Thursday, January 28, 2010

Storytelling in Education

By Mark T. Burke

I thought I would tell a story, about stories.  Because you are a blog reader, you no doubt find value in learning through stories.  Stories provide context to information that otherwise could be conveyed and easily forgotten.  Without context, information has little value now-a-days.  After all, much information can be found in a matter of seconds using the internet.  In our age of information and high stakes testing, education has recently centered more on delivering information and testing the student’s abilities to restate that information, in order, in time, accurately.  Story telling has become a waste of time, a communication and educational transmission method thought to have little value.

During my years of teaching, I witnessed many well intentioned educators fall victim to the “no stories in your classroom” feedback from reviewing administrators.  Administrators have been under extreme pressures to ensure students pass exams and schools achieve established levels of performance and progress.  Those pressures have led many administrators to advise teachers to “stick to the facts” in class.  Teachers have also had a hand in eliminating storytelling from the classroom.  Too often, those well intended educators allow themselves to get carried away during the story, straying from the focus of the lesson and allowing the act of telling the story to overshadow the value of the point of the story.  It seems no wonder stories have been relegated to little more than wastes of time or “filler” activities.

I hope you agree that allowing storytelling to become undervalued in the classroom is not a good thing.  I’m pleased however, that storytelling is making a comeback.  Rich media applications have allowed students to tell stories through methods not so different from the creation of a Hollywood production.  Social media, especially blogs, allow us all to share educational anecdotes, case studies, and event recaps quickly and easily to targeted audiences (akin to telling stories around the campfire to a captive audience.) But those are examples of written and developed stories.  As teachers, can we learn to meet the demands of our high stakes curriculums while harnessing the value of storytelling? 

The better question to ask is “as teachers, can we afford NOT to harness the power of storytelling?”  I believe the answer is NO WAY!  When I am teaching, interjecting stories is a critical part to delivering facts and information in context.  As music educators, telling stories about the pieces students are studying is an absolute must.  Imagine teaching a solo composition without discussing the “story” behind the music, even if that story only involves a simple tale from the time period of music.  Discussing just the notes and all the obvious markings on the page only mirrors what the written music has already laid out in front of the performer.  The real value we add to the student is helping them tell their own story. By conveying our stories, we help them develop and communicate their own stories.  Our job however is to ensure the story is relevant and shared with the student, not merely “told to them.”  Getting carried away with our stories is a sure fire way to turn off a student, loose focus on the lesson and sacrifice progress in lieu of a self gratifying moment on the podium. 

So we must learn to tell stories and encourage students to do so affectively as well.  Have you ever had students start to tell you a story about their life, inspired by something during your lesson only to interrupt them so you could move on?  We’ve all experienced the never ending story told passionately by a 5th grader.  They can actually be hard to stop once they get rolling.  Of course, our stories can be equally difficult to bring to a close, as I’ve proven by the length of this post :-).

Why is storytelling so important?  If you believe we are entering a new era, the Conceptual era, pushing us forward after the ending of the Information era, storytelling will become growing important.  As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, information is readily available.  Since everyone has rather immediate access to information, learning is not about acquiring information.  Learning is the process of synthesizing facts and information into something more valuable to the learner, something that can add meaning to their lives of the lives of others.  In music, finding value in hearing music played accurately in pitch and time (like a lifeless MIDI track), is similar to the appreciation of acquiring facts and figures.  Being MOVED by a piece, from the expression of the performer is like being inspired by a well crafted and delivered story.  The later will change someone’s life. The former will simply take up valuable time in our lives. 

I highly recommend Daniel Pink’s, “A Whole New Mind.”  The chapter on “Story” is a refreshing look at how we must all learn to convey meaning through story.  It is my hope that I inspire students to do the same, through words, but more artistically, through music.

What are your favorite stories to tell?  Do you consider yourself a good storyteller?  In your opinion, is storytelling a skill or an art? 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Being a Beginner Instrumentalist Is Not Just for Kids

By Mark T. Burke

I thought I would start with a story. 

Jack, a well known college professor in town is an accomplished man.  Jack is in his 50's, healthy and active.  Jack's family is grown and out of the house attending college and making their own mark on the world. Jack feels the time is right to start a new adventure, and that adventure is music. 

