The Better Way

Version 2Times have changed. It used to be that teachers taught everyone the same way, without considering that children don’t all learn the same way. Then we realized there are different types of learners, and we began meeting the needs of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Howard Gardner taught us about multiple intelligences, and a greater attention to special needs children challenged us to find ways to maximize learning for these children. These were all necessary and much needed shifts in educators’ thinking. Still, teachers still considered themselves as the determiners of what would be taught, and how it would be taught. The teacher’s job was to teach, and the students’ jobs were to learn in the way the teacher instructed.

One of the glaring weaknesses of this perspective is that when students are not interested, do not find what the teacher is doing relevant, and disengage themselves from the intended educational process, school becomes a struggle for everyone. Teaching becomes burdensome, and learning becomes boring. However strongly educators may insist that there are certain things all students should know, like Shakespeare, the Pythagorean theorem, or the symphonies of Mozart, no one, teachers in grad school or students in grade school, will be a high achieving learner, or will retain and apply learning, if it was taught to a disinterested, unmotivated student. There has to be a better way, and there is a better way. Student feedback and choice are a powerful combination of tools that quickly ramp up the level of learning and of engagement and interest. In this post, I will describe and discuss both of these.

Student feedback can take many forms. The kind I will discuss here is in regard to students informing teachers on how they prefer to learn, and on the effectiveness of whatever learning strategies the teacher had the students use. Having students generate this kind of feedback is beneficial to both teachers and learners. In giving this feedback, learners develop an awareness of how most successfully learn, and in what ways they most enjoy interacting with the material they are learning, be it knowledge or skills. Once aware of their preferred learning strategy and activity, students can take advantage of the opportunity to learn their way, and to develop a love for learning and for the material that both would otherwise been passed up.

I currently have a second grade student in General Music who dislikes singing to the point where he steadfastly refuses to sing. He will drum, chant, move, dance, play instruments, but will not sing. I am a very Kodaly centered music teacher. Singing is at the very center of everything I do, so with this child, I have a choice. I can just as steadfastly as he, insist that he sing, making our teacher-student relationship frustrating and to some extent confrontational, or I can acknowledge that he can meet a great many of the objectives I have for him and his classmates by doing things other than sing. I can reflect and acknowledge that singing in general music is a means to an end, and not the end itself. I have children sing to teach them to love music, love making music, be creative with interpretation and improvisation, and learn to express themselves in a personal, musical, expressive way.

Of course, a child can learn all those things by playing instruments, and listening to the expressiveness and creativity of others. While some aspects of musical development may be less served by minimizing singing, the detriment will not, I must acknowledge, be as much for someone who hates to sing as for one who enjoys or even loves to sing, like me. I cannot teach someone else to love music as I do by requiring them to sing, if they do not love to sing as I do. Instead, I have the opportunity to observe a child grow in musicality in a different way than I did or would prefer to, and thereby learn something about the child I would not learn otherwise. Learn what about music he or she really values, and what that child really connects with in music.

When a child says “I hate music,” it is rarely literally the case. More likely, what is meant is, “I hate doing what you’re asking me to do, and I won’t do that because I don’t think I’m very good at it and I don’t want anyone to hear me doing it.” But that is too much to say every time a child is asked to sing, so he just says, “I hate music.” Receiving student feedback gives the teacher the opportunity to know his or her students better, which enables the teacher to make content more relevant and attuned with student interests. It also demonstrates to the student that the teacher cares enough to consider him or her as a unique and valued individual, rather than one of many generic students.

Often times, if a student is given the opportunity to practice something like singing, or playing a guitar, or what have you in a safer place than where an entire class of peers will hear, a child will very quickly begin to flourish. I recently had a class of 7th graders working on a guitar project in small groups. There was a girl who just sat there with a guitar on her lap looking unhappy. I brought her out of her group and said I wanted to show her something. I took her guitar and played what I had asked her to play, then I said, I can have you playing that in 5 minutes. Watch. Reluctantly at first, she began to follow my instruction, and in less than 5 minutes, she sounded great. With a smile on her face, she assured me she would continue to play for the rest of the class, and the next class too. Nobody likes doing something they don’t think they are good at in front of an audience. For her, individual instruction was the way to go. For others, group learning is best.

A group of confident learners enjoying what they are doing usually produces exciting results. When given the choice, some of those student groups will choose to sing. They will sing, four or five at a time in unison, in harmony, or to a beat boxer, and enjoy every second. Others will prefer to play rhythms on drums, while others want to get their band instruments and add a flute or saxophone part to their classmates drumming or singing. The best learning occurs from a position of strength and confidence. When students have choices, they will choose to stand on solid ground. From that position of confidence they will be willing to take the risks that are necessary to push learning forward. When forced into a “one size fits all” model of teaching, only those confident in doing that one thing will succeed. Feedback informs instruction, choice empowers students.

