Why Do Essential Questions Improve Music Teaching and Learning?

2011 Symposium2

In my school district, the objective at the top of each lesson plan, and the objective must begin with the phrase “students will be able to.” The idea is to state an objective in terms of what I want the students to know and do as a result of the lesson. This is a helpful way to frame an objective, and an objective is certainly needed to give direction and purpose to a lesson for both students and teacher, but objectives can also become overly academic and border on being irrelevant and uninteresting. When this happens, teaching and learning becomes harder and less joyful than it ought to be. The solution is to use essential questions.

A good essential question bridges the gap between subject content and student interest, relevancy, and applicability. It raises a question that is both at the heart of the discipline, and of high interest and relevancy to students. Essential questions focus content in a direction that is most useful to the learners, and elevates knowledge and skills beyond the theoretical to the practical. Let’s see how this might work with one of my objectives.

For the seventh grade lesson I’m teaching this week, I wrote for the objective, “Students will be able to demonstrate through performance and define common musical terms for dynamics, tempo, and articulation.” As an objective, it is measurable  and made specific when those “common musical terms” are specified. It complies with the music curriculum, and satisfies my employer’s requirements for an objective in my lesson plan.Conventional ways of teaching from this objective include having students define terms, or having students perform music and assessing their use of dynamics and tempo. Both of these activities are fine for performance assessment, but they do little to build musicianship or critical thinking skills.  If a student sings or plays softly when they see “p” marked, and if they gradually play or sing faster when they see accelerando marked in their music, that will get them a good score on the assessment, but it doesn’t involve the student in any artistic choosing, and it doesn’t provide the student with any opportunity to personalize the music making experience. My objective doesn’t give a reason for learning those terms beyond the task of performing in class. Music is something those students experience in one way or another every day. How can those musical terms add value to those musical experiences?

If I think about these questions, then I can go deeper and find an essential question. Here is one that comes to mind: how does a musician decide what dynamics and tempo to use? This essential question suggests that students will learn what different dynamics and tempos are, but also investigate what do with them. Now they must find out why the music is supposed to be soft where the “p” is marked, they must consider how soft that piano should be, and they need to go beyond the printed indications and decide what other dynamics should be used, where they should be used, and how they should be used so that the overall affect and expression of the music is improved beyond what is possible by just complying with what is already printed in the music.  With these more meaningful possibilities before me, I can now develop my plan with activities that will direct students to look for and find answers to these problems, For example, perhaps  they will select from a menu of dynamics and tempos those that are best suited to a particular song, and then will provide reasons for their choices. They can spend time in small groups determining where in the music they will apply a particular dynamic, singing through the song several times, each time trying out ideas, reflecting on each version as they go, and finally coming up with a version that they like best.

Notice how different the lesson turned out using an objective and an essential question instead of just my original objective. The essential question took the lesson much deeper, prompting  students to think about what they do, and to find relevant application of  the terms and concepts being learned. The essential question turned lower level learning, the obtaining of knowledge in the form of definitions, which is depth of knowledge level one, and turned it into higher level learning in which they critique, compare, investigate, and apply concepts. All of these are in levels three and four and the depth of knowledge wheel. The essential question I proposed for this lesson was specific to dynamics. The same question can be broadened to span a unit or an entire year of study in this way: How do musicians make artistic choices? This question expands the inquiry to all artistic choices, not just those concerning dynamics. As a question essential to the discipline of music, it should be present in everything a musician and therefore student of music (including those in general music who insist they are not musicians). I can use the question to frame all kinds of lessons on many musical concepts. Artistic choices are made by listeners, composers and performers, so no matter what I am teaching, the question of how artistic choices are made, and making sure that my students are making them, is important. That is why a question about artistic choices is essential.

In their book, Essential Questions, Wiggins & McTighe give seven characteristics of a good essential question. In fact, they maintain that if a question doesn’t have these characteristics, it is not an essential question. Here is their list:

  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
  2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
  4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.

Our essential question, how do musicians make artistic choices, has all seven characteristics. Focusing teaching on an essential question is a great way to bring depth and rigor into your classroom.


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