Using Portfolios to Improve Music Instruction

Version 2Portfolios in education are collections of student work and of documents related to those pieces of student work. They make possible the documentation of student activity and learning, the reflecting upon work even days or weeks after it is completed, and the charting of progress over time as work collected at various moments is compared in order to assess growth. Maintaining a portfolio allows more lasting and in-depth learning to take place, and makes more tangible the accomplishments of music students whose work, particularly in the performing area, can easily be lost to time after a performance is given.

In this post, I will discuss the elements of the music portfolio other than the initial student work, which includes items like notated composed music, audio or video recordings of performances, and written responses to performed music. When students are participating in a music class, it is important for them to know what they are learning, as opposed to what they are doing. The two are not the same. If a child is asked what they are learning and the child replies that he or she is learning to sing a song, or play an instrument, then the teacher has not effectively communicated the learning objective. A child is learning a song in order to gain ability or proficiency or understanding of a musical concept or skill, and if a skill, then is learning that skill in order to gain proficiency or understanding of a concept. Even if the child’s actions are recorded and placed in a portfolio, understanding is easily lost unless the child has the opportunity to draw it out of the activity.

In order to do this, reflection is a necessary part of the portfolio building process. The reflection should answer at least three questions: what did you do? how well did you do what you did? How could you improve? What did you learn from doing what you did? The responses to these questions might look something like this: What did you do? I improvised rhythms that were four beats and that sounded scary.” How well did you do what you did? I think I did well making my rhythms sound scary, but I’m not sure how many beats most of them were. I didn’t do so well making them all four beats.” How could you improve? “I could learn how to make one beat with different kinds of notes. I don’t really understand the difference between beats and notes.” What did you learn from doing what you did? “I learned that using rests makes music sound scary, and that other people don’t think my music sounds scary. I also learned that it is fun to make my own notes.”

These are actual reflections that some of my students made after doing a rhythm composition project. Think of the juncture each student was at after finishing the project. Without the reflection piece, they would have performed their composition for me, supported their creative choices in terms of conveying an expressive intent, and that would have been the end of it. But with the addition of the reflection, the students notmusic and the brain only realize what is still unclear to them (knowing how to write one beat of music with various note and rest values), but I have the opportunity to address their need, and encourage them to pursue their improvement and praise their reflection, instead of just leaving them with the knowledge that they did part of the assignment incorrectly. The reflection also brings to the front of their mind the concepts of expressive intent, note/rest values, and interpretation (by classmates), and gives them the opportunity to think about what they have done, and what they will take away from the project and apply to other situations. Because the reflections are evidence of learning and are also self-assessments, they are, along with the initial product (in this case a notated rhythm composition) student work and so legitimately belong in the portfolio.

Davidson, Crouch, & Norton identified 5 learning processes. These processes align beautifully with the 4 artistic processes of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS); they are naturally a part of how musicians work and correlate well with the Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions found in the NCAS. The 5 processes are, listening, performing, creating, questioning, and reflecting. Davidson, Crouch, & Norton explained that, “musicians become expert listeners; they constantly work at performance; they create with instruments or as composers and improvisers; they develop a questioning frame of mind in relation to their work; and they reflect constantly on the quality of their work, both through actions and words” Davidson, L., Crouch, S., & Norton, A, 2000). The extent to which musicians engage in questioning their work, of analyzing, generating ideas, organizing those ideas, rejecting or utilizing ideas, and shaping them into a creative composition or interpretation prepares students for not only producing musical work, but also of bringing high levels of scholarship through those kinds of inquiries to other disciplines, which in turn fosters the ability to make connections between music and the other arts, and between music and other disciplines, which is also featured in the NCAS.

Because there is always intent and interpretation in woven into the work of musicians, there is also reflection upon what has been done to determine the effectiveness of conveying the intent through creation and/or interpretation. Musicians are constantly reflecting on what they have just done in order to refine what they do next; such is the process of rehearsing and preparing a performance for presentation to an audience. When these reflections are made explicit through writing them down or verbalizing them in an interview, they are apt to result in more insight and more thoughtful and informed self-assessment and correction, than when they are allowed to be nothing more than passing thoughts made during momentary pauses in practicing or composing. The first two need no elaboration; performing and listening are part and parcel of what all musicians do. Listening includes all that is included in the NCAS for responding to music, and all that is done over the course of monitoring and knowing what a musical is doing and how well they are doing it. Teachers can collect students’ written accounts of questioning and reflecting, use those accounts to deepen learning, and include them in each child’s portfolio.

Davidson, L., Crouch, S., & Norton, A, (2000). Learning through music in elementary school, Journal for Learning Through Music, Summer 2000, 56-67.


One thought on “Using Portfolios to Improve Music Instruction

  1. Pingback: Using Portfolios to Improve Music Instruction — mr a music place – 7-5-17 | I Write The Music

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