaching nearly 20 percent of the student body.

The Person

Dave’s father was a mid-level manager at Exxon, and his mother was a “natural iconoclast” who would quite naturally correct inequities as she ran across them. An active learner, Dave was challenged by school early on, and never fully got the hang of it. He especially had great difficulty learning to read. He found school not at all engaging, and repeated first grade. He wanted to play music, but was deterred by his school’s limited instrument selection, stale instruction, and the focus on reading music notation. Later, in college, he picked up the guitar and a friend got him started by helping him naturally find his own way with the chords.

From age seven to ten, Dave lived in Caracas—his father’s job had taken the family there. This experience opened his eyes to the ways other people lived, and to poverty. While attending an American school, he learned Spanish, becoming fluent during his time there. He also developed a love for Latin American culture, people, and history, particularly the history of the continent’s revolutionary movements. After college, he designed a year for himself in Costa Rica, teaching adult literacy and environmental education in a farm cooperative.

The following year, in 1992, Dave moved to East Palo Alto, a low-income neighborhood and the murder capital of the country that year. He set himself up to teach the children of migrant farm families, but soon transitioned into a full-time teacher in a bilingual, first grade classroom. He became an enterprising and masterful teacher, and focused on graduating his kids safely to the next grade. By this time, music had become an integral part of his life, and he played gigs at night and on the weekends, and also loved that.

Dave’s school had no music program, and so he started one, attracting twenty students who met twice weekly for an hour. It was a huge hit and everyone wanted in. Following a concert, parents pooled money and left $650 on his desk in thanks and support. To expand the reach, he initially pulled in musician friends to staff four new classes. They all failed within months. He then turned to fellow teachers who actually knew how to teach, and trained them to use his acquisition method. Things went brilliantly and he began to see the transformative effect not just on students but on teachers and the school community. He negotiated with his wife Beth to transition to driving Little Kids Rock full-time in 2001, if he followed her to New Jersey, where she had been offered a faculty position.

Dave says that he has boundless yet realistic faith in the country’s teachers. Yes, we can and should transition new talent into teaching, but what’s needed most of all—in his view—are approaches that inspire current teachers and help them ignite what many of them most want to see: Love of learning, and the development of children’s confidence to guide their interests and lives.

Dave lives with his wife and two children in New Jersey, just outside New York City.

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