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by Duncan Ferguson
Teacher, New Zealand

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February 13, 2017
PBL in a Music Programme

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by Duncan Ferguson
Teacher, New Zealand

This was originally posted at LEARNINGIDEASNZ.

 

There is currently massive change going on in the music industry and in music education. With new degrees like those offered by Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, and with new initiatives in cross-curricular arts courses like what Victoria University are offering, school music programmes need to adapt to better prepare their students. We need to focus less on assessment and more on student learning.

One way I’ve found to put the focus back on learning, and developing music courses that are good for the students (but may only be partly assessed by NCEA – National Certificate of Educational Achievement) is to incorporate Project Based Learning (PBL).

In New Zealand so many of our programmes of teaching (in any subject) are centred around Achievement Standards. We look at the assessment, and design courses around teaching to the assessment. Of course, all good practitioners know this is not the way to do it!  But it’s easier said than done when we have pressure from school management with NCEA targets and magazines like North and South and Metro comparing schools’ achievement data.

There is plenty about PBL on the internet, and websites like Edutopia are full of great articles and advice about incorporating PBL. But there is surprisingly little out there about how to do it within the context of a high school music course.

PBL has transformed my music programme. It gives students a focus, it motivates them, it develops personal as well as collaborative skills, and at the end they don’t just have credits against their name on a piece of paper, they have something tangible they can show to others and be proud of.

Here are some tips I’ve found for a successful PBL programme:

1. Make sure students take the time to think through what they love most about music, and what interests them most about the music industry. Any projects that they can come up with (as opposed to be suggested to them by the teacher) will have greater ‘buy in’. Students have ownership of what they are doing.

2. Provide marker points through the year where students have to submit drafts and demonstrate progress. At regular intervals students need to write up their progress on a public blog (WordPress.com is a great website for public blogs). Making it public makes them accountable. If they know other people are following their progress, it will provide extra incentive for them to get the work done. It also allows time for them to do reflection on their progress, which is crucial.

3. Creating music for a purpose, for an audience adds greater motivation than doing this for a single assessment. Lock in dates for the events they’re organising, or delivery of their project at the start of the year and get them to use a calendar. It may also be valuable getting a wall calendar up in your class with the events and assessment dates written in. Start each week with a catch up and reminder about how far away important dates are.

Here are some of the projects that my students are working on at the moment:

Chamber Music Night – The ‘classical’ students are composing music for chamber trios to be performed on a Chamber Music Night. This night is our annual lead up concert to the National Chamber Music Competition so it provides a great opportunity for students to perform their new compositions. Students are responsible for making promotional posters/websites/social media presence. They are to organise catering and ticketing. They are to organise presenters and develop a programme. They are also going to setup a recording system and record the night for mixing at a later stage. And because we can’t ignore the NCEA aspect to it they will be getting these credits (I’ll show examples of level 2 Standards):

  • Composition – 6 credits
  • Performance (group) – 4 credits
  • 27703 (mixing) – 4 credits
  • 27658 (sequencing & notation), for mock ups of their composition – 4 credits
  • Total: 18 credits – if they also do Solo Performance at another stage plus an external Standard or two (like Score Reading & Aural) they will have a very full course.


Singer/Songwriter Night – Each year as part of our Winter Music Festival we run a night for songwriters. It is a similar deal to the Chamber Music night in but it will be a different group of students organising it—most likely those that see themselves as songwriters instead of classical musicians. You can see what they did in last year’s concert here.

Rock Night – Same deal as above but on a different night leading up to the Smokefree Rockquest.

EDM Night – For those students that want to compose in electronic genres, or perform with devices like Ableton Push, this year we are offering a project based around organising an EDM night. What is interesting about this though is that they are going to collaborate with dancers in the school who will choreograph to the music. This will be a back and forth relationship as students adapt their music to better fit the dance, and vice versa. The final performance will take place outside, with a PA system and light show/projection system.

Once again, multiple Achievement Standards will be able to be assessed, but not just from music, but other Performing Arts domains.

When students get to year 13 they often want to focus on their own projects, such as making an album. Here is an album that one of my recent graduates produced while at school for his major project.

Offering courses in PBL has reinvigorated our department. Students are very excited about the opportunities, are highly motivated, and are then very proud to share what they’ve produced with our school community and their families. It also provides regular exposure for our music department, which works great when it comes time to request an increase in budgets to buy more recording equipment and instruments!


Do you have stories of using PBL in music education? Please tell them in the comments below.


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