A Place for Inquiry in the Arts
Is there a place for inquiry in the arts? If you ask arts teachers if there is a place for inquiry in their classroom, most would say yes. But I think if you asked them to describe inquiry in their classrooms, many would have a hard time doing it. I was one of those teachers! But I’m excited to say, in this coming school year it WILL have a place.
I have struggled for a while, wondering if the current, “tried and true,” model of teaching instrumental music is still the best way. The teacher stands in front of the room, tells the students how to play the music, and the students play accordingly. When mistakes arise, the teacher tells the students how to correct it. Teachers learn to correct mistakes, students learn to follow directions. Sound familiar? But is this really the best way? Why are the teachers making all of the musical decisions? When do the students get to utilize their own creativity? What about critical analysis and reflection? The students should be able to actively participate in the entire process. In music, this is relevant in both solo (individual) and ensemble (group) situations. In an ensemble, students will initially need guidance in how to work together effectively, for example, to blend and balance their playing, but over time can’t the students make some of these decisions?
Trevor Mackenzie has a great graphic in his book, Dive into Inquiry, describing the various types of student inquiry. This is what needs to happen in our arts classrooms too. We all start in the pool together, with the teacher directing the students. Gradually the focus shifts, the teacher exits the pool, and students begin making their own choices. Isn’t this what we want for our students? To make their own decisions? To BE musical and BE artistic?
“Gradually begin to flip control of learning in the room from the teacher to the learner.” ~Trevor Mackenzie
Where does inquiry fit in?
What I’m suggesting is that we continue teaching the skills and techniques necessary for success, but leave room for inquiry too. Leave space for students to follow their own passions, explore their own interests, and answer their own questions. In my classroom next school year there will be a lot of changes. Some will work, some will fail, and I can’t wait! The students will be following a personalized learning path. The key skills for the year will be mapped out but students will be encouraged to find their own way to demonstrate mastery. Yes, we will still work together on music for various performances, so students have the opportunity to showcase their personal mastery of their instrument and the opportunity to blend in an ensemble, but aside from that students will have a choice in what music to learn and how to learn it. They will be given a voice and a choice.
I’m also excited to later in the year delve into the world of Project Based Learning (PBL). Students will need to find a way to use their music to answer the driving question, “How can you have a positive impact on your community using your skills as a musician?” They will be able to choose an audience that is important to them, select what music to play, prepare that music, and carry out the project. For young students, this fits somewhere between Controlled Inquiry and Guided Inquiry, since I will be there to assist in the process. For older students, this question could easily be modified for a Free Inquiry project – though I wouldn’t recommend jumping right to it! This project is a double-win in the world of inquiry; not only are students encouraged to design their own project, but it is truly an authentic audience. Rushton Hurley said it best, “If students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. If they’re just sharing it with you, they want it good enough.”
So this is it. My statement to the world that this upcoming school year will be different. There will be a place for inquiry. There will be a place for student voice and choice. And there will be great music.
Instrumental Music Teacher
Arlington Public Schools
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