Teach Music to Thinkers, Not Jars

2011Symposium_1_2Our basic philosophy of teaching and learning has changed quite a bit in the last thirty years. I remember in the 1980s a social studies teacher had a sign on his classroom door on which was written “free knowledge, bring your own container.” This represented what then was the prevalent view of education. Students were empty jars who came to school to get filled up with knowledge, and it was the teacher’s job to fill their minds with all the knowledge they would need to be successful in life, and to lead good, productive, patriotic lives.

Most students recognize that students must be active participants in the learning process. It is the student’s job to do most of the work, the heavy lifting, in order to be successful learners. Teachers plan, teach and assess, but along the way teachers also call upon students to develop ideas, solve problems, answer questions, write carefully thought out responses. Those tasks require developed cognitive skills, and frequent use of those skills. At its best, classroom activities develop students as thinkers to the point where there is a free exchange of ideas that lead the class to greater learning. None of this was possible with a classroom of jars. It is only possible with a classroom of thinkers.

Teaching this way takes time—a lot of time. Some days, there won’t be enough time to teach this way all of the time. Sometimes we will still have to fill students with knowledge, and just ask them to trust us that we are telling them things that are worth remembering. For our part, we must remember to return to those things on another day and check for learning, give students the opportunity to practice any skills we taught, and to apply knowledge to practical situations.  Every lesson should have at least some of this deep kind of learning. What does this look like in the music classroom?

Let’s take an example of an ensemble beginning rehearsal on a musical work the students have never heard or practiced before. If the music teacher is teaching a class of jars, s/he will begin by lecturing on the composer and historical period, and perhaps the form of the piece. This teacher will then begin playing or singing the new work part by part, phrase by phrase, and having sections repeat it back. Slowly the musical work is learned in this way, until at last it can be sung or played by everyone in the ensemble. The group goes onstage, performs the piece, and celebrates a successful concert amidst the rave reviews of parents and friends.

Now consider another teacher, beginning to teach the same students the same piece. The teacher plays a recording of the piece, and then asks the students to identify the style, and asks them in what century do they think it was thinking musicwritten. “Does it sound like the piece by Aaron Copland we sang last spring?” “Does it sound like the overture by Mozart we played first semester?” What about the piece attracted your attention or interest? “What emotion do you think the composer was trying to express?”  These questions can be answered aurally by students the teacher calls on, and developed as a writing assignment to be completed outside of rehearsal. The teacher then begins to lead the ensemble through sight-reading the music. At times s/he points out that this passage is a major scale, or that passage is the same as measures 15-16. The teacher might ask “which of you a few minutes ago played the same melody the euphoniums just played here? The teacher helps the students group the notes into small chunks to facilitate learning, but the students, not the teacher, does most of the work. And because any student at any time might get asked a question about what someone else just played, everyone is listening and focused in on the music. I’ve used the example of a performing ensemble, but everything I’ve written can be equally applied to general music classes.

It is far too easy, expedient and convenient to solve all of our students’ problems for them. But the more answers we give our students, the less they learn from us. Like those jars of pennies we keep in a drawer, full of money that gets put away and forgotten, the problems we solve for our students, including the questions and the answers, also get forgotten. Teaching our students to be thinking, reasoning, creative problem solvers is what education should be all about. We will all have times when we have to teach to jars, but such times should be the exception. The most important part of teaching and learning is the learning. Teaching that does not result in learning, and by learning I mean understanding and mastery, is a terrible waste of students’ time.

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