Mr. Myron Peterson, director of bands at Urbandale High School, recently shared a new term with me. In a discussion about authentic and meaningful learning and related to how students seem to lose their love of and desire for learning, he said what happens is the “de-naturalizing” of learning. In short the current system of education, with the intent of teaching children, transforms this natural act of learning into something children don’t enjoy.
Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth in the UHS instrumental music program, which explicitly sets out to increase the focus on learning rather than teaching, for learning, after all, is the ultimate goal. In order to accomplish this task Mr. Peterson examined the “old structure” of the classroom and realizing it was “boxed in,” set out to push down the walls of the “box” and design a new structure where “Success is the Only Option.”
Knowing that the majority of learning objectives can be tackled in any order over the course of a semester, the instrumental music department developed a Gantt chart – a recommended timeline – for students to use to help plan out their learning. Students then self-scheduled themselves (online in order to have 24/7 access) for small group and individual lessons to provide the technical support needed to improve as musicians. “Prove or Improve” was the motto for these lessons, signaling to students the need for accountability (prove) and the need for growth (improve).
Band rehearsals were redesigned by budgeting time for personal practice and student-led sectionals during class, personifying the old saying, “Show me a man’s budget and I’ll show you his priorities.” In this case, the “currency” is time and its allocation for individual and small group work exemplifies a high priority on each student’s personal mastery and ownership. By structuring class time in this manner band students also have the opportunity to practice what are known as “21st Century skills.” They include independence, teamwork, cooperative and collaborative work processes, appropriate social interactions, goal setting – planning – and achieving. By recording rehearsals individuals and the entire group can reflect on their performance and can plan “what’s next” in progressing towards a quality performance. Can you continue to see the power of working in this manner with students?
Critical thinking and the ability to understand the current level of performance with an eye on the desired state of performance are built in to this system. Students are required to assess, discover areas for improvement, diagnose trouble spots, plan for improvement, and execute the improvement plan. These are all highly desirable skills that will help students to be successful, whether in school or in the workplace.
Student leadership is also developed through this process. In “Anytown High School” 99% of band rehearsals are instructor-led. While instructors still provide direct instruction for the musicians, one of their main tasks is setting an example for both performance quality and character. Having been modeled, these attributes are then passed on to students who take on a greater role in the process, including welcoming and orienting new members to the band program. This provides the opportunity for students to take a major role in building relationships; creating a family atmosphere among their peers.
The instrumental music department has developed a very effective learning system that engages students deeply and meaningfully in their own learning processes and which the students enjoy and appreciate. Since having transformed the program, one needn’t worry about its quality, for the UHS marching band with its 143 musicians earned its 29th consecutive Division I rating at the Iowa High School Music Association’s statewide marching contest this past fall.
It certainly appears that the instrumental music department at UHS has found a way to “naturalize learning” for its talented musicians!