Experiments in collaborative learning

At Pelican Primary School I’ve been exploring different ways to develop collaborative learning models in music – situations where students can work in groups to solve a problem together, and where they can help each other make progress. In general, they are not very good at this kind of work at Pelican – it causes quite a lot of stress.

Music lessons are only 40 minutes long, so I have to be very organised and have clear systems in place for how things are going to proceed.

Experiment 1

My first successful lesson along these lines involved teaching a 2-bar xylophone line to a class of grade 3&4 students. The 2-bar riff followed the chord structure of the pop song we are using as our ‘doorway in’ this term – Fireflies by Owl City. I’d invented the riff, and wrote the letter-names up on the board in order.

  1. Everyone learned the rhythm for the riff as a group, using call-and-response format. I clapped it, they clapped it, and we repeated this until it was performed accurately and confidently by the group.
  2. The students divided into groups of 4-5 on friendship lines. I directed their attention to the letter names on the board. Memorise these letters in order, using the rhythm you’ve just learned, I told them. You all need to have it memorised. When you’ve completed this you can move onto the next stage.
  3. Once memorised, the group was given a xylophone and pair of mallets. One at a time, try playing the riff, I told them. Help each other by singing the letter-names aloud. Each person tries it four times then passes the instrument to the next person.
  4. Once learned, one person from each group played the riff four times in a row, with accompaniment from me on the guitar and a selected student keeping the pulse going on the congas. Each person got to do this.
  5. We finished the lesson by singing along to Fireflies, alternating between the lyrics, and the notes names and rhythm of the xylophone riff.

This was a really successful lesson. They were very motivated to learn the riff – perhaps because it related to the song they like, perhaps because they had to wait their turn to use the instrument and the groups were small enough that the wait wasn’t too long. Perhaps the initial step of memorising the letter names had given them additional confidence that they’d be able to achieve this, they understood that there were stages they needed to progress through, and that as soon as they were ready they’d be able to move on (rather than have to wait for the whole class).

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