Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Authentic, Meaningful & Messy Learning in Music

Our music teacher brought a problem of practice to our PLC the other day.

The task at hand was for students to learn a small piece of music, then get creative with it and recompose a piece by making a few changes to it. The rhythm for the piece was set for them in order to help keep some kind of structure to their work. The instruments they would use would be the class set of glockenspiels and xylophones.

This task bought a problem to the music room. It was messy learning!

You can imagine the noise in the music room when the whole class was practicing and testing their creative composition out. Once this learning task was up and running, the teacher was worried about trying to keep up with all of her students and know where each one was at within the task. She was worried about making sure each one was on task and engaged in their learning.

Here are some of her questions:
How could she ensure that each student was where they were supposed to be in the task? 
How could she ensure that each student was on task?   
How could she monitor and give feedback to every student? 
This task was messy! Were the students actually learning anything? Or was it too crazy and noisy for anyone to hear and learn anything?
Was this task just too noisy and messy for the teacher? Or were the students feeling the same way?
Here is my thinking on this task: 

This is AWESOME learning in music! I don't think it could get much more authentic than this other than each student doing the same thing but in a recording studio and taking away all the noise. In a classroom situation, what else could you do with music? I guess you could have all students doing the same thing, or not have them making any noise. That wouldn't be very authentic then, would it?

I think meaningful and authentic learning, especially in music, will often be (if not always) messy. For this particular task, I think the teacher would feel a lot more comfortable with where her students are at through a slightly different approach creating success criteria, managing the task, and also through intentionally planned feedback loops. 

In our PLC we talked about the need to co-create the criteria at the beginning of the task so all students have a say in what it looks like to be successful. This will enable them to be clear on what is expected and also allow them to track their own learning and take more ownership on what they are trying to do throughout the task.

We also talked about another key to this kind learning might be in the way the teacher manages the learning. I think this goes for messy learning of any kind. The teacher needs to keep pulling the students back in to refocus them and also to give them a chance to share and reflect on what they are currently working on. This strategy would also help refocus those students who might struggle to keep up or get off task with all the noise and busyness of the classroom.

Another important aspect of this task would be intentionally planning multiple opportunities for students to get feedback on their work. These feedback loops might involve themselves, peer and teacher feedback. The feedback would also be given based on the criteria that was created at the beginning of the task.

I think this learning task was awesomely authentic! With a few tweaks to the way it is planned, I think the learning will become more clear and the teacher will also feel more comfortable with what is happening in the 'messy music classroom'.

We hope to try this together sometime soon to test some of our ideas and see if it makes a difference to how the students work, what they learn and what the teacher learns about the learning.

What do you think? Do you have any other ideas? 


  1. Hi Steve,

    Thank you for sharing this post with me via Twitter. I enjoyed reading about this 'messy' problem of practice. I was impressed with the way your music teacher was involved in a PLC with other teachers, who were giving her feedback and learning alongside her. I agree with you, I think most authentic learning in music class will be messy, noisy and somewhat chaotic!

    In our music classes @CranstonSchool, Miss Jackson (@eleisonsoprano) and I have done something similar with beat boxing. We showed the students a Ted Talk video on the topic and then let them work alone or in small groups to create their own sounds! Yes, it was noisy, and messy, but yes, I think it was also authentic learning!

    With regard to the questions that were posed, one suggestion I have in terms of feedback and assessment is to record the students (or have them record themselves) using iPads or iPods. This allows the teacher to assess the students later, (when you have more time) and gives you a record of student learning/engagement. It may also encourage students to stay engaged and on task! Having spent time in our PLCs focusing on the new skills based report card strands/assessment, this will be invaluable information to have when the time comes to write report cards.

    There are many opportunities to tie music into other curricular areas. One that specifically comes to mind is the 'Hearing and Sound' unit in Grade 4 Science. We also try to sing songs relating to themes that we are doing for inquiry, such as water and caring for the environment. Music is always a part of our school assemblies. We just did a wonderful Remembrance Day assembly on Friday, as I'm sure most #yycbe schools did. I'd be interested in hearing other ways you integrate fine arts into your school and classrooms.

    Thanks again for sharing this post with me! I look forward to a follow-up post, once you have tested your ideas to see if they did indeed make a difference, and what was learned about the learning!


