There is much to recommend developing our students into independent and engaged students. The two are related: engaged students go beyond what is asked or required, and generate their own questions that drive their learning. By contrast, dependent students are often compliant, but not engaged. It is easy to settle for a compliant student, even though it is only through engagement that a student will meet appropriately rigorous educational goals. Compliant students are the “ones who follow directions, diligently complete assignments, and get good grades mostly because of their effort or adherence to directions. They do the work because it’s assigned, not because they find it interesting or relevant” (Jackson and Zmuda, 2014). There is a good chance that many teachers were themselves compliant teachers, and because they achieved career goals by being compliant in school, they have come to believe that being a compliant student is the way to success. From a teacher’s point of view, compliant students are easy to teach, and because they score well on tests and projects, they give us the feeling that we have succeeded with them. If our aim is to receive completed work from our students, then these students do indeed represent successes. But if our aim is that students gain learning and experience that will benefit their interactions with our discipline and life in general, then we are probably not measuring success in our classrooms appropriately. There is little chance that a student will retain, use, or in the end benefit from learning he or she has considered uninteresting and irrelevant all along.
Music teachers have the luxury of teaching a subject that students are happy to engage in now. There is no need for promising a future return on studying math or science, the return comes immediately, making music a potentially relevant subject for most students. Of course there will be later returns as well, as is born out in research on music contributing to building and strengthening neural connections, especially those used for spatial reasoning and language. But students gain much for experience in music right away, and this benefit should be taken full advantage of in our music classes. Here are some keys to helping students become engaged in their work.
First, be clear about what you are expecting students to do. Use essential questions and authentic outcomes to design lessons that will engage students. For example, rather than just having students complete a unit on emotions in music, be clear about your expectations by proposing an essential question such as, “How did the composer use the musical elements of pitch, dynamics, and timbre to create scary music? What are alternative ways the composer could have used pitch, dynamics and timbre to create music that was more or less scary? This line of questioning prompts the student to come up with alternatives, and to evaluate on a scale of more or less scary. In both cases the student is practicing both critical and creative thought. The result is a creative product, the revised music, that the student can claim as his or her own, and see as evidence that something tangible and of value has been made out of what the student learned.
Second, place the work within a relevant context. Be able to explain to students why it is important for them to be doing what you are asking them to do. Your assignments need to be relevant today, not just in the future. One strategy can be to have students realize their own applications. What will you do with this learning? This not only prompts students to find relevance, but also gives them the opportunity to personalize their own learning. To their relevance, the teacher can add their own. In the example above, knowing how composers use musical elements to express feelings prepares students for creatively expressing their own emotions in a healthy way, through music, and of understanding emotions of others that they have expressed through music. The immediacy of music in our students’ lives makes most musical processes and skills of immediate use to them. The key is to have students use what they have learned, never leaving anything at the “book knowledge” level. Nineteenth century symphonic music is relevant today not only because we still connect with the emotions these composers were expressing in their music, but because the way in which those emotions were expressed reflects the cultural norms of the day, meaning that those emotions can still be expressed today, but with the cultural norms of our day. There is a connection made between people across time in the commonality of human emotional experience, and in discovering how that experience is continued through centuries across changing and changed genres and styles of music.
Third, create a supportive classroom culture. This involves designing learning activities with the right amount of challenge so that student interest is maintained without creating boredom over something too easy or discouragement over something too difficult. “What we know about learning is that the learner stops expending effort if he or she believes there’s little chance for success.” There must be room for failure in the context of it being an opportunity for learning and improvement. There is no shame in trying, and much to be gained. When the cost of failure becomes greater than the cost of trying, learning is choked off. Ultimately, final work will be evaluated, but the process along which that final work is assembled must be constituted with cycles of inquiry, research, effort, attempts, and a mixture of failures and successes, where failures is understood in the context of “I haven’t succeeded yet, I need more work, information, practice this time around so that I can succeed.” This last point is critical. Engaged learners ask a lot of questions, follow a lot of paths, and discover a lot of information that may not be in your plan. This open-endedness can make engaged learners unpredictable, but it is just that unpredictability that produces interest, relevance, and in the end far more learning than most compliant learners ever obtain.
Jackson, Robyn & Allison Zmuda (2014). 4 (secret) keys to student engagement, Educational Leadership, September, 18-24.