Backwards Design in the Music Classroom

Teacher: We’re going to learn about The Baroque period today, including such great composers as Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and so on.

Student: Why?

Teacher: Why?….well,…because it’s a very important period in musical history.

Student: Why is it so important and aren’t there hundreds of different periods or styles of Music?

Teacher: Indeed there are. Pre the 20th century, music can be divided in to approximately four main periods; Medieval, Baroque, Classical and Romantic but at the turn of century there was an explosion of styles including Jazz, Gospel, Pop, funk, and the list goes on and on.

Student: So why are we spending time on the Baroque period? Can’t we start with Jazz? My mum plays Jazz saxophone and it’s really cool.

Teacher: Well……(Pause)…because Baroque is on your test I’m giving you in a couple of weeks and Jazz isn’t. You want to pass the test don’t you?

Student: Yes. C’mon then. Start telling me what I need to know for the test on the Baroque period.

The teachers’ hands in the above example are somewhat tied. If the test is external and based on a standardized process which will have ramifications on the student, the teacher, and indeed the school, then there does seem to be a need to ‘pass’ it. The fact that the teacher says “The test I am giving you in a couple of weeks” suggests to me it is not. Rather that the teacher has just decided that the Baroque period is important and that is what needs to be learned.

In my present school we don’t have any external standardized tests until the IB diploma which is equivalent to A levels or APs. I say equivalent, I mean it’s an external exam students take at age approximately 18 years old, which is a factor in their university placing. We have standardized cognitive ability tests and ISA tests which look at reading, writing and math compared to like schools around the world, but they do not affect the school as such, but rather help us to understand where the child may need extra help. We of course assess students regularly both formatively and summatively to check for understanding.

So let’s look at the example above again. If the test mentioned requires that the students be able to regurgitate as much information about the Baroque period as possible, then passing the test definitely favours the student who can easily remember and regurgitate facts.

Let’s assume that the test is not external and therefore the teacher does not need to give it. And let’s assume that the Music teacher is teaching an 8th grade class (year 9 in the UK system).

The student, of course, may or may not choose to take music for an IB diploma subject but we’ll also assume s/he will.

There is a section in the final exam (5 years away for this student) that is called the listening paper which is 30% of the overall marks. Students are given a number of pieces of music to listen to and they are asked to comment on what they are hearing. They don’t necessarily need to exactly name the composer and date written (although if they did it’s be worth mentioning). What they will be asked to do is to comment on what they hear in terms of melody, harmony, instrumentation, form etc. These ‘elements’ of the Music may lead them, like any good detective towards being able to place the music in context of time and possibly guess a composer or performer etc. The student could be given a piece of music from literally any period or style (so hundreds of possibilities). So the exam is clearly not asking for a right or wrong answer, but rather for students to be able to apply knowledge and understanding in an unfamiliar situation using higher level thinking skills. GREAT. So we’ve established the exam (in this case) isn’t so bad after all.

My first question to the teacher would be to ask what the goal of the lesson is. Where does it fit in to the overall scheme? What are the desired outcomes? Yes, the UBD initiated amongst you will recognize already that we are thinking about backwards design. What will they need to be able to understand? How will you be able to check for that understanding?

Once this is clear, the teacher can outline a learning plan. For example to look at the elements of music and make sure the students are familiar with critical analyzing music they listen to as well as to expose them to a number of music periods and styles.

So a crucial factor for this 8th grade teacher in this particular school, is to know what the ‘end’ result will be. What the end aims are. Knowing this, the teacher will be able to sit down with her or his colleagues from the department or high school and plan a curriculum outline backwards.

OK let’s go back to the original Teacher student conversation. It may have gone like this:

Teacher: You need to be able to listen to music critically, in other words, listen to any piece of music and talk about what you hear. This will actually be a question in you exam in 5 years time! We’re going to learn how to do this. To be able to listen for key elements in the music so that you can be like a detective and work out roughly when, who, how it was written.

Student: Wow, that’s going to be difficult. Aren’t there hundreds of different styles?

Teacher: Yes, but they can all be broken down in to what are known as ‘elements’. Think of them as clues to help you to solve the puzzle.

Student: If there are hundreds of periods, which one are we going to start with?

Teacher: Do you have any particular music you like?

Student: Well my mum plays the saxophone and she says that’s Jazz. It’s really cool.

Teacher: Great lets start with Jazz. We’ll need to look at a number of key periods a well as explore the different elements of Music as we go along this term.

Student: We could bring in Music each class for the rest of us to listen to –Kind of sit around listening to music.

The teacher now has the student(s) hooked. They see a point to what they are doing. They are ready to give it a try.

Here is an extract of the IBO group 6 aims:

The aim is to enable students to:

Express ideas with confidence and competence and develop perceptual and analytical skills.

 Backwards design is crucial.

IBO Music Subject Outline

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