    1. Thanks for the reply Lianne! I like the idea of recording and that is something we'll be looking into when we work together to plan and teach something together. The only thing that causes a problem when recording is that the noise level can effect the recording quality. I'm big on good quality when recording audio. How have you managed this? I am thinking break out spaces will help as well as mini sound booths that we could create with tri-folds.

      I will for sure post when we have come up with something.

      Thanks again Lianne!

  2. First of all, I think doing the same piece of music is definitely authentic, and should not be dismissed. It is how real musicians work – in a choir, an orchestra, a band, etc. What makes it unique and child-centered is that each child is using his or her body in a specific way to both convey the emotion or message of the piece and execute the technical skill of performing a piece of music. The child’s body and the physical choices s/he makes with it are the vehicle through which the musical ideas are conveyed. So, performing is already an inherently authentic task, if the teacher is emphasizing this element with students.

    As for this task, I relate because I teach elementary drama and it is a noisy place! When I have kids creating drama simultaneously in several groups around the room, it can be very messy. I have the same struggles with ensuring the students are concentrating amid the chaos. I can only imagine what it might sound like with instruments going. I do get complaints from students sometimes that it is too noisy to hear their teammates and successfully practice the skills we are developing. Here are some strategies I use:
    1. A room divider. It helps to dampen the noise a tiny bit, but mostly limits visual distraction for the students. Downside: your direct supervision also becomes limited.
    2. Hallway as breakout space. Really helps with noise, but same supervision downside.
    3. As for recording as an assessment strategy, if it isn’t a quiet space, I’m afraid the recordings won’t turn out well enough to be valuable to the student or the teacher. I do use recording frequently, but it needs to be in a whole-group focused manner. They perform for the camera and the audience, then next class we watch it back and critique the performances against the technical and communicative criteria. This is very time consuming, however, so it needs to be done with great intentionality. The video camera I use has a cable that goes right into the smart board, so I don’t have to spend precious time uploading or editing anything that is to be used for feedback and self-assessment.

    I might tweak this task by having the students work in small groups instead of individually, in order to reduce the noise and increase concentration. I might ask students to communicate a message (idea, feeling, mood) with their compositions and ask students to have one player, one recorder, and one audience member (they can switch jobs throughout). The group will select what instruments and what physical choices they can make to influence the message. The player plays, the audience member gives feedback on the reception of the message and the recorder marks down (on paper, or elsewhere) what choices they have made to communicate what message. They also could be able to digitally record their work when they feel it is ready, and the class could listen and share their responses, describing what message they received, and analyze the choices the students made in order to produce that. Thinking about how our physical choices convey a message in the form of music really engages the head and the heart of the musician and correlates clearly with the new report card stems.
    Happy composing!

    1. Hey Laura! I'm glad you found this post!

      I love your heartfelt response! As always :)

      I love the idea of recording and the ideas to combat the quality recording issue sound good. I especially like the small group idea so that will be something we look at. We're lucky as our music room is the stage and it is HUGE! The students will be able to spread out and also use hallways and the learning commons too. We're also thinking about how we could make a lesson like this digital and then students would also wear headphones and the noise wouldn't be as much as an issue apart from when recording the music.

      I will for sure show your ideas to our music teacher too!

  3. This problem of practice belongs to my classroom. Thanks Steve for the original blog and thank you to Lianne and Laura for the thoughtful responses. It's nice to have some practical suggestions to try in my classroom.

    Just yesterday I revisited this project with my grade 5's. With some refocussing and clearer criteria, it actually went very well. For the most part, students were on-task and engaged. It is messy and noisy work, but hands-on projects often are and as we spoke in our PLC group, these kinds of projects are not limited to music class. The same kind of mess can be found in any subject area.

    We had discussed whether the noise level was a problem for the teacher or the students or both. To be honest, I don't enjoy a heightened noise level, but if it's productive noise, perhaps it's worth it. I plan to ask the students as we work through this project how they feel about their productivity when there is a noisy environment. I'm sure I'll get varying answers depending on the student.

    Thanks again for the interest and the feedback!

    Lianne Burns
    Music Specialist
    Chris Akkerman Elementary