Effective teaching of composition

I was reading this really interesting blog the other day by Suzie Boss which looks at the research of the New Zealand education researcher and professor John Hattie and how his findings could influence Project Based Learning (this blog is well worth a read, follow the link).

There is a really interesting section of the blog:

But when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of project-based learning (PBL), Hattie has me scratching my head. Part of the challenge is that he doesn’t focus specifically on PBL, and certainly not on PBL that is designed with an emphasis on high-quality teaching and learning. Problem-based learning winds up near the bottom of teaching effects (0.15). Inquiry-based teaching ranks a little higher (0.31), but still below the hinge point. Meanwhile, Piagetian programs, emphasizing challenges that cause learners to apply higher-order thinking and learn collaboratively (sounding similar, at least in spirit, to PBL) rank near the top (1.28).

What’s more, many of the essential components of PBL turn out to be highly effective. Formative assessment, critical for project success, comes in at 0.90. Feedback, another key to PBL, has an effect size of 0.73. Challenge and practice at the right level: 0.60. Valuing error and creating trust: 0.72. It’s hard to imagine a PBL classroom where those factors are not present.

When Hattie himself synthesizes what matters most for learning, he describes an effective classroom in language that is completely consistent with a PBL environment:

Visible teaching and learning occurs when there is deliberate practice aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought, and when there are active, passionate, and engaging people (teacher, students, peers) participating in the act of learning.

I imagine I’m probably like a lot of teachers (especially music teachers) in that every minute of every day is filled up with teaching, meetings, running co-curricular groups, developing resources, marking… (hands up if you’re one of those teachers to barely knows what the staff room looks like at lunchtime?).  The last thing I get time for is to look at educational theory, pedagogical techniques, etc.  Any PD I do is usually specifically musically related, rather than on a broader educational level.

So this is why I like summer holidays so much, it gives me time to look at blogs, read some Hattie, and reflect on my teaching practice.  Reading the above part of Suzie’s blog made me realise why I’m turning out to be such an effective teacher of musical composition.

I’m not trained in composition, I don’t like to compose myself, it isn’t something I was ever interested in doing as part of my study and I certainly don’t feel the need to inflict my deep angst on the world in a musical format.  But over the last five or so years my students have been showing a huge level of ‘value added’ with their results.  My good students who are passionate about composition produce great art, but I’m most pleased with those who maybe don’t have great background knowledge but end up showing a huge improvement.

Without intending to, I’ve employed many of the above methods quoted above, specifically:

  • A huge amount of formative assessment – when students have a composition due to hand in at the end of the term they must hand in their drafts at least three times over the preceding four weeks.
  • Feedback – every time students hand in a draft I give them written feedback via email and through annotating their scores (if applicable). I will try to follow this up with one-on-one verbal feedback but I find this is not very effective – too often students don’t take in what I say to them and repeat the same mistakes.  Written feedback provides them with the information that helps them make the most improvement in successive drafts and submissions.
  • Challenge and practice at the right level – even though I haven’t specifically intended to run a project based learning course (until 2015) I’ve kind of already been doing this with composition.  I provide the students many options for the basis of their composition (such as compose for film, compose for a special occasion, compose in response to an artwork, etc – and for each of these I provide multiple films, special occasions, artworks, etc).  What I find is that with these parameters students are able to jump into composing at the level they’re happy with.  I have some very advanced students who compose for full orchestra (one student this year composed a full two hour long musical – and it was really good!), some students are more comfortable composing for singer/songwriters while others compose electronic works with Apple Logic.  Everyone is working within their areas of interest and these then develop into strengths.
  • Valuing error and creating trust – this is very important to the creative process of composition.  And it features hugely in my feedback.  I try to find a balance between encouragement and correcting basic errors (mostly encouraging as composition is a very sensitive and emotionally ‘risky’ thing for students to do) but I always try to emphasise that they must ‘put themselves out there’ and take risks.  That is the only way great art will result.  This sums it up (thanks @ginippi for the image):
    10877618_10204176690032199_1572360879_n

The only other important thing that I do that isn’t mentioned (but there is probably a special Hattie term for it anyway) is modelling the creative process.  While I don’t compose great art, I do understand the compositional process and can model many ways of composing.  Showing students how to start is hugely important.  Giving them a toolbox based on practical demonstration works well.  Textbooks and handouts? – next to useless.

I’ve often felt that maybe I’m not doing a very good job with composition as I’m not presenting a formalised method each year that has me explaining concepts from the from of the class – i.e. chalk and talk.  But when I look at my NCEA results of my students and listen to their recordings I realise that isn’t the case.

As this is supposed to be a technology blog I’d better quickly mention how my students go about submitting their drafts for formative assessment.

  1. Students email me their Sibelius files (if their composition is a traditionally notation based composition) and provide a print out so I can annotate it (I used to do all printing or just write comments referencing bar numbers but I didn’t find this effective – plus printing takes up too much of my time).  If they are working on Logic or Studio One they can email me Dropbox links of their DAW session and bounced MP3’s.
  2. With the second to last draft submission I will ask students to do their own analysis of their composition.  They use Screenflow to ‘talk through’ their composition explaining why they have done what they’ve done.  As much as possible I encourage them to analyse within the context of the musical elements (timbre, form, texture, melody, harmony, etc).  By doing their own analysis of their composition its amazing how many things they’re able to fix up before I give them feedback.  This self-reflection is critical.
  3. I email back students comments and will annotate their scores if applicable.  This has to happen with 48 hours for effective learning to happen and to see a change in the draft that is due the following week.  Therefore I have to schedule into my timetable a period of marking each week and make sure nothing gets in the way of it.
  4. For the final submission I make sure I scan the annotated scores and keep a copy for internal and external moderation of my marking.  It’s really important students get their work back to help them improve for future years of study.

If you want to hear some of my students work, the musical I mentioned above (“Suspect”) is now available on iTunes.

suspect banner

The Seven Sharp programme from TV1 did a really interesting article that you can view by clicking here.

I know people may have suggestions for improvement around student submissions other than email & Dropbox (Moodle, Google Hangout, One Note, etc?) so please comment below if you think it can be done better.

Thanks,

Duncan 🙂

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