Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

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The Silent Professor: Enhancing Student Engagement through the Conceptual Workshop

Carla R. Colletti, Webster University

If a lecture falls on student ears, does it make a sound?  The efficacy of lecturing has received much attention in recent years, and projects such as the LectureFail Project articulate the ineffectiveness of lecturing from the student’s perspective.  Past models of the omniscient teacher standing in front of the classroom, imparting her knowledge to students, no longer are guaranteed ways in which to engage students effectively in class.  Although teachers are making a sound, they are not being heard.  The pedagogical techniques offered in Donald Finkel’s book Teaching With Your Mouth Shut attempt to democratize responsibility for learning, rather than treat the teacher as all-knowing authority figure.  This essay will focus on one of the techniques featured in his book: the conceptual workshop.  After a brief overview of the technique, I provide a how-to for constructing a conceptual workshop in a music theory class, while linking specific portions of the model activity to various levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

The conceptual workshop, or blueprint for learning, is a focused group activity that presents students with a concept or problem and guides them through a progressive set of questions that helps them to learn about the issue at hand.  While the workshop can deliver the same information that would have been presented in a lecture format, the conceptual workshop fosters a sense of self-discovery as students grapple with a particular problem or concept.  The activity mimics the same processes scholars experience when discovering something new, and, as a result, students take ownership of and interest in their learning.

In creating the conceptual workshop, Finkel recommends that the activity have a beginning, middle, and ending (94, 102).  Additionally, since the idea is to allow students to embark on a journey of self-discovery and inquiry, the teacher communicates solely through writing provided as part of the guiding worksheet.  Any talking that the instructor does should be done as a “peer” working within a student group rather than as the all-knowing teacher.  The worksheet, or “blueprint,” should not tell students exactly how they should think but rather should guide students along a particular path of inquiry.  The blueprint poses problems and gives students the opportunity to engage with the material actively and thoughtfully.

The first step to designing a conceptual workshop is to identify the problem, topic, or concept the students will be exploring.  To aid in a walk-through of constructing a conceptual workshop, I will reference one of my assignments that focuses on mode mixture.  This particular workshop experience spans two 50-minute class periods.  For my activity, I want students to use what they have studied about mode mixture to examine how Franz Schubert uses the technique within three of his songs, Lachen und Weinen, “Die liebe Farbe” from Die schöne Müllerin, and “Romanze” from Rosamunde.  The beginning instructions and first question are:

Form groups of three or four.  Select one person who will write down the group’s responses to the questions below.  Select a second person to keep an eye on the time and make sure the group proceeds through the worksheet in a timely manner.

  1. In preparation for today’s class, you read about mode mixture in chapter 21 of the textbook.  In your group, write down a working definition of mode mixture.   Then, write down the chord symbols (Roman numerals) for the chords that are typically borrowed in major and minor.  Review pp. 365-371 in the textbook. [5 minutes]

In keeping with the idea of teaching with my mouth shut, the opening instructions give the students an idea of how I’d like them to organize their group, and throughout the worksheet, time limits are given for each question to help students stay on task.  Question 1 introduces the problem to be solved or concept to be studied.  In my case, it also reminds them of their homework and gives them an opportunity to discuss what they think mode mixture is.  This question also provides a direct correlation to the lowest level of Bloom’s taxonomy: knowledge (remembering).  

The questions within the “middle” of the conceptual workshop should give students the opportunity to grapple with different aspects of the problem.  Each question builds upon the prior questions and attempts to lead students through a series of discoveries, guiding them to a greater understanding of the problem to be solved.  In designing questions for the middle, it is helpful to think about how you would present the concept as a lecture.  Using main lecture points as an outline, formulate questions that are based on those lecture points.  Think about how to lead students to “discover” each of the main points.

For my activity, I want students to deal with the song texts and textual meaning, and consider how Schubert uses mode mixture to illuminate meaning and highlight emotion.  The questions from the middle of my assignment are:

​2.  You have been given three song texts and their translations.  Read the translations of each song and discuss your interpretation of the text.  What is happening within the text? What emotions are being portrayed? What is the speaker trying to tell the audience? Are there any intriguing or striking words or phrases within the text? If you were setting the text to music, how would you do it?  What musical characteristics or techniques would you use to help portray the meaning of the text?  Write down your thoughts to this final question. [12 minutes]

​3.  The three texts you read have been set by Franz Schubert.  You have copies of each piece in a separate packet. Before listening to the pieces, be sure to identify the key of the piece.  Then, listen to these settings, and as you listen, circle any moments that sound interesting, odd, cool, or different. [10 minutes]

​4.  In your group, discuss how mode mixture is used in each of the pieces that were played for you.  Write down your responses to the following questions: How is mode mixture being used in the piece?  Where does it occur?  What specific chords/keys are used?  What effect does it have on the listener?  Do these moments of mode mixture correspond with anything that you circled in question 3? [10 minutes]

​5.  In each piece, how does mode mixture help Schubert portray the song’s text? Does the musical setting clearly reflect the emotion you detected in the text translations? Does the musical setting contradict the meaning of the text (if so, how)? Do you think Schubert does a good job reflecting the meaning of the text? What do you like? What would you do differently? [10 minutes]

In questions 2-4, I ask students to reflect on the text translations, discuss their interpretations of the text, identify where mode mixture occurs within the music, and analyze how mode mixture is used.  These questions align with a few of the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: comprehension (understanding), application, and analysis.  A portion of the second question also asks students to think like a composer.  How would they set the text?  This line of divergent questioning not only promotes creative thinking, but it also sets up their ability to communicate their thoughts about the pieces and critique the effectiveness of Schubert’s use of mode mixture in question 5.  These processes are directly related to the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

Question 6 (to be completed as homework) asks students to reflect upon the group discussion and findings from the first class period and write a response paper summarizing their thoughts.  This gives them the opportunity for self-reflection, practice in written communication, and it also provides a starting point for the next class period, which begins with sharing responses from their papers.  Then, the following questions are posed:

​7. At the beginning of class, you were given a handout with three short excerpts on it.  Examine each of these excerpts and analyze the harmonies that are used in each by identifying the proper lead-sheet symbol that corresponds to the chords.  Then, do your best to provide a Roman numeral analysis of each excerpt.  Be sure your Roman numeral reflects the quality of the chord and the relationship to the key (assume there are no modulations).  Take notice of chords that do not fit what would normally occur given our typical diatonic Roman numerals. [10 minutes]

​8. Each of these excerpts includes some type of mixture.  Support this statement with evidence from the music. [15 minutes]

The last questions of the conceptual workshop should give students the opportunity to synthesize their knowledge by applying what they have discovered to a new, yet related, problem.  Here, my students are to analyze how mode mixture is used in music having no text.  After addressing these questions in the smaller groups, the class then comes back together as a whole to discuss findings and share struggles.  The ending to the experience also provides a way for me to address any misconceptions or confusion amongst the groups.

Each time I have done a conceptual workshop, I notice students tending to look toward me for answers, and obviously, it is my intent for them to contend with the problems and find their own solutions.  By remaining mostly silent and staying out of the center of attention, students are able to experience what it is like to find answers on their own, support and defend their analyses, and ultimately take ownership of and responsibility for their learning so they can effectively apply their knowledge to creating new ideas.

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This work is copyright 2013 Carla R. Colletti and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.