If you are a pubic school music educator, then you are accustomed to writing and posting instructional objectives for your students. In my district, student learning objectives must be posted on the front board at all times so that anyone observing the class can easily see what you are expecting the students to know and be able to do, and so that the students always have their objective right in front of them. This is good policy. It helps students understand what is expected of them, what they are trying to accomplish, and what knowledge, skill, and understandings they will have attained upon completion of the lesson. That said, learning objectives can easily be of limited value if the students have difficulty connecting what they are doing with achieving the objective. Objectives don’t necessarily state how to get from where the student is to where they want to end up; objectives only state what the finished product will look like.
At times, I have tried to handle this shortcoming by writing several smaller objectives, with each objective moving the student closer to the final objective. While this helped, I found that it also locked students into one way of learning–my way–and that it left little opportunity to students to direct their own learning in ways that were most relevant and most helpful to them. Students who learned in a way that was reflected in my objectives did well, while those that needed to learn differently struggled. Now I firmly believe that students can learn pretty much anything if given good instruction and enough opportunity to practice. The importance of practice in learning is well documented in research. But my instructional with my students is limited, and teaching them how to learn my way isn’t a good use of that time. Teaching them to go with their strengths as they work toward a common objective is more efficient, and leaves the students more motivated both by the added choices inherent in such an approach, and by the more frequent occurrences of success that result.
So what is the approach that avoids the vagueness of one objective and the restrictiveness of many objectives? State your objective as an essential question. Find a question that, in the process of being answered, will direct students through learning activity from which they can learn what you want them to know and do what you want them to know. For example, suppose you want your students to interpret a musical work they have selected to prepare for presentation to an audience. A reasonable learning objective might be, “students will be able to prepare, support and demonstrate an appropriate interpretation.” Before students can begin to build an interpretation, they must know where to start, and how to go about interpreting. A better place to begin than this objective might be to ask a question such as, “how do musicians interpret musical works?”
As a professional musician, you are in a great position to share how you interpret music you perform. Many things are considered. You might listen to recordings of great musicians performing the work, or you might remember studying the work with a teacher. You certainly would include using the expressive markings you find in the printed score, and clarifying those markings with knowledge about the composer, the historical period in which it was composed, and perhaps the purpose for which the music was composed. I find it fun to interpret music that has been interpreted in a variety of ways previously. Lorin Maazel always seemed to find an inner part to bring out that others had left buried. The range of tempi and resulting articulations for the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony provide audiences with very different experiences, and the variances in tempo and style conductors choose for the March movement in Holst’s First Suite for Military Band in Eb is at times entertaining in itself. On what basis do great conductors arrive at such different interpretations? How do you, as a conductor or soloist decide on such issues? The process of forming an interpretation is one of discerning the composer’s intent, deciding on our own intent in terms of what we want to bring to our audience, and melding the two into one coherent presentation. Students must learn how to guide themselves through this process, which is one of reflection and discovery, before they can begin making “supportable” interpretive decisions. The expressive markings are, while helpful, only a start.
I have used the example of interpreting to show the rich learning possibilities of using an essential question as the starting point. Certainly this is not limited to interpretation. The advantages and benefits of starting with an essential question are present for any learning objective. Rather than stating “students will be able to rehearse their parts for “March” from First Suite in Eb for Military Band, start with the essential question, “how do musicians prepare a performance for presentation?” or “When is a performance judged ready to present?” You are asking these questions with your objective in mind, but you want your students to work through the answering of these questions in order to “be able.” “When is a performance judged ready to present?” is a great question, because it requires that students determine what the elements of their performance are, and how they will know when each of those elements is performance ready. Right notes must be played, right rhythms must be played, notes must be in tune with others, must be together rhythmically with other, expressive changes must be done together so that, for example, one instrument does not protrude beyond others during the coarse of a crescendo, ornaments and articulations must be stylistically correctly and so forth. You and your students might compile a different list of elements, but the learning takes place not in being given the list but in creating the list. There is great value in every student musician asking, “what are all the things I am trying to do, to put together, so that this music is performed well?”
Essential questions direct the learner beyond expedient answers and polished playbacks of things learned by rote. They make the student’s thinking, reasoning, inquiring, and concluding the center of learning activity so that when the objective is ultimately met, it has deep understanding and relevance behind it. Whether the student is creating, performing, responding or connecting, essential questions transport music learning to the realm of high level thinking just as surely as honors or A.P. courses. In fact, for this very reason, using essential questions to drive music instruction allows music classes, including ensembles, to qualify as honors and to carry with it the higher weighting so important to high achieving students who covet high class rank in American high schools. Everyone benefits from using essential questions in music education.