Using New Learning to Focus and Structure Music Lessons

2011Symposium_1_2One of the risks of begin an arts teacher is that my lessons will be perceived as unplanned and lacking in structure. While I always have both plans and structure to every lesson I teach, the highly interactive nature of a music class sometimes gives the illusion that we are only responding to the moment without an overarching goal. For this reason, I try to build new learning into every lesson or rehearsal. By new learning, I don’t mean just improving performance through practice, evaluation and refining, though this is critical also, but I mean also that students will learn something new that they will immediately begin to use. New learning keeps long-term projects interesting, and helps me avoid just teaching skills without expecting students to use high level thinking and problem solving strategies.

In addition to writing the objective for each class on the board, I also write a list of new learning for each class. This list, which typically has two or three items, tells the students what they will need to know in order to be able to do that day’s class work that I haven’t taught to that class this year. It may be that some students know what is on the list from a previous year of music classes, or from music lessons they take outside of school. These students enjoy teaching their peers something from the list, and are encouraged by the opportunity to do so. I have found that starting a class with the new learning list gets the students’ attention, and putting the information up front at the beginning of class seems to cause more students to retain the learning, perhaps because they go through the steps of learning first and then applying what they have just learned, rather than trying to remember and apply something they learned a week or more ago, or learn as they go when they have become confused. The list also gives me a few concrete things to reinforce with students as I support their learning in small groups during the class. Reinforcing instead of introducing in small groups also helps increase retention of the material.

The new learning list also makes the structure of the lesson highly visible. The new learning items are amusic_words_large common thread that runs through the entire lesson. Activities the students are doing can be seen as opportunities to practice what they have just learned. The new learning is added in to what they were already doing, and so helps to improve the quality of the performance they are practicing, evaluating and refining. It is also helpful if new learning is easily connected to previous learning, either through application or similarities. For example, if the students learned last week that when a note has a sharp applied, the pitch is raised one-half step, and the note played is the black key to the right of the white key of the same letter or solfege name, then they will easily understand this week that when a flat is applied, the pitch is lowered one-half step, and the note played is the black key to the left of the white key of the same letter or solfege name. The half step displacement and proximity of the black key to the white key are similarities that tie the new learning about flats to the previous learning about sharps.

Once students have learned the new material, they are given something musical to do in small groups. The something musical is chosen from one of the artistic processes in the core arts standards: create, perform, respond, or connect. In the example above about sharps and flats, students were given the bass line to the song “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” in three different keys, each with a different key signature. The rhythm of dotted quarter, eighth, and two quarter notes is pervasive. The new learning list was key signature, flats on the keyboard, and dotted notes. Reinforcement occurred as I reminded students that a note was B-flat and not B natural because of the key signature, and when evaluation of performed dotted quarter and eighth note pointed out that they were played as if they were two quarter notes. Because the dotted quarter and eighth were followed by two quarter notes, students could compare the two aurally and visually, and learn to accurately. New learning can be any material related to what students are already doing with which students can create, perform, respond or connect.

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