Jack doesn't have to think too hard about his musical aspirations. Since Jack was a kid, he has always wanted to play the trombone.  Jack's father played in a local community band and had passed down his trombone to Jack.  But Jack's earlier years where filled with college, work, and family responsibilities that made fitting in trombone lessons impossible.  Jack's father's trombone has sat idle for many years and Jack wants that to change.

Jack considers himself a pretty creative person, open to new ideas and certainly capable of learning.  During the many years of wanting to learn the trombone, something has constantly nagged at him though, keeping him from taking the next step.  Jack considers this a big step for himself.  He wants to learn with the help of a great teacher, but feels a bit intimidated.  Jack's discomfort for really putting himself "out there" in front of another person has been a real road block.

During a recent presentation at the college, Jack listened to a demonstration about a new way to learn to play an instrument.  Jack's fears of learning dissolved in an instant.  This new way of learning meant he could stay at home, practice when it was convenient for him, take lessons with his teacher using a web cam (so no traveling), review the material as many times as he needed, and send practice recordings to his teacher as they were assigned.  Jack's fear of learning were gone, he found a solution.
Jack's story is based on an actual event.  We estimate there are 1000's, 10s of 1000's of Jacks (adults) out there who want to learn an instrument, who have the time, money and determination to do so, but fear the actual learning process.  When I talked to "Jack, " he said, "I want to learn, but I am really intimidated by the thought of taking lessons."  We then talked about viaAcademies' offerings and he said, "this would be perfect for me."

Adult beginners have very specific needs.  Balancing work, family and musical activities can be complicated.  Whatever solution adults choose for learning music, it must be adaptable and flexible, yet structured and complete.  But adult learners need to learn the basics as well.  We often forget that adults who have little musical background must learn to read musical notation, just like younger students when learning to plan an instrument.  Adult beginners also benefit from learning simple, everyday songs at first, such as "Au Claire de la Lune," "Shoo, Fly," and others.  These songs are not just for younger student. They represent legitimate musical literature, great for beginners of all levels.

Adult learners also need to ensure they understand the basics before moving on to more complex musical activities.  Quizzes and tests are a great way to ensure a student of any level masters the knowledge skills necessary for an activity.  Lastly, students of all ages need the support of a trained teacher.  Teachers motivate learners from any generation to build good practice habits, set goals and analyze their own performance abilities.  Additionally, teachers who can model musical and performance abilities inspire us all to achieve new levels of personal performance.

Begin a beginner is not just for kids.  viaAcademies is currently taking pre-enrollments for our upcoming adult course sections.  Over the next month, we can help adults choose an instrument, make the purchase and get them started.  If you're an adult and you have always wanted to learn to play one of the following instruments, send us an email today (

French Horn
Mallet Percussion
How can we help you as an adult learner?  For those who have taught adults, what are some considerations to be made?



Sunday, January 17, 2010

Innovation Brings Music Appreciation to the World

By Mark T. Burke

I've been away from the blog for a few days because things have been busy at viaAcademies.  We just launched a really exciting project as the result of feedback from many teachers and administrators.  For the last year, we've focused on developing innovative Instrumental Music instruction. Due to our innovative approach to music instruction, we've been asked how we can help students more generally gain an understanding and appreciation of music. Our latest project will help students everywhere gain an appreciation for music through the use of modern, hands on applications and delivery methods. 

Great schools, whether brick and mortar, virtual or home-based ensure their students are exposed to music.  In fact, most states include music as part of their mandated curriculum.  In my previous post, How Portfolios Build Value in Your Instrumental Program, I stated that 8% of the US States do NOT require Music Education.  That means that pretty much every US educated student will be exposed to some level of music instruction during their K-12 education.

At NECC 2009 (check out ISTE 2010, many individuals stopped by our booth and expressed their need to provide exciting music courses to their students.  The overwhelming question asked was "What do you have to help teach GarageBand?" When we asked why teachers and school officials wanted to teach GarageBand, the responses included "kid's love it and want to use it", "we want kids to compose music for their multimedia projects", "we have it on every computer and don't know what to do with it" and more.

