Teaching to suit the needs of learners

A theme that emerged in both the CMA and Main ISME conferences was that of the need to modify the way we teach, or the way teaching and learning processes and systems can be extended/adjusted to respond to the needs of particular student cohorts. It probably emerged as a theme for me because my two presentations fitted within this area – I’ve been researching the particular needs and perceptions of newly-arrived children (refugees and immigrants) in a transitional English Language-focus school, and the way that I’ve adjusted my teaching approach to better meet their needs.

The paper I presented at CMA looked at issues of understanding and meaning that can arise in creative work with young new arrivals when English language skills are minimal, or not present. There are lots of ways students can participate in music lessons, but we are engaging in creative (composition) work, inventing and suggesting ideas, I wanted to explore how much the students could make sense of the processes we were using. At the ISME main conference I focused on the specific ways I have changed my creative music pedagogy to allow for greater transfer of information through non-verbal, environmental scaffolds and means.

In Ireland, the Traveller community is a minority group with a strong musical culture of their own, and their music traditions played an important role in the oral music tradition of Ireland, sharing and preserving songs from all around the country over the centuries. The formal education system does not sufficiently support Traveller students (if their under-representation in middle and higher learning institutions is taken as evidence). Travellers could be described ‘non-traditional learners’. Julie Tiernan, a CMA delegate from Ireland, presented detailed description of an access course designed for Traveller students, using what she called a “blended learning” process at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. It utilised online learning and contact, phone and face to face contact, skype tutorials, immersion weekends, reflective journals and CD-Rom lectures. The delivery of the course content was flexible so that students could work at their own pace, however – equally importantly – there was ongoing support and encouragement for students from staff  who pushed them to stay on track and expect great results from themselves. It’s an inspired example of the level of detail universities and other formal learning institutions can go to if they are serious about addressing issues of access for minority groups or ‘non-traditional learners’.

At the ISME main conference, Sophia Aggelidou from Greece described the perceptions that Roma students in a remote encampment/town outside Thessaloniki have of music learning in school. She stated at the outset that Roma children are missing out in the Greek education system. At this particular school, 75% of the children are Roma, with the remaining 25% being a mixture of immigrants and local people. The town is not easy to access, and is known colloquially (and perhaps disparagingly as “the gypsy town”). The school is dilapidated and uncared-for. Different music teachers have taught there, but only ever for a year at a time before being moved on (at least on two occasions, the transfer to another school was against the teacher’s wishes). There was no music teacher there at the time of the research.

The research investigated the musical lives of the Roma children, and what their musical realities are. It revealed that they feel a strong connection to music in their lives, but that music in school leaves them cold. They enjoy pop, rock and hip-hop, but it is the artists from their own culture (heard in the home environment) that they identify with most strongly. They want to learn music, to learn to play an instrument. They are highly engaged by creative, alternative ways of learning, including hands-on tasks and collaborative processes. However, the more formal teaching and learning processes that are more common in this school do not engage them, and there is a high drop-out rate. In the family community there is little schooling or literacy among adults. However, Roma students consistently enrol in primary school – indicating that schooling and education is something that they do see as important and valuable. The speaker felt that their perceptions of music learning would correlate to their perceptions of school in general – they are ready to learn, but need processes and pedagogies that are tailored to their strengths and abilities.

I attended a workshop presented by a Norwegian delegate who has been working for many years in a Palestinian refugee camp in Southern Lebanon. Professor Vegar Storsve presented a project that delivers music education among refugees, with the involvement of pre-service teachers and musicians. It’s a fantastic program (read more about it in this article) that offers cultural exchange between young adults, older adults, children, teenagers. Skills are taught and shared in all directions, with the Norwegians teaching music and instruments from their culture, and the Palestinian musicians returning the gesture in kind. I liked Professor Storsve’s description of the kind of musical score they have developed over the years for these projects. In Norwegian it is called a FLERBRUKSARRANGEMENT – meaning multi-function score, and it is the same kind of score that I develop for the Jams I lead for families at Federation Square throughout the year. It’s music that has many possible lines, adapted to suit the abilities of the project participants. One- or two-note parts, ostinato parts, chord progression parts, more complex lines, and opportunities for improvised solos. Everything is learned by ear, and everyone learns more than one part. All the learning takes place in one room – a wonderful (if challenging) cacophony of intensity and concentration.

As creative teachers, we know the importance of adjusting and adapting content within the flow of the lesson, in response to the way our students are engaging with the material. However, the many pressures that exist within the school system – to produce measurable results, the emphasis on standardised testing, the ever-crowded curriculum, the trends that see things like music and arts being squeezed out of the curriculum or forced to compromise their ideals in order to give everyone a turn – mean that there is not always the capacity to respond to the different needs in a single class, especially when there is a huge difference of need and learning style preference among the cohort.

Perhaps community musicians are better placed to respond to these needs and preferences, as they frequently work outside the mainstream, and frequently with people who are themselves somewhat on the fringes of mainstream society. The particular needs that were described in my papers about new arrivals, Julie’s work in Ireland with Travellers, and the Roma students in Greece would all perhaps be met by the “creative practitioners” described in Galton’s 2006 study into the pedagogies of creative practitioners in schools (a must-read). Are schools always the best place for engaged, committed learning by students?


1 comment so far

  1. Ken Pendergrass on

    Robert Duke, professor of music and human learning at University of Texas-Austin, explains how learning theory can be leveraged to design more effective instruction and motivate students. Watch his video here …he hits the points you have mentioned here in your post: “A Vision of Students as Accomplished Learners”. Brilliant!

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