In at the deep end: sink or swim? #MFLearn19

I have so many thoughts on student choice, student voice and (insert dramatic music) ‘group work!‘ that I’ve gathered through 17 years of teaching in an array of different environments ranging from the ‘very, very challenging’ to the ‘pinch me is this really teaching?’ that it’s hard to know where to begin. But begin I shall.

I’m going to say it out loud, the biggest hurdle to embracing informal learning as a teacher is the fear of  losing control and being faced with a class ‘mucking around’ (and let’s face it, in music that mucking around can be louder than any other subject area) just when senior management are on a walk round to ensure that behaviour expectations are being met across the school (facepalm). We all know, because we’ve been there, that any teacher starting out on their chosen career path has to work their butt off to learn how to manage and inspire class after class of unique individuals whilst ensuring that they learn something along the way. I thank Sue Cowley and her  ‘Getting the Buggers to Behave’ for continually providing food for thought during my teaching career (Tip No.100: Even in your worst lesson, nobody died). It therefore seems like a leap of faith to relinquish your hard won control and sense of order to explore something more ‘chaotic’.

When it comes to Musical Futures informal ‘In at the deep end’ approach to learning you’re not just going to meet a class for the first time and declare ‘hey guys, grab some instruments, find your friends and go play any piece of music you like in any space you can find!’. You’re going to dig some skill foundations into your curriculum, lay some lovely strong ground work in terms of using space and equipment and scaffold some learning experiences whilst getting to really know your students before letting rip. You’ll also think about building collaboration skills.

Collaboration is inherent in the Arts. I like the fact that Tom Sherrington says ‘in the Arts it’s not a question of whether to do group work but how much freedom to give groups’. This leads me into my thinking about students choosing their own groups, a key facet of Lucy Green’s research and which Anna Marragudi uses as the starting point for her own phd research which she’s shared with us this week . My own quest to be an expert group work facilitator is a continual work in progress as I move schools around the globe and find myself in very different teaching and cultural environments. I believe strongly in students having a voice (Tip No.80: You can’t build trust without handing over responsibility) and outlined below is my own approach to letting them have one (spoiler alert, it’s not new or ground breaking).

For me, preparation for informal learning will always begin with whole class teacher led workshopping, questioning, explaining, and modelling. I get to know my students, they get to know me and expectations for learning and handling of equipment are firmly established. As my old university tutor John Finney says, if students are to participate then the rules of the game need to be understood by everyone.

When the students first head into group work they do so with a short, very specific performance/composition task with clearly demarcated roles (Tip No.91: Targets and deadlines are a wonderful way to focus the mind). I’ll use random grouping, such as numbering off and then putting like numbers together, and then observe how students interact with the group they have ended up in. How is the conversation flowing? Who’s taking charge? Who’s sitting back? Which instruments have people gravitated towards? Who’s happy in the group? Who is overwhelmed? Who’s trying to throw in some sticks of dynamite to burst the work asunder? At the end of the group work session I have students reflect (have their say) on how this grouping panned about: How did you feel? Was your voice heard in the group? What was surprising? Ok, this group was ‘disastrous’ but what can we do differently?

There will usually be 4 or 5 students in a group. In my experience, this is usually what practice spaces and equipment allows in music departments. More than 5 in a group and that is when I notice the free riding/Ringelmann effect/Hagan’s cogs and logs kicking in.

In the next phase of group working students choose a friend and then I’ll match one friendship pair with another using all the knowledge I gained from observing previously. What skills do these students have to share with one another? (Tip No.89: Harness the power of positive peer pressure. Help children learn to support each other). There will now be more room for creativity in the task with a freer choice of instruments and possibly their own choice of music (depending on the unit) so I can see which direction the students want to head in with my starting points. I’ll observe the groups working and ask myself “do I need to carry out more direct instruction or have the students ‘got it’?

In the final phase of group working, with plenty of skills and a deeper understanding of who is who in their music class, students can now choose whoever they want to work with to complete the summative task. The group can be as small as a pair but no bigger than 5. Generally students seem to have a good idea about who they feel comfortable with and the process is smooth. However, if I have some exclusion problems I’ll intervene swiftly to find an acceptable solution to all parties.

Helping students to collaborate and work in groups can be exhilarating as you watch things come together, see the students take pride in their work and with any luck observe a creative direction you hadn’t quite foreseen. But there’s no denying that it’s b**** exhausting! Setting the spaces, sorting the equipment, rotating around the practice rooms, helping to mediate ‘artistic differences’ before the s*** hits the fan, being the ever seeing eye and confirming the belief in your students that yes, you do indeed have eyes in the back of your head and they can see through walls! It’s much, much harder than teaching one circle of students in one room who all have their eyes on you. But the final thought I finish with is that research tells us that the most valuable skills in the workplace (now and in the future) are communication, collaboration, self management, creative and critical thinking. All of that you’ll find in my Music classroom, day in and day out. No need to thank me, it’s my pleasure (most of the time).

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