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“Schoolhouse Rock” For A New Generation

KlabLab takes the age-old musical learning formula and gives it a modern twist. But does “Cell City” measure up to “I’m Just A Bill?”

“Schoolhouse Rock” For A New Generation

Even among those who aren’t super old there are many people who probably can’t help thinking “junction” when they hear “conjunction.” Such was the cultural impact of Schoolhouse Rock, that musical liberal arts education that included such classics as “I’m Just A Bill,” “3 Is A Magic Number,” and “I Unpacked My Adjectives.”

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Classics all, but Bay Area-based company KlabLab has a whole new curriculum for today’s kids.

Spearheaded by musicians at heart Joe O’Loughlin, Dave Haberman, and Doug Allen, KlabLab’s raison d’être is to make educational, music-based content with a contemporary sound–something O’Loughlin, executive producer at KlabLab, feels is lacking in the current market. “The initial question we asked when we started KlabLab was, ‘How are we going to get kids to buy into this?’ because when we started looking around and found out what others were trying to do with music and creativity, it was very spoon-fed,” he says. “They were guys my age using music of our generation and for kids there’s a total disconnect.”

After dabbling around with the idea, the trio started KlabLab last year and collaborated with local teachers on lesson plans to produce a string of music videos with educational lyrics over tracks that sound like today’s top hits. Much in the vein of Schoolhouse Rock, videos like “Cell City” and “Preposition Punk” ingrain the basics of a subject in impressionable memory banks through repetition, catchy tunes, and splashy visuals. But, as O’Loughlin mentions, the question of how effective this method truly is reared its doubtful head when dealing with particularly skeptical administrators.

To quell the naysayers, the KlabLab crew immediately took to the classrooms this year with The Sound of Knowledge Tour, driving across California throughout the spring in a bus/mobile recording studio to allow elementary to high school students to write and record their own songs and prove that they’re learning the material themselves, teaching their classmates, and actually having fun with it. The Sound of Knowledge Tour will make its way through northern and southern California this spring, break in the summer, and regroup in the fall, leaving the West Coast to embark on a cross-country excursion.

As an incentive to increase participation, KlabLab created a contest involving groups of students from various schools uploading their creations to the KlabLab site where users vote for their favorites with the winning team being awarded $10,000 to have a multi-media studio built in the their school and each member receiving an iPad. O’Loughlin says the reason for the money going toward a studio is the hope that the school will continue to incorporate the KlabLab method in their lesson plans long after their tour is over.

Though paved with good intentions, yet another question arises when discussing an endeavor like KlabLab: How will students today respond to videos and workshops where the overarching message of learning something is barely veiled by modern music? Dealing with a generation where cynicism is practically a virtue, it’s easy to imagine kids and teens being wary of education sugarcoated as “fun”–a situation O’Loughlin is fully aware of. “We talk to kids like their mature individuals–we don’t talk down to them,” he says. “Going into a classroom and saying, ‘Hey! We’re making learning cool again and you get to sing about it!’ you get looks like what is this? So it’s kind of a slow process.”

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In order to speed things up, KlabLab has also opened up audio and video submissions on their site to the general public to establish a community of creative edifiers and expand their library of content. Users can create completely original tracks or use the available background music templates to present a lesson in six subjects however they see fit.

Whether through the content on their site or The Sound of Knowledge Tour, KlabLab is looking to revolutionize the educational system by not only presenting classroom lessons in a digestible format, but also allowing kids to become part of the solution by getting them to create their own content. “Hopefully the teachers and students will appreciate what we’re doing in trying to bring creativity back into the learning process,” says O’Loughlin.

Okay, fine, but let’s see which songs mix education and entertainment best. Here, a selection of Klablab’s updates lessons pitted against a Schoolhouse Rock classic. Will your kids start busting a move when they hear “golgi apparatus” a few years down the line?

Klablab’s “Cell City”:

Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just A Bill”:

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Klablab’s “Preposition Punk”:

Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction”:

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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