Context is everything. There’s a saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Too often in education, we take a little morsel of knowledge, perhaps acquired at a conference or hastily gleaned from an article or book, and then force it into a position of exclusivity and prominence that assures success will not prevail. I have observed that such is the case in a growing number of schools where teachers are being required to include some or even all of Marzano’s “nine effective instructional strategies” in their lesson plans. Such a requirement demonstrates a misunderstanding of the utility and intent of the strategies. Experienced educators know that no single strategy works successfully with every child or class, and that it is highly improbable that a complete set of 9 strategies would ever be appropriate for any single lesson plan. Marzano himself has said as much in response to that very requirement (Marzano, 2009). Specifically, Marzano wrote that, “The entire constellation of strategies is necessary for a complete view of effective teaching. Unfortunately, in some schools and districts, this message was lost. This happens quite frequently with the strategies listed in Classroom Instruction That Works.” The book he refers to contains the 9 strategies (Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. (2001). The publication of these strategies does not change the fact that effective teachers select strategies according to goals, objectives, and student needs, and that successful teaching demands a flexible and customized approach to selecting those strategies, not a hard and fast requirement that certain strategies be used regardless of student needs. On the other hand, it is certainly true that some strategy or two from the nine will be effective in some music lessons, and should be considered and implemented in music lesson plans. With this flexible approach in mind, I will now discuss how the nine strategies might be applied to music lessons.
Because these strategies are to be used on an as needed basis, they are not presented here in any hierarchical or ranked order. That said, the first is “identifying similarities and differences.” Distinguishing same-different is a fundamental concept. Music teachers teach aural discrimination when they present two tonal or rhythm patterns and ask the students to determine if they are the same or different. Students then can be asked to echo the pattern they have just heard, or to improvise a pattern that is different from the one they have just heard. All of these activities involve identifying similarities and differences. The study of musical form also is well served by this strategy; indeed, perceiving musical form is essentially identifying the use of repetition and variety over time in a musical work. Recognizing that a work is a rondo, for example, requires the listener to know when new material is heard, and when previously material is heard. The alteration of same and different sections of music create the abaca from of an 18th century rondo. In the performance area, singing or playing an instrument in tune also exercises same-different perception. In order to produce a tone that is in tune, one must hear that one’s tone is different from another, and then adjust until they are the same. In order to practice efficiently, students who recognize that a passage is the same as one they have already learned do not spend additional time practicing that passage again, as if it was new. Instead, they can direct their attention to another section containing passages that are different from any others encountered up to that point.
A second strategy is “reinforcing effort and providing recognition.” I have found that this is extremely important with lower achieving students who have become discouraged and see title point in continuing to put forth effort. Demonstrating to these students that their progress is tied to their effort can be a great encouragement, and spur them on to extending their attempts. Students must see that effort effects achievement. Frequent formative assessments of short-range goals can be used to show students exactly what their effort has gained for them. It never ceases to be a joy for me to successfully lead a student through a difficult task that they were unable to complete on their own, and then to point out that if they could make that much progress in five minutes, think of what they could accomplish is they continued working at it for another week, or even for the rest of that class period. Success breeds success, and effort directed wisely and efficiently under the guidance of an effective teacher, leads to success. If a student has been well trained in effective practice techniques, a practice record such as those used by many band teachers, can be successfully used to show students the connection between effort and achievement. When values for minutes practiced increase or at sustained high levels and correlate with improved or sustained high levels of achievement, the practice record is a useful tool in making that effort-achievement connection apparent and clear to the student.
A third strategy is “setting objectives and providing feedback.” Edwin Cole famously said “If you aim for nothing you have already hit it.” Too many students spend too much time doing things their teachers have required them to do without knowing why they are doing it or what they are trying to ultimately accomplish. People are naturally purpose driven. We don’t like to wander about not knowing where we’re going. That might be okay for a Sunday drive in the summertime, but it is definitely not alright for a way of living or of learning. We need to direct our actions to a purpose that is desirable and meaningful. Students who are simply good at playing school can get great grades on
report cards, but graduate with very little understanding. Music students who are told to play softer, not to rush, or not to play notes so short are capable of meticulously executing the director’s wishes without ever learning why they were asked to do these things within the context of creating an interpretation of a musical work. Compliance is not the same as understanding. Having a goal allows students to learn from the process of practicing, problem solving, and performance, because they know what they are trying to achieve from practicing, which problems need to be solved in order to move the process forward, and how to move through the process in order to arrive at a performance that is ready to present to an audience.
The last of the 9 strategies that I will discuss here is “questions, cues, and advance organizers.” Teachers sometimes make it too easy for students. Gone are the days when teachers dispensed knowledge, treating students like sponges or containers into which that knowledge simply needed to be poured. That kind of teaching produced students who were full of knowledge with little or no idea of what to do with it. Students need to solve problems, discover or construct knowledge, and apply what they learn to authentic situations in order to gain understanding. Questions, cues and organizers are used to help students access prior learning, and to use that learning to make sense of and put to use new learning. Teachers need to hold students responsible for using prior learning to accomplish the task at hand, and to plan lessons that use instructional methods that draw that prior learning out without delivering it “on a silver platter.” To students who have performed recital literature before, the teacher might say, “I notice you are having some trouble learning this part of your piece. You had a similar difficulty when you were learning the beginning of the Mozart flute concerto. How did you overcome the trouble you were having then? What practice methods did you use to learn that piece so well?” This line of questioning is getting at a sort of metacognitive awareness, but it could easily be along the lines of other types of learning. “This solo is by Quantz, who was a contemporary of J.S. Bach. What did you learn about playing ornaments from studying Bach that you could use in this piece also?”
I have only discussed three of the nine effective strategies. Notice that in each case, I have linked a specific strategy to a specific situation. This is how these strategies are intended to be used. Knowing these strategies and utilizing them at situationally advantageous times is a powerful tool among a host of others that teachers have at their disposal.
Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. (2001). Classroom management that works: Research-based strategies for every teacher. Alexandria: ASCD.
Marzano, R. (2009). Setting the record straight on “high-yield” strategies, Phi Delta Kappa, 91(9), 30-37.