Using Student Feedback to Improve Instruction

Version 2In order to provide the best possible instruction for our students, we must be informed about what they are experiencing as they go through the learning activities we have planned for them. We must know what difficulties individual students are having, what progress each student is making, and what connections the student is making between what we are having him or her do and learn with their own life and perspective. If we were to do this in great detail, we would easily be overwhelmed, because the typical public school music teacher sees 500-700 students every week. But their are things we can do that are easily managed and are effective in gathering student feedback which informs  us of these important experiences.

First, when we give our students written work, we can include some questions at the end of their work. Did you enjoy this activity? Was this activity worthwhile for you? Why or why not? What difficulty or difficulties did you experience while doing this activity? What were you able to do easily? Is there something else I could have asked you to do that would have been more helpful to you in meeting today’s objective? When students give honest and detailed answers to these questions, I am greatly helped in meeting their needs that day or during the following lessons. I can look for trends and alter my lesson planning accordingly, and I can find a type of activity that was effective for most or all of the class and make sure I use that type of activity again.

For example, none of my classes like sitting for the first 5-10 minutes of class while I lecture them on a musician or musical work, or what have you. But they love it when I write facts about, for example, a musician on index cards, hide the cards around the room and let them have a scavenger hunt to find them. They have to share with each other what different cards say (collaboration) and from the information they gather figure out who the musician is. Then the rest of the class is on that musician and his or her artistic work. I was spurred on to do this after I received feedback from a high achieving student that I should “make learning more fun.” This part of student feedback really comes down to putting ourselves in their place; of realizing what it is like for our students to be in our class, and then making sure that it is as stimulating, motivating, relevant, and fun as possible, because the truth is, students learn more when they are enjoying what they are doing.

A second kind of student feedback is giving students choices of what they will do to learn what you want them to learn and do what you want them to be able to do. In a general music class, students musical interests vary widely. Some students like to respond to music; they like to write about it. Writing about a text is something they are used to doing in other classes. Middle school students have spent years becoming capable writers in their Language Arts classes. When they come to music, many of them are taken out of theirMIOSM comfort zone when asked to perform music, but they are happy to listen to music and write about it, citing evidence from the text, that is from the music they hear, to support their arguments. In terms of the National Core Arts Standards, these students learn better when they are describing than when they are demonstrating. When either will do for assessing their proficiency, students can be given a choice of writing, verbally explaining (with their explanation assessed on a rubric) or demonstrating with a performance.

In this regard, I like to view the four artistic processes in a way similar to how educators view the multiple intelligences; that is, students often have a dominant artistic process. Some prefer to perform, others prefer to respond, as I discussed above. Some want to create artistic works, while others enjoy finding connections between artistic works and their lives, their community, or their culture. While no artistic process should be left out of any child’s music education, students can and should be allowed to be artistic within the process they most enjoy where the concept being taught can be learned within more than one process. For example, students can learn about timbre by responding to music to which they listen, by composing or arranging for solo and combinations of instruments, or by interpreting a musical work as a performer. If the objective is to understand and be able to demonstrate timbre, then a student can meet this objective through creating, performing or responding. Letting the student choose which artistic process to use is a form of student feedback, it increases the quality of their work, and it informs the teacher what kinds of learning activities will be most effective with individual students.

Below is a handout I developed for use with my 7th and 8th grade classes that is designed to walk the students through selecting an artistic process and guiding them through an activity using that process. I continue to revise it, but I present here in its current form as resource you may find useful. Feel free to tweak it or revise it to meet your students needs. If you’d like, please share your revisions through an e-mail attachment to the address on my contact page.

Select one of the following artistic processes and circle it. This is what you will be doing today.

Creating            Performing          Responding           Connecting

Choose one of the following, depending on which artistic process you chose.


a. generate musical ideas that express happiness, sadness, anger, or fear. You will document your ideas by writing them down using either standard music notation, or a kind of notation that you make up. Each ideas must be at least 10 seconds long, and you must generate and document at least three ideas.

b. organize your three ideas into a rondo form, that is, A B A C A, where the first idea is A, the second idea is B and the third idea is C.

c. revise your ideas if you think that is necessary in order to better express your chosen emotion (expressive intent).

d. practice performing your rondo, or teach someone else to perform it for you, using your written down documentation.

e. present your rondo to an audience of at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song you would like to sing, based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. determine what emotion the songwriter was trying to express, and then determine how you can sing the song in a way that best expresses that same emotion. Consider how best to use elements of music such as tempo (how fast/slow), timbre (the kind of sound you produce with your voice), and dynamics (how loud/soft).

c. determine what an excellent performance of this song would sound like, and then practice singing it, trying to come close to that excellent performance you imagined.

d. perform the song for at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song to which to respond based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. explain in writing how the songwriter applied the elements of music and expressive qualities to convey an emotion.

c. create criteria for evaluating songs, and then use that criteria to evaluate in writing this song.

d. present your findings to at least 3 other people in class.


a. select a song based on your knowledge, interests, ability, and the context of this class.

b. Explain in writing connections between the song and a topic or text you have studied in another class, or between the song and observations you can make about the culture in which you live. Share your connections with at least 3 other people in class.