This week the MOOC is all about student choice and grouping students in a music classroom. I’ll be the first to admit that I find it hard to give control over to the students, even with students who have virtually no behavioural issues, so I’ve had to go through a process of letting go.
Playing an instrument in an ensemble is one of the most complex things you can do with your brain, so with every student who is in my care I want to make sure there is no cognitive overloading before they go and rehearse with a group. It doesn’t matter the style of music, I will always have students who need to be reminded about how to break down the process to prevent frustration and make the most efficient use of their time.
Annie Murphy Paul says that there are 7 academic emotions including curiosity, delight, engagement, flow, confusion, frustration and boredom. The latter three are what I’m worried about when kids go into groups, so the first few lessons before ensemble work I tend to break down why the brain finds playing an instrument difficult and give them some strategies for overcoming frustration, and praise them for letting their brain go ‘itchy’ as it means they’re learning. Here are some of them:
- Brain-gym-style finger warm ups for guitarists
- Muted strumming (it helps to focus on only one hand at a time when learn guitar)
- Feeling beat one (jumping, spinning, nodding, strumming etc. when they can feel beat one)
- Hi-hat conversations (you need to put your concentration on the hi hat from the front of your brain, to the back, where you’re almost ignoring it, so “have a chat while playing hi-hat”)
- Bass note sing-a-long (some students sing more in-tune when they can hear the bass note)
- Beat-one tallying (listen to the original song and tally beat one so that you know how many bars/ measures in each section)
After these kind of activities its much easier for the kids to identify which instrument they can cope with and enjoy. Beyond choosing their instrument they notice they’ll need a certain range of instruments in their group to have success in performing, this helps them to form their groups with consideration for both friendship and instrument preferences. We also have reflection sessions at the end of class to discuss what strategies have helped their rehearsal, and what academic emotion they may be feeling to help unpack if we need to simplify their performance or add another level of complexity. After all, I’m looking for growth from every student.
So here are my answers to this week’s questions…
What are the limits to student choice in the classroom?
In my room its about cognitive load and growth before choosing an instrument and then considering what instruments are necessary for each group.
Are there students that shouldn’t be working together in a group? What is the optimal student group size?
So long as each group member is reflecting on their personal growth and strategies, group issues should mostly resolve. Group size is dependent on the needs of the piece of music.
How do you plan to avoid the ‘Free-rider effect’ in group work?
I didn’t address this above, but I actually insist that before students move into a group they each come up with an individual plan for the group, each person has two minutes to share while the others must be in silence, then they compromise and construct the group plan.
How important is trust in ensuring effective group work?
When students understand the difficulties being placed on each musician’s brain, I think there’s a little more patience and understanding and consideration for strategies to improve skills.