With An Eye To Differences in How Students Learn

2011Symposium_1_2Giving students meaningful choices can teach me quite a bit. Today, I was teaching hip-hop rhythms to a seventh grade class so that the students could perform a groove and improvise over it. One student was successfully playing the high-hat rhythm, while another student was attempting to play the back beats. Although I had introduced the rhythms by playing them one at a time and together, this student did not realize that the rhythm he was attempting to play was the back beat. He was trying to play it correctly by making each note coincide with a note in the hi-hat part. He had found those notes on his own, but was late on each of his notes, because he didn’t play until he heard the note he was listening for. He was reacting to what he had just heard, instead of anticipating what he was about to hear. I caught on to what he was doing because he was singing the high-hat part to himself, moving his lips and staring off into the distance as he did so, the way a person stares when they are visualizing something in their mind. I told him to put his drum stick down for a minute, and just clap to the rhythms the other students were playing. I clapped a few beats to get him started and then left him on his own. He quickly clapped the back beat accurately, but when he picked up his stick, he was still playing each note too late. This often happens with drummers who are not using their body to understand the music they are playing. I told this student to move back and forth to the beat as he played, and began clapping to get him back on track. He immediately began playing correctly the moment he began to move. As his weight shifted from side to side, he knew what the beat was, and could predict where notes were going to go before he had to play them. This whole teaching success only happened after I observed what strategy the student was using, so that I could determine it was not the best one, and suggest one that would be more successful. The issue was not what the student was trying to do or learn, but how he was trying to do it and learn it.

In another small group in the same classroom, another student was trying to play the same back beat tosmall group instruction the same rhythms. She wasn’t quite sure what she was supposed to do, once the others in her group started to play their rhythms. I first played their rhythms and hers, as I had done for the whole class, thinking hearing it again would jog her memory and put her on the right track, but it did not. I then gave her the paper on which the whole set of rhythms was notated, and pointed to her part in the score. There they were, right in the middle of the other rhythms: quarter rest, quarter note, over and over again. She took a quick glance at the notation, smiled and said “Ohh…” and then began to play the part correctly. She needed a different strategy for the same problem. This is not a revolutionary statement; teachers know that students have different learning styles, and need to be taught differently, but somehow in our music rehearsals, which tend to be highly teacher-driven, we expect most or even all of our students to learn one way, the way of the conductor. We see students who are excelling, and students who are struggling, but in rehearsals where large numbers of students are often involved, we miss these struggles students have trying to do it our way, when doing it their way would turn a frustrating experience into an enjoyable and successful one. I have found that many times, students are good at teaching each other because they relate to another student’s learning style, or have a different style than we do which is more successful with a peer than ours is. What would the impact on our music rehearsals be if we stopped our activity and told the kids to buddy up with their stand partner or neighbor and work out difficulties in the passage you just worked on with each other for five minutes? After the five minutes, we would refocus our ensemble on the podium and return to the difficulty. Have students write down how they solved problems, and with whom they worked, and look for insights into how individual students want to learn in your ensemble. You may find there are clusters of students who prefer to learn differently than you normally teach, but with a style you could incorporate into your instruction. Being more effective in meeting individual needs is not only better for the students, it makes teaching more gratifying as success mount, and it keeps attrition low, because fewer students are struggling to the point of wanting to drop out.

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