I have been re-reading Dan Willingham’s book “Why students don’t like school” and thinking about distractions and general thinking in the Music classroom. If learning is about transferring knowledge and skills from working memory into long term memory and memory is the residue of thought, then we should be concerned about what can distract us from thinking in Music lessons. And the answer is, an awful lot.
My main worry is group composition in lessons. Sadly, there are so many possible distractions that group composition can be incredibly unfocused. And in many lessons the composition part can take up the majority of the time. I have seen students (in my own classroom sadly and in others) spend time thinking about their hair, someone else’s hair, what’s happening tonight, what happened last night, why it is unfair that Sonia has the bass drum, why it is unfair that Sonia cannot work with me, why it’s unfair that Sonia has Heidi in her group and she can play the piano so they have an unfair advantage. You get the idea. You could say that this is simply poor group work but I can assure you that if you have more than three groups composing together in a room or in separate rooms, there will be students thinking of many, many other things that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter when you are not looking. It’s human nature and you probably did the same as a kid if you were put in a similar situation. You can probably still get composition work done but there is an opportunity cost – the time you have spent cannot be given back, and we already have little time in Music lessons as in most schools we only see the children once a week for 45 minutes to an hour.
Paired work is often a lot better as you can bounce ideas off one another and not into the group void. Individual work is probably the best for thinking but for some students that struggle, it can be useful to have some input from another person. Subsequently, I try to cut down the amount of composing in lessons unless it is done by individuals and pairs. Sadly, so much of the current Music curriculum is geared to compositional group work and it is still seen as best practice even though many students are simply not thinking about music in music lessons.
Willingham says that the most important principle for teachers to think about is what the children will be thinking about in whatever activity you are doing. And if there is not much thought going on then it will not be remembered and therefore will not be learned. Good learning requires deep thinking with ample time for practice. An example of how to make a task which has substandard thinking turned into one with deeper thinking is with copying rhythms. Music teachers often start lessons with copying rhythms and these can be fun and motivating but actually there is very little thinking going on. The teacher claps, the children copy. A better activity in my opinion is the “forbidden rhythm” where if a certain pattern is played by the leader then the children have to put up their hands rather than copy the rhythm. This is better because the children need to be thinking to themselves what the forbidden rhythm is and constantly compare it with the current rhythm being played. If it is not the forbidden rhythm then you can copy it, but if it is then you have to put your hand up. So it’s actually a form of comparison and not simply copying, which requires a lot more thought.
The other major distractions in Music lessons are the set up of the rooms themselves. Even if you are the most amazing teacher in the universe, if your room is an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure then you are competing with visual and audio gluttony. The kids see the instruments and want to play them. Perfectly natural. But are they focused on the lesson? Probably not, through no fault of anyone really. This is why I think we need to spend a lot more time thinking about the set up of our rooms and the storage of instruments. Currently in my classroom we have some guitars around the room and as soon as one falls over it is domino rally. And any learning goes out the window when you see twenty eight guitars cascading around the four corners of the room. We desperately need a storage solution, either racks or guitar stands. Not just because of the guitars going constantly out of tune but because the distractions are not good for learning.
And that’s kinda the point of school.