You’re The Guide, Now Where Are You Taking Them?

2011Symposium_1_2When I write my lesson plans, a lot of thought goes into stating a goal, finding materials, and ordering everyithing into what I think will be an effective progression of steps that will guide my students through the lesson and what I want them to do, leading them to the destination of the goal. While it is necessary for me to think through all of this before I teach the lesson, if I don’t share my reasoning with the class, they may not connect the dots as they progress through the lessons, and some learning may not be lost. I’ve found that while it is good to share the goal with the class, this alone is often not enough. Just because students know what they are to be able to do by the end of the class doesn’t mean they will pick up on their own what each step along the way has to do with achieving that goal. When I explain at the beginning of the class, not only what they are going to do, but why they are going to do each task, and how it will advance them closer to achieving the overall goal, students are noticeably more motivated and more engaged in the lesson. Let’s see how this looks in a class I recently taught.

The goal was that students will be able to use standard music notation to improve their efficiency at learning a musical work. The music was a piece the class had already practiced singing, though it was not completely learned. I began by telling the class that they would learn how to use a musical score to gather information about a piece, and to assist them in learning the music faster than just by listening to it. i then distributed copies of the vocal parts to the first page of “Dry Your Tears, Africa” by John Williams. I reminded them that this was a song they are already familiar with, and then told them they had two minutes to gather as much information as they could just from looking at the music. After two minutes, they began telling me what they found. First came pitches, rhythm, and meter, then the words and the fact that the text was in a language other than English. One student said the title suggested the song had to do with sadness because of the word “tears.” Another student was able to  notice that there were two voice parts, and that they were soprano and tenor.  By the end of this discussion, everyone was aware of the wealth of information that was available to them by looking at the score, and most of which had been overlooked by just learning the music by ear.

Next, we began to apply what we had found to performance. We had discovered that rhythm was one of the many things Op.59_No.1written in the music. The rhythm of the song was simple; all quarter, eighth and half notes, so they tried clapping the rhythm from reading. It didn’t occur to them to think of how the song went while they read the rhythm, so their first attempts were more imprecise than I anticipated. Then a few of the students thought of singing quietly while they clapped. I recognized this as a good idea, and the whole class did the same. Now with the notation and their performance melded together, first their clapping became more precise, and then their singing became more precise. As they became aware of how their singing and clapping were not together, they realized that both needed to be more precise and brought into agreement. Once this was done, their performance improved dramatically.

As we worked our way further into the music, I told them to apply the same strategies as they practiced a less familiar section of the music. While they were tempted to just keep singing the section, thinking repetition would result in improvement, I encouraged them to use the notation to read the rhythms they were unsure of. We reviewed the use of slurs to connect notes that are sung on the same syllable, and checked to be sure we noticed all of the notes included in the longer melismas. Slowly, as they shifted their approach from learning by ear to learning form notation, their performance began to improve more quickly, just as I had told them it would. Because everyone likes expediency, they were now gaining enthusiasm about using music notation. By the end of the class, they had used music notation to a delve deeper into the music, and had learned many uses of notation in learning music, and learning about music.

The Real Issue Behind Rewarding Students

2011Symposium_1_2Motivation results from knowing what you goal is and finding value or enjoyment in meeting that goal. The less value or enjoyment that is found in a goal, the less motivated a person will be to work at achieving the goal. In such instances, in order for the goal to be met, unrelated incentives need to be used to create motivation that is otherwise lacking. For example, if a teacher sees that a student is not motivated, and that because of this the quality of the student’s work is less than what is expected or desired, the teacher may offer an incentive such as a prize from a “treasure box,” points toward free time, or even a candy bar. None of this causes the student to value the goal any more, but the student is motivated by a desire to attain the reward. This arrangement shifts the goal from meeting a learning objective to obtaining the incentive. The tricky thing is that the learning objective may be met, but because the student is focused on the incentive and not the learning objective, the student is likely to learn and retain less of what the teacher intended to teach, because to the student, the learning is incidental to his or her main purpose of obtaining the prize; whereas to the teacher, the prize is incidental to the student achieving the incentive. Each party, the student and the teacher, will take away from the experience what they sought to achieve. The student learns that in order to earn points, a candy bar, or a toy, he or she just needs to do what the teacher tells him or her to do. Because the teacher is likely trying to cause an unmotivated student to do something productive, any effort will be seen as progress, and quality standards for student work, at least initially, is likely to be low. As a result, the student doesn’t need to worry about doing quality work, but only about doing some work at a minimum standard.

How can teachers change their approach to unmotivated students so that the flaws in the just-describedDance-and-Movement procedure are corrected? Most teachers will agree that some form of extrinsic motivation is needed for students who are chronic reluctant learners and unmotivated, but most will also agree that such reward systems do not create the ideal learning environment. Notice that the main problem is not the use of a reward system, but on how the system hijacks the focus away from desired learning objectives and outcomes and toward unrelated personal gain. For example, if a music teacher offers a student a candy bar for completing a composing project, then the student is not focused on creating music, an expressive intent, or hearing the finished musical work performed. Instead, he is focused on getting paid—receiving the candy. We aren’t offering a related reward. Candy is in no way a part of the creative musical process, and is not a natural or positive consequence of creating music. Once the student has completed the assignment and received the candy, he or she is no more motivated to write another piece of music than they were before, though they may do so to obtain another piece of candy. But they would just as willingly do anything else to receive the same piece of candy. The teacher has not built any motivation to specifically compose music.

