Questions and Learning

2011 Symposium2

Questioning is an essential tool in teaching. In traditional classrooms, a teacher asks students questions, and the students answer them, and memorize the answers in order to gain knowledge. In contemporary classrooms, students take on a more active role by both asking and answering questions in a discussion format. Socratic circles and Paideia seminars are two examples of this newer method of teaching. In either case, questions are used to probe deeper into a text or subject in order to encourage critical thinking and mastery. Questions are also used in forming an hypothesis. Scholars research a topic and then arrive at a related topic that interests them, and, based on previous research, formulate research questions and/or a hypothesis which they then set about to research that leads to either proving or disproving the hypothesis. In this context, questions are used to prove interests which direct self-guided learning. It is this type of questioning that I would like to discuss in the context of music education.

We rarely ask questions about things we are not interested in, and are likely to ask questions about things we are interested in. Often, the challenge for teachers and students alike are to identify student interests and direct learning toward them. When students are given little or no choice as to what they study, hitting upon student interests becomes a matter of chance, and rarely does anything interest all or even most students in a class. Many teachers do not realize that required curricula usually leave ample freedom for students to choose areas to study that interest them. For example, one of the goals in my own district’s music curriculum for middle school students is to “demonstrate a knowledge of the uses of music in many cultures and historical contexts.” Within this one statement there can be several choices left to the learner.

First, the student can choose how he or she will demonstrate knowledge. Some studentsart-of-teaching will prefer to write a research paper, others will want to demonstrate a use or uses by giving a presentation to the class, while still others will want to give an actual musical performance, annotated in regard to the use that music is put to in the culture or historical period the student is studying.

Second, the student can choose which use or uses of music to study within a culture. The student may choose to look into using music for religion, celebrations, preserving an historical record in an oral tradition, honoring heroes or historical figures, and so forth. There is nothing in the district goal that says everyone in the class has to study exactly the same content. Third, the student can choose the culture or historical period. This is a great opportunity for a child to examine his or her own familial culture, or a particular era or time span in history that interests him or her.

All of these choices may be difficult for a student to make if they are starting from a point of little knowledge or experience. If this is the case, there are two ways to lead students up to the point where they are ready to make such choices. One approach is to use a more teacher centered strategy to introduce students to a field of study. In this method, the teacher presents a survey unit that gives students an overview of a sub discipline within music, and raises more questions than it answers to “stoke the fire” with lines of inquiry a student may choose to follow. The second approach is to present material and require that students examine it closely until something of interest is noticed. I recently used this approach with my 8th grade students. I played several classical music pieces for them, pieces that had characteristics they had previously indicated were present in music they prefer to listen to, and required them to write down one thing that they found in the music that interested them or that they were curious about. I told them that they were not allowed to say nothing interested them, but that they must instead listen more closely until they found something.

Musical-BalanceMuch to their  surprise, nearly everyone of them did find something of interest, and most found two or three. These questions then formed the basis of the next class meeting. The students were given a list of all the questions they had collectively raised, and were given time in small groups to discuss and answer as many as they could. Each group then shared out the results of their discussions, and I filled in any missing information and answered any additional questions that had been raised in the small groups which they could not answer themselves. The students benefitted from this method of instruction by learning aspects of classical music that interested them, and I benefitted by learning more about my students and what interests them. They were also much more engaged in the learning process because it was mostly student led though teacher designed.

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