Teachers as Mentors to Students

Version 3As we navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic with a balance of remote learning and bringing students back into physical school campuses, many are taking the opportunity to evaluate how the models upon which we teach our children can be improved. While much progress has been made in the last forty years, many of those advances are due for a check-up and tune-up. While some excellent teaching and learning models have been advanced, Learning by Design among them, budget constraints, inadequate professional development, and too much of a “one size fits all” mentality have often times diluted the value of such models. The result has been too little improvement in student achievement, and too much resignation that all that could be done has been done given the limited financial resources provided. The price of a poorly educated populace is far greater than that of “doing education right.”

Just now I mentioned Learning by Design. In it and subsequent writings, one of the authors was clear on how teachers should go about educating their students. Wiggins wrote that, “no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea…. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think….” In other words, facts are received from others, whereas ideas are self-generated out of one’s own intellectual pursuit. Hence the phrase “I have an idea.” Such proclamations are made, often with excitement, after a period of thinking about a problem. Even the phrase, “that gives me an idea” expresses that a fact spoken by another has used it in thinking, and from that thinking on another’s fact, has generated an idea.

Because ideas are the fruit of individual thinking, they are also the start of relevant applications of learning which are necessary for students to come away from instruction with understanding. In order for this important phase of education to take place, students must be provided a learning environment that allows them ample time to ponder, think, struggle, explore, develop and ultimately arrive at ideas and understandings. When education fails, it often does so because time for this meaningful learning to take place has not been afforded. Facts have come and gone in the students time in class without leaving a hope or seed for ideas and understanding to grow.

Wiggins made this point when he wrote, “We can and do supply ready-made “ideas” by the thousand; we do not usually take much pains to see that the one learning engages in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas—that is, perceived meanings or connections.”

Thankfully, education has come a long way from the days of a teacher standing in front of a classroom of students, lecturing from the front while students dutifully took notes and memorized facts. Honestly, in a time when everyone either farmed or worked in manufacturing, this fact-based model of education worked well. But our world has changed drastically from those days, and we generally understand that the lecture model of teaching is largely ineffective for the things we need our students to get out of their education. Students cannot merely be treated as repositories for facts, but must be trained to be generators of ideas and the discoveries to which they lead.

One model meant to afford students this kind of education is project based learning. It is a very hands-on kind of learning in which students work on projects designed to give them authentic (real-life) tasks that involve collaboration with other students, problem solving, and a means for applying learning to demonstrate understanding. A new school campus has just opened near my home that is designed for just this very way of educating. IMG_0935An official involved in the project explained that “every space was intentionally designed to accommodate a unique project-based learning model. This includes expansive open learning commons, small group and one-on-one spaces, learning suites that easily connect to the outdoors, an open concept cafe, outdoor learning porches, and state-of-the-art labs and maker spaces.”

The report, published in a local newspaper, went on, “In a classroom a group of students might be grouped together in comfortable seating with laptops, or a student found mentoring another student on a class project. A teacher won’t be seen in front of the classroom lecturing, rather a mentor, as students call their teachers, may be seen walking about the classroom, guiding students with questions or encouraging multiple ways for students to approach a challenge.” One of the many strengths of this model is that students are left to work through problem solving with each other. The teacher’s involvement is reserved for guiding the students deeper into their inquiry with open ended questioning, and being a resource when students’ needs exceed their peer groups ability.

Wiggins, commenting on this kind of learning environment commented, “This does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on; the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better.”

For music educators, there are several curriculum areas that lend themselves well to project based learning, and others that could be taught that way if music rooms and suites were designed with this in mind. Already, students can easily collaborate on projects in creating, analyzing, and responding to music. At most, audio playback equipment with multiple output jacks set up in learning centers within a music classroom are all that are needed, much like computers are set up in classrooms and media centers.

For performance projects, groups working in open spaces does not work because of the sound of music making that must be present. For these kinds of learning projects, which include preparing a performance for presentation, and developing an interpretation, many “practice rooms” need to be designed into music education facilities. While many music suites have two or three practice rooms, 5 or 6 will allow an entire class to be working on projects without their music making sound interfering with others. A microphone in each practice room that allows the teacher to listen in on any room at any time, much like the arrangement in piano labs, would crate an effective learning environment.

These are but a few ideas that occur to me on how project learning can be expanded in music classrooms. Certainly there are many others, and each must be fitted to the specific student population and physical limitations for which they are designed. Still, it is worth pursuing. When music teachers demonstrate that they not only have the facts on education models, but are effectively adapting them and implementing them in their classrooms, non-music faculty and administrators often not only hold those music teachers in higher esteem, but see their programs as a more effective program in their building. But most importantly of all, using these models improves our students’ performances.

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