Many of us music educators have, over the years, spent a good deal of time advocating for music education. It can seem to us that at every turn, our programs are in danger of being scaled back or eliminated in the name of raising academic achievement–a strategy we know is ill-advised and contrary to an overwhelming body of research. In the midst of these ongoing battles, we can easily become overly defensive of our curriculum, and unintentionally overlook the very strengths of our discipline that make the strongest case for music in our schools. This defensiveness sometimes comes out in opposing allowing students to choose what they study. The argument against is typically that Math and Science teachers don’t give students this sort of choice, so why should music teachers? “We have a curriculum too, and by golly we’re going to stick to it!”
In making this argument, it is easy to overlook the truth that students don’t interact with and relate to Math and Science the way they do to Music. While it is true that students use math in everyday life, they don’t seek it out and connect with these subjects as they do with music. When we are teaching music, it is helpful to think of our lessons as projects. A teacher that assigns a project allows the student to choose what he or she will do, as long as the work will result in the student learning an identified concept. This is the key point: it is the concept, not the content, that matters. If you want to teach students to compose parts for a rhythm section in a popular song, they can use any song they choose (within guidelines of appropriate language) to delve into as a model. With my middle school students, I sometimes ask them “how would you like to learn today?” Some will choose to work alone, some will choose to work in groups. Some will want me to teach them directly, some will want to discover on their own through responding to music.
Yesterday, for their “do now” question, I even asked an eighth grade class, “what do you want to learn in music today?” I had a lesson all planned and ready to go, but only intended to use it if for students who didn’t respond to my question. All students did respond, and they came up with some excellent ideas; some of them pleasantly surprised me. For example, two boys chose to work together to find out what instruments were used in the Renaissance. I would never have thought to teach that, and there’s no way the entire class would have been interested in that, but these two boys were. They came up with some questions they would answer, and then used the internet to listen to examples of Renaissance music, identify the instruments they heard as best they could, and find out what instruments were commonly used at that time.
A group of four girls started out saying they wanted to “make a beat,” which translated usually means they wanted to play the same hip-hop rhythm for half an hour. I asked them, how are you going to do that so that you learn something new? Now they were nudged out of their comfort zone, but they pressed on because after all, the whole thing was their idea. They decided to listen to a song and learn the rhythm part. “Great” I said, “what song do you want to use that will be a model for you making a new rhythm?” Now they needed a song that didn’t use the same old hip-hop beat. They chose a funky song they sort of liked, but they worked hard at learning the rhythm, and then had a good time performing it for me. In the process, they learned what back beats were, learned a rather advanced rhythm off of the bass line, and gained some new (for them) ideas to incorporate into their own composition.
When students direct their own learning, they will not learn everything you would have taught them if you were directing the learning, but they will learn thing you would not have taught them, and those things mean more to students, and make a more lasting impression, and have a greater effect on their lives. That makes the fruits of their self-directed learning incredibly important. The truth is, self-directed learning will result in students learning a diverse repertoire of music and body of knowledge. We can easily underestimate the diversity of interests our students have, and wrongly assume that if it were up to them, all we’d be doing all year is world drumming and hip-hop. I have been guilty of thinking this way, and honestly, when I first tried this sort of teaching, it looked like my assumption was playing out. The key is to manage the class so that students are not put in the position of declaring an interest in front of the whole class that is not shared by most. Those boys would never have announced to the whole class that they wanted to study Renaissance music. That would make them responsible for most of their classmates being bored with their choice. But given the opportunity to follow that interest with one or two others that share that interest, and knowing that the rest are being given the same opportunity, the risk is eliminated, and the opportunity becomes irresistible.
For all of this to work, it is not necessary to always give students the choice of what they learn. In fact, the first question I got when I asked them how they wanted to learn, was “what do you want us to learn?” It’s a great question, and students will be more willing to learn what you want them to learn if they get to choose how they learn it. There is great benefit in allowing students to choose how they learn, because it gives them the opportunity to work off of their strengths. Because of this, they will often experience enjoyment and success learning something they would neither have succeeded at or enjoyed had it been taught your way.