Now suppose that the same teacher designs the composing assignment so that students who are in band or orchestra will perform their compositions for the class, and students who are not in band or orchestra, and don’t play a musical instrument, will have their finished composition played by a peer who does play. The whole dynamics of the assignment has just changed. The incentive for the instrumentalists has gone up two-fold, because they not only get to play their own piece, but also get to play their instrument for their friends, which is something most accomplished student-musicians are excited to do. Quality control has just gone way up, because students will want to compose and perform music that will impress their classmates, and this will also necessitate that they give thought to composing music they can actually play and play well. Students who do not play instruments will be motivated to write music that will music and the brainsound good when a peer plays it for them, and this will provide motivation not only for quality composing, but also close collaboration between composer and student instrumentalist, so that the composer writes music that is playable, which is the only kind that will sound good. With this new design, the motivation now is to obtain quality musical results both to impress and to feel proud of. Both the work and the reward are now related and musical. The consequences of doing the work are natural; that is, they are related to the work in that both are musical, unlike the candy, which was unnatural and non-musical. The new reward of getting one’s composition performed is still an extrinsic reward in that the student is receiving something tangible in exchange for work completed, but the reward, because it is natural and musical, encourages deeper learning and motivation to something else musical, perhaps compose again, in order to receive a musical reward. The extrinsic reward of a performance is developing intrinsic motivation of wanting to feel good about what has been accomplished.

The virtues and liabilities of intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards has been widely debated. What should be apparent from the above discussion is that the issue isn’t about whether a reward is extrinsic or intrinsic, but rather whether it is a natural consequence of the musical activity the student has been or is being asked to engage in. Either intrinsic or extrinsic rewards can be either natural or unnatural consequences. Music teachers should strive to always make rewards natural consequences of the musical work they are asking their students to do.

The Exit Ticket for Music

2011Symposium_1_2If there’s anything that music standards have done to help me improve my teaching over the years, it is to get me beyond singing songs and playing instruments to teaching musical concepts, skills, and processes through singing songs and playing instruments. In other words, standards have taught me that the song is not the objective, it is the means through which the objective will be taught and learned. Part of seeing that students meet the objectives I have set for them is to have a way of knowing what they have remembered and learned as a result of each class, and what they intend to do with what they have learned. If all students leave my class with is a good time, then they will not value music learning the way I want them to. If I find that students are not growing in musicianship, including all of the processes in the new core arts standards for music, then I must revisit how I am planning and teaching my lessons. Just because students are enjoying themselves in class does not mean that they are learning what I hope they are learning. Yet because much of what I do with them in class is not written, and takes place in ways that are not easily observable, I need a way of finding out what is going on “inside” my students emotionally, attitudinally, and intellectually. Though not unfailingly reliable, because not all of this learning can be observed or even accurately described by the students in words, I find that the exit ticket is a useful tool in assessing both my students’ learning and the effectiveness of my teaching.

An exit ticket is a quick, expedient way of assessing learning at the end of a lesson. It creates closure for the student, provides data for the teacher, and even helps focus lesson planning when I consider that there must be something concise, relevant, and apparent that students have learned and will know they have learned at the end of the class. Because this is a quick check and not a formal quiz or test, I keep my exit ticket short and focused. It includes three questions: What did you do in music class today? What music things did you learn form doing what you did in music class today? What is the next step you will take with the music things you did and learned in music class today? It is readily apparent that the questions build on each other. First, I’m asking the student to think back over what they did. “I named the notes in the first phrase of the melody of “Trepak,” I found those notes on a piano keyboard, and I practiced playing the melody.” So far there is no indication of what the student learned, only of what s/he did, but I want the student to connect what they did with the benefit that came from it, so calling to mind what they did first is important.

Next, the student tells me what they learned from doing what s/he did. “I learned that the keyboard i-get-itnotes are alphabetical from left to right, and to look for notes that are the same so I don’t have to keep figuring out what they are.” I’d be happy with that answer, but not with this one: “I learned to play a song on the piano.” While it’s good this student can now play a song he or she couldn’t before the class, there’s no indication that s/he met the objective, which was to play the melody at a steady beat. There was no indication of this in the first answer either, but there were other things that are valuable mentioned that the student did learn, and which I can use to advance the student closer to being able to play the song with a steady beat.

The last question is critical, yet easy to overlook. I want my students to plan on using what they have learned in my class. The answer to this question doesn’t have to be what I hope for them, although it could be. If a student wants to learn another song they didn’t think they could ever play before today, but now think they can, that’s a great next step. If the student wants to teach a sibling how to play the melody on the piano, that’s also a great next step. This question leads students into finding a connection, a relevance, and most of all a value in their learning. Without this, what I teach my students won’t have a lasting impact on them; and while they may think their education is only for the present, I strongly believe that their education is also for their future success and happiness.  Using an exit ticket is a relatively new strategy for me, so if you have one you’ve been using and found success with, let me know.