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Pedaduel: Off You Go vs Chalk/Talk/Drill

May 12, 2013 1 comment

The things in life I am best at I taught myself. I pushed myself to get better at. If there’s something I cannot do and I want to do it, I can work it out. It may not be the quickest way, the most efficient or the “best”, but from asking questions rather than answering them I’ve carved myself out a very successful path in life and I don’t see why I should get in the way of others seeking theirs.

I approach my music lesson with this air of individual freedom to be creative and find ones own path. Finding someone to recompose Beethoven’s 5th, reinvent the piano or to write a sterling Shakespeare monologue is of absolutely no interest to me in the classroom.

“They express their own ideas and feelings in a developing personal style, exploiting instrumental and/or vocal possibilities. ” Exceptional Performance Level Descriptor for Music

A block triad chord is not a particular difficult thing to learn. Use three fingers; hit one, miss one, hit one, miss one, hit one and you’re laughing. Have one triad starting on A, the next on G and that’s Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ sorted. So when I’m looking at strophic form and pop music with a class I say to pupils “here’s the note each chord starts on. Here’s the lyrics. Now off you go and do a cover version.” A musician by nature must try things out for themselves. What’s the best thing for me to do in that moment? It certainly isn’t showing pupils the chords. It’s to go round being difficult. Could you do that quieter? How about that bit being louder? Does it sound any good slower? How could you turn it into a ballad? What does that keyboard sound sound like? Have you tried it with a guitar? What instruments does the original use? Everything else, and eventually even this, they can do for themselves.

If they come and ask me to show them the chord I say “No, Off you go…”

In essence I push rather than pull. My job in this instance isn’t to pull them kicking and screaming but to push thinking and learning forward giving them ownership of their own learning. My role is not to lead in the lesson by pulling from in front but push them forward from behind. I can only say today we will go from A to B, I cannot dictate the exact route. Otherwise I’m cheating my pupils out of the number one benefit to having PA on the curriculum; To improve their ability to engage with the creative process, learning to be creative and learning to channel creativity to get an end result.

Now, I don’t pronounce that all teachers should down tools and simply while away the hours on Angry Birds. My presence in a classroom is carefully constructed over time to allow such subtle workings to have maximum effect in independent work. I still want more of something , I want progress just as the inspector, the senior leader, the coaching buddy or pgce mentee will be expecting to see. It’s my job to try and change the diagram above; to improve the green rather than sit back and ignore the amount of red or amber in the process. Performing Arts is process and product and I do believe a product is important. Even if it is simply an example of how wrong it all went, with accompanying reference points and targets on how to be better next time. I’m steering from behind rather than from in front.
I learnt the piano with lessons of between half an hour and an hour a week with my teacher. I matched my lessons time every other day bar Sunday. Therefore I worked at improving my musicianship for 83% of the time without anyone else there to assist me. In my lesson I received feedback on how I’d rehearsed mistakes, practised it too quickly, not followed the right fingering and then readjusted these things the following week. As a model for the music classroom I don’t see why we need to massively shift this approach. I have 4 Grade 8’s. This isn’t some fluke. I drilled myself when I recognised I needed it. If I didn’t know how to practice something I asked, I’d been trained to recognise it and ask – not simply told I was wrong. Parts were still dry, tedious and a hard slog but as it was my slog I was a lot more invested in winning it.
This increased my resilience to learning massively. It kept me going in the darkest of hours at the piano or violin when practising performances simply not able to do what I needed to do. When composing it kept me at the keyboard edge trying out different ideas, or finding new ways to look at it. Resilience in learning and resilience to learning is something often identified as something we need to build within learners, however when we’re always there to tell them if and how they went wrong and how to do it better are they ever going to be able to do it for themselves? Aren’t we sometimes mistaking giving a pupil a fish for teaching them how to fish? Often in the music room having nothing to perform or having something of significantly lower quality to others in the class makes pupils come back fighting in the next stage of the lesson with no support, with a little support they are all there slogging to keep moving forward.
The cross curricular appeal? Well a wiser man than me once said a kid will work harder to learn a certain note on the clarinet if they ask you how to play it rather than you tell them they are going to learn it. Obviously we can’t have 28 kids in a class all taking it their own way but a group response to a thought provoking statement, text or example offered by a teacher may just get out kids utilising their inherent skills to be more independent. In music I made up my own, I recreated other’s with understanding of how I was recreating it effectively and I analysed the harmony following strict rules initially formed by Bach. I was able to do all of this from an off you go approach. If I was ever sat down and constantly informed mistake, fix, practice I’d have probably ended up ditching it. I’ve never been very good at sitting and paying attention – even now!
Yes it’s hard. The kids need some training before hand and need slowly introducing to being “let go” so they don’t end up lost at sea. There’s a risk of pupils having absolutely NOTHING to show for an hour or longer. There’s a difficult balance to allowing pupils some off task time when they hit the wall and letting them just chat all lesson. However, my experience shows it ramps up expectation and firmly places the onus on learning on the learner. It ups the pressure but immediately responds to inquisitiveness with large scale support. Musical Futures have revolutionised the teaching of music in thousands of schools with an informal “in at the deep end” model. It’s so successful because it works.
If someone was to put a gun to my head and demand that Pupil A had to make Outstanding progress in the next hour this is what I would do. I’d “Off You Go…” my way through that hour safe in the knowledge that the gun wasn’t going off. It gets me guaranteed results every time whatever @trueenglish365 might have to say about it.