Attention spans of the Pelicans

Pelican Primary School is a very multicultural, inner-city school, with probably well over twenty different language and cultural groups represented. English is a second language for many of the students. In fact, quite a number of the students in the school first attended the Language School where I also teach (and have been teaching since 2005), so it has been lovely to be able to reconnect with them, and admire how fluent their English is now, how tall they have grown, etc.

This diversity of language at Pelican PS suggested to me that many of the pedagogical strategies I have developed at the Language School would also be effective here. In fact, I saw a tremendous opportunity to be able to refine and further develop my ideas, and ensure they are applicable to a mainstream school environment, as well as to the specialised Language School classes.

However, there are some big differences between teaching at the Language School, and teaching at Pelican Primary School. One of these is in the way the students engage with teaching and learning, which can perhaps be considered in terms of the length of time that students can concentrate for, or how easily they get distracted.

At the Language School there is, of course, a huge language barrier. The newest students understand virtually nothing at all, while students who have been there for longer understand some things, but not everything. Teachers adjust their use of language and overall teaching style, accordingly. In music, where I teach each class every week for an hour and half, I find that in general, concentration is good. We move through different tasks fairly briskly, and I employ a number of strategies to ensure understanding and engagement. Concentration tends to move between one of two extremes – where the child vagues out, overwhelmed or tired perhaps, from the effort of trying to understand the new language and environment, and intense concentration, and where they are following every word and event as closely as possible, trying to make sense of it. Overall, in most classes, most of the time, students are pretty engaged and cooperative in music.

At Pelican PS, the level of English language understanding is much higher. But I am finding that their ability to stay focused and on-task is much less than I am used to at the Language School. The classes are larger than at the Language School (between 16 and 19, compared to a maximum of 13 per class, respsectively), and less cooperative. It’s not that they refuse to cooperate with me, but rather that they don’t cooperate terribly well with each other (I think), and in the intervening time while we are waiting for full group cooperation, they get distracted, attention wanders, and it takes us even longer to get started on the task at hand.

Music is an incredibly teacher-led subject, especially in comparison to other subjects. Many other classes tend to start with a teaching period at the beginning, after which the students go on to complete the work in small groups or individually, with the teacher moving through the class, assisting those that need help. In the music classroom, for most of the time, everyone works together in one large group with their attention on the teacher. This is partly because of the noise factor (lots of small groups working in the same group means that no-one can hear what is going on in their own group, so the noise level rises and rises), and resources (instrument availability, space) but it is also because of the abstract nature of music learning. A lot of students at primary school level find it difficult to work independently in music. They need a lot of teacher (or ‘more competent individual’) support. To do small-group work, students also need to be able to work together without constant monitoriing by a teacher.

I believe that small experiences of success in music (probably in every subject) are essential to building enthusiasm, motivation and understanding for the subject and the task, and that they need to happen before the end of every teaching occasion. Without these small glimmers of intent and meaning, students can just end up feeling confused, unclear, and unmotivated.

But music – especially group music-making –  is incredibly demanding of discipline. By ‘discipline’, I mean the ability to listen, look for cues, care about the sound, care about accuracy, take care with choices of notes, and the gradual development of effective performance techniques. These experiences are within reach, I believe, of even total beginners, but they do take time to develop. I don’t mean weeks of time, I mean perhaps ten minutes of focused work (to achieve something like good ensemble in a particular task). But that focus is key to the experience of success.

My challenge at Pelican PS therefore, is to figure out how to set up tasks that have some kind of successful experience attached to them, that will hook the students in incredibly quickly, and hold them there long enough for the successful experience to take place and be processed by each individual. I think this criteria is met in some of the warm-up games we do, but I need to find it in some of our instrument tasks. The students are already so incredibly enthusiastic and excited about doing music – that’s a good thing! – but for us to make progress, I need to instil some musical discipline, and to get the discipline going, I need some fast, intense ‘experiences of success’ to build the motivation, to do the work, to get the discipline, to make the progress. It’s a bit like the House That Jack Built. Or The Old Lady That Swallowed A Fly.


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