November 11, 2010

Risk Free Education

I just returned from our parent-teacher conferences for my children, and I am pleased to say that I was able to have a frank discussion about teaching and learning with one of the teachers. During this conversation, I was told what I new implicitly all along – change requires risk, and not many administrators, teachers, or parents are willing to take a risk to try something new. This is particularly the case if there is a perception that change may negatively impact standardized test scores, if the system isn't perceived as being flawed, or if a new approach is radically different from what has been done in the past (the "If it ain't broke..." syndrome). 

Unfortunately, standardized tests do not measure a student's ability to think critically, solve problems creatively, communicate collaboratively, or act compassionately, arguably all skills more valuable to a student's future than the ability to identify the dependent clause in a sentence or round the number 4,367 to the nearest hundred. Where, when, how, and who is responsible for teaching these critical attributes to our children if not in our classrooms where our children spend such a large portion of their days? 

The use of standardized tests allow teachers and administrators to abdicate their responsibility for teaching students skills that truly will impact their futures. In my children's school, teachers are required by the administration to work through the reading series textbooks page by page, chapter by chapter, using the pre-made fill-in-the-bubble assessments. According to our teachers, this is not optional. But I am curious how many of the teachers have questioned its dictatorial use. I suspect not many, because it is too easy to use - minimal effort is required in planning, implementing, and assessing - and already is established practice. In short, a "no brainer." Given what limited amount I know about human tendencies, the easy, familiar, less rigorous path to a goal is typically preferred over the more challenging, meaningful path. 

So, I was not surprised to hear that many constituencies would be lined up to oppose any change to "traditional" methods of teaching. It is familiar, established, and requires little risk, and presently there is little incentive to change established practice. Change requires risk, after all, and implicitly an admittance of failure, to which few will openly acknowledge, especially not to those over whom they have authority. For many the risks required are too great and very personal - time, energy, ego, power. These are valuable commodities that many are not willing to risk for any reason. But, until a majority of us are willing risk bruising our egos, relinquishing our power and authority over the classroom, and devoting the time and energy necessary to plan and implement instruction that engages students in the aquisition and application of knowledge and understanding in meaningful ways, concrete educational reform will not take place.

June 21, 2010

PBL and Applied Music Study

I’m a believer in Project Based Learning (PBL). I’ve seen it work quite effectively in my classroom as students are motivated to learn through overcoming the obstacles and challenges posed by the projects that they choose or that have practical application to their professional careers as educators. There are numerous studies that support the effectiveness of Project Based Learning as a compelling model for curricular design. However, I struggle to understand why so many students struggle to be successful with what I consider to be the ultimate PBL activity – applied music study.

Studying an instrument or voice engages the student in the fundamental tenets of PBL:

  • Student-centered approach to learning CHECK!

Student instruction is highly individualized based on a student's ability level and learning needs. Each student is unique. Applied instructors are diligent to differentiate instruction to meet individual student needs.

  • Teacher as facilitator/guideCHECK!

Because performance is skill based and, to a much lesser extent, information based, applied music instructors are not mere disseminators of information, but rather work carefully with each student, guiding skill development toward characteristic and appropriate performance practice.
  • Metacognition plays a significant role in learningCHECK!

Successful applied students must be intimately involved with metacognitive activities each time they sit down to practice. Applied students continuously evaluate their performance during a practice session, implement solutions to performance problems, then evaluate the success of their interventions. In short, applied study requires learning how to learn. Teachers help to guide students thinking about the learning process, but ultimately students must find this path for themselves through their independent practice.
  • Open ended problems serve as the motivation and framework for learningCHECK!

Assigned literature for performance is open to an infinite number of interpretations. There is no one way to perform any piece of music. In fact, skilled performers explore multiple performance approaches before deciding on one that suits his/her musical concept.

  • Contextual factors influence learningCHECK!

An understanding of the context of the music being performed plays a critical role in characteristic performance practice. Knowing the performance context – large ensemble, chamber, solo, band v. orchestra –historical style period, composer, collaborative performers tendencies, audience, expected outcomes, etc. all play a role in how a piece of music is performed.
  • Problems reflect real world or professional practiceCHECK!

Developing performance skills has a direct application to all music fields. Most obviously as a performer who must perform in a group or as a soloist, but also to the music educator who will be asking for the same performance skills from his/her students, or the composer who must understand performance characteristics and limitations, the historian who learns the unique performance characteristics of each historical period through applied study, or as a therapist whose performance skills may influence the application of a specific therapeutic practice.
  • Group work to promote collaboration and independenceCHECK!

Most performances take place in a collaborative ensemble setting where each performer is responsible for the independent preparation of his/her part. All ensemble members work together to create a musically cohesive whole.

Everything I know, everything I believe about PBL should have students highly motivated to work diligently to achieve in applied music study. But, practice rooms remain empty, little progress is made in performance skill development, and the lack of achievement is demonstrated in rehearsal and concert performances. What’s going on here?

Having taught in multiple states with distinctly different and diverse student populations across many years, the lack of motivation for learning and achievement in applied music study cannot be attributed merely to the “laziness” of today’s students. Nor can it be attributed simply to the quality, instructional approach, or experience of the teacher, as colleagues from within and outside my institution with varied instructional philosophies, backgrounds, and techniques have complained for years about the lack of student motivation and success in applied music study. Even with the “stick” of an upcoming recital, students cite fear of embarrassment in front of family and friends as the principle motivating factor for the “last minute” achievement that typically occurs immediately before a recital, rather than some intrinsic desire to overcome the challenges of performing the music itself.

For all of the PBL “buttons pushed,” why doesn’t PBL work in applied music study?

April 13, 2010

Why Teach That!

Several weeks ago, while “assisting” my daughter with her homework (read “sticking my nose into her business”), we had a conversation that went something like this:

ME: What is it you are learning from this worksheet?

DD: We’re supposed to read the passage then answer the questions.

ME: I know, but what are you learning from doing this exercise?

DD: I don’t know. I guess just to answer the questions?

ME: Don’t the directions tell you to do that? What did your teacher say you are supposed to learn from this exercise?

DD: She didn’t say anything about it. We’re just supposed to do it. That’s all.

ME: OK. But, what do you learn from this exercise?

After some more “I don’t knows” and “I guesses,” she admitted that the only thing she learned from this and other similar “read and respond” worksheets is that to get the “right” answer, she must find in the reading passage the same words that appear in the question prompt, then copy from the passage the text immediately following those “key words.” In other words, what she learned from the exercise was not the ability to synthesize or apply information from the reading passage (the questions following the reading passage do not require this of students), but rather she learned a test-taking strategy that will result in a “correct” answer. A handy skill if you are taking a standardized test, I suppose, but I wondered if this truly was the teacher’s intention in assigning the exercise.

After our conversation, I asked myself what I wanted my students to learn, be able to do, or experience in my courses. I quickly produced a list of information and activities that I thought my students should learn and complete. In examining the list, I noticed that my content was essentially the same as the content I taught as a graduate teaching assistant, and similar to what I experienced as an undergraduate student. And, it was very similar to content found in courses and textbooks across the country.

Because my content was consistent with that of so many, I assumed I must be on the right track. What, I failed to ask myself, however, is probably the most important question an educator can ask - "Why teach that?"

I looked again at my list of learning outcomes, asking “Why teach that?” Of what value is this content to my students, now or in the future? Am I teaching these things because they have practical application or some intrinsic value, or merely because I "think" this is what they should know? As a result, I made several immediate changes to my course content, with more changes coming next term.

In designing my courses, I never truly considered what my students might need to know or be able to do, but merely assumed that what I was teaching was correct because it was what I was taught and what is being taught elsewhere. How many other teachers make this error, too - designing their curricula based on outward perceptions and/or personal/administrative needs, rather than the short and long term educational needs of our students?

The question of "what" should be taught should be followed immediately by "why." As educators, "why" always should be at the forefront of our instructional vocabulary, challenging our students AND ourselves continually. Asking "why" makes us think. Asking "why" makes us reason and consider alternatives. Asking "why" forces us to understand before we ask our students to understand.

Because of this conversation with my daughter, I learned the importance of asking “why" in teaching. I’m so glad we had the chance to talk.

April 7, 2010

Hypocrisy in "Race to Top" Fallout

     I must admit...I laughed out loud after reading the recent New York Times article - "States Skeptical about 'Race to Top' School Aid Contest." It wasn't a "funny" laugh, but more of a "you've got to be kidding" laugh.
     The article describes the anger, frustration, and "skepticism" of governors from several states that were were not awarded "Race to the Top" funding (only two states received awards - Delaware and Tennessee) over the award selection process. These governors expressed concern that the 500-point rubric used to evaluate each state's application did not account for the effort or progress each state made toward reforming their education systems toward meeting "Race to the Top" goals, even if they came up a little "short" in garnering full support within their respective states. The ability of Delaware to win support for "Race to the Top" from its 38 school districts when compared with the 1500 school districts in California is held up as an example of this inequity, and illustrates how states should not be evaluated in the standard manner. California's undersecretary of education, Kathy Gaither, in describing the new laws California enacted toward forwarding education reform in its effort to win "Race to the Top" funding is quoted as saying, "There was just no room in the application or the scoring rubric for them."  The article concludes with Governor Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado quoted saying, "So even as I believe that school reform is important for our country, it’s also important that people in Washington understand that one size doesn’t fit all."
     Does any of this sound familiar? I find it appalling, and bordering on hypocritical, that these are the same governors and state agencies requiring school districts across their states to measure their students' achievement using a one-size-fits-all standardized testing system that focuses solely on outcomes and not what truly was "achieved." It is difficult to understand how any educator or administrator can rationalize the validity of standardized tests as an accurate measure of individual student achievement when the "individual" is removed from the equation.
     My  hope is that "Race to the Top" was all just an elaborate (and expensive) ruse staged by the Department of Education to illustrate the fundamentally flawed nature of standardized testing, and that it now will turn to the governors who applied for  funding, particularly those who are decrying the inequity of the selection process, and say, "How does it feel to have your achievement measured in a standardized manner? If you believe that evaluation should take into consideration individual differences and progress toward a goal, then you should do the same for the students in your state and immediately halt standardized student testing." 
     Now THAT would be funny!