We do consider ourselves good listeners and great solution builders. Adding all the needs together we developed our plan to build an online Music Appreciation course centered around the computer as the instrument.  Development began last week on our Music Appreciation Through Application course.  The course will help schools of any type provide students a hands-on opportunity to gain appreciation for music.  The course will combine the capabilities of GarageBand with the study of significant musical history and compositional techniques. Students who complete the course will learn to use GarageBand while experimenting with their own composition skills through a number of class projects. 

We are currently researching which PC program best matches the capabilities of GarageBand.  In the end, our goal is to produce a course that can meet the needs of students who have access to MACs and PC's.  We would love to have your input as part of our research.  If you are a PC users and know the capabilities of GarageBand, let us know which PC application you feel is the best match. 

Ultimately we want every student (around the world) to love music class.  Students who learn nothing more than composer birthdays and beginning and ending dates for historical periods gain little to influence their continued love and appreciation for music.  We believe students must have hands on opportunities in order for their knowledge and skills to have true, lasting meaning in their lives.  As the course develops, we will keep everyone up to date with a few sneak peeks.

How could a course like this help your students? 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

How Portfolios Build Value in Your Instrumental Program

By Mark T. Burke

Portfolios have long been a valuable tool in education.  What once was thought of as a homeschooling only requirement, portfolios have made their way into brick and mortar schools as high stakes graduation requirements. The benefits of maintaining a portfolio are many for students, teachers, parents and educational systems.  By nature, portfolios are designed to showcase the efforts of the TOTAL student.  In other words, a student's accomplishments are not shown by Math, English, Science and standardized testing alone.  True student success is only demonstrated through how they synthesize their total knowledge and skills into valuable projects and products. The best portfolios show how students perform and apply their skills.  It would seem obvious that musical performance would be an inclusion in a student's portfolio.  However, of the many I have reviewed, few included musical examples.  I've seen some that included programs from concerts of performances, but they simply don't demonstrate a student's real musical abilities.

A quality portfolio...

...provides vision into a students ability to perform or produce a product.
...showcases student improvement over time with examples from each phase of their learning.
...ties together student performance, instructor feedback, student improvement and evaluation (grades).

If your students are producing portfolios for your school, their efforts in your instrumental music program should be included.  Students work very hard to improve their musical abilities and those abilities help build better people.  If you are looking for ways to ensure student's musical skills and the value of your program are recognized at the highest level of your school, you need portfolios in your program.

Each viaAcademies course includes several portfolio building tools to help your students demonstrate their musical skills.  We provide:
  1. A secure and convenient online student environment accessible anywhere, anytime.
  2. A teacher access account for viewing details and submissions by students within your program
  3. An interactive submission process allowing you as the teacher to make comments on student submission.
  4. A clear set of assignments guiding students on what exercises to include in their portfolio.
  5. The needed student software for recording their musical exercises.
  6. A teacher managed gradebook for assessing each submission
  7. Long term students and teacher access options. (a small fee is charged for access past the 12 month standard enrollment period).
Showcasing the student's music portfolio is as easy as logging in as the student or teacher and accessing the collection of student assignments.  The student recordings, teacher feedback, corrected assignments and grades are all tied together, demonstrating the students progress over time.  The student recordings can also be downloaded from the course and added to a CD for distribution if so desired, the options are many.

Do you currently help your students build an instrumental music portfolio? How can portfolios help add value to your program? 


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Music Helps Prepare Us For the "Conceptual Age"

By Mark T. Burke

I don't have to look to the future to see great things for music education. Like few times in our past, music and the arts in general, will not merely benefit from the historical era, they will lead us into and through the next period of growth. The Information Age has left us primed and wanting more from our lives.  From our most basic desire to expect more from the products we purchase and the services we use, to the huge population of baby boomers seeking more meaning in their lives, solutions are being created by those with creative abilities, including music. Simply put, we want well designed, interesting products rather than the same old, same old.  We desire creative services to help us find our true hidden talents.  Creative individuals are needed to lead organizations in their efforts to fill these needs and thus thrive and survive in this new era.

For the past year, I've had several individuals recommend Daniel Pink's "A Whole New Mind."  Each introduced Pink's view on how we've entered a new era, where creative, right-minded individuals are valued by organizations for their abilities. Feeling like I've always understood the contributions musical and creative people make, and as an entrepreneur in the field of music education myself, I doubted I could learn anything from reading his book.  I was SO WRONG!  After only three chapters, I have learned how to communicate the true value of music instruction.

Pink suggests that we are witnessing the end of the Information Age.  During the Information Age, company leaders and employees alike depended on their abilities to process information and think analytically to ensure company success.  Products and services were developed by the boat loads, companies prospered and our national wealth grew.  His belief is that our abundance (of just about everything) has left us wanting more.  Supply of life's deeper meaning is low and demand is high.  Enter the Conceptual Age.

I believe in Pink's view.  I also believe musicians are among the creative soles that organizations will call on to help separate them from all the competing, rubber-stamped companies within their segment.  Products and services will need to beautifully designed in order to stand out.  The leaders and employees from the Information Age are ill equipped to design such products.  The time is here and now to build smarter, musically minded individuals, prepared to help us prosper in this new era.

If you believe in Pink's position, you will agree that we have an incredibly worrisome situation on our hands. At the very time when our society needs the help of creative individuals, schools are eliminating music programs often due to budget issues or lack of community support (one influencing the other).  Are we prepared to watch our opportunity to regain national prosperity at the hands of schools who lack the insight to provide the workforce with the creative individuals needed?  What may seem like a "simple" budget decision today will most certainly derail our society's continued rise should we allow it.

Facebook Fans:  Read my reviews of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

Do you agree with Pink's vision that we are entering the Conceptual Age?  If you do, what is the impact on music advocacy? 


Friday, January 1, 2010

Assessment: A Look at Then and Now

By Mark T. Burke

Observe someone playing Wii (or any gaming platform) for an hour and you can quickly learn how assessment is MUCH different today than in the past.  For the last several hours, I watched as my nephew played several Wii games.  The more I watched, the more I realized how he's developing an appreciation for being assessed. As he develops his skills on a new game, he WANTS to be assessed. In fact, he HAS to be assessed.  He wants his performance evaluated so he can be credited for his accomplishments in order to earn the ability to move forward.  When he does not perform as needed, he practices and discovers how to improve.  The assessment process is incredibly rewarding for him.

When I was his age, assessment and evaluation never seemed so positive.  Being assessed meant being criticized, given a score and then told I was good, bad or failed at something.  But that really isn't what is significantly different from assessment today.  What is different is how assessments are administers and  what happens before, during and after an assessment.  During my childhood, being assessed meant I was tested with little or no opportunity to get better or try again.  In fact, I grew up with thinking if I failed, I failed.  Failing meant starting over from ground 0 because I FAILED.  Of course that feeling brought about a negative emotional response to being assessed and certainly led to my own fear of failure.

I've put together my list of how assessment has changed over the years.  Influenced by technology and the world of gaming, students are different critters today than in years past.  I'm using a Then and Now list which for the most part represents an undefined time period.  Just consider Then to be approximately 30 years ago or so. (I am giving away my age here :-)

Assessment was administered only at the end of an educational event.
Assessment is part of the learning process.
Assessments allowed limited or no options for "do overs."
Assessments prescribe steps for improvement and provide multiple attempts for success.
Fear of failure during an assessment caused anxiety in the learner.
Failure is redefined as an opportunity, made possible through integrated assessments.  Students are encouraged to take risks and discover solutions on their own.
Rewards for successful completion of an assessment were limited.  Students were "expected" to pass an assessment.
Varying rewards exist for the varying levels of assessment success.  Students impose their own value on successful completion.
Students were told what to do before, during and after an assessment.
Student make decisions on how to prepare for an assessment, what specific skills they need to work on most and how to improve those skills as a result of an assessment.
Students hated (at least did not look forward to) assessment. (Maybe this is personal)
Student expect to be assessed.

I see the NOW attitudes exhibited in my own music students.  I certainly feel my students today expect more from me that what I expected of my teachers during my childhood.  I know they expect to be assessed frequently and fairly and guided on how to improve.  I also know they expect to be part of the learning process, choosing how they can best improve and be allowed to chose how to practice and how to reach new goals. My job is to provide guidance throughout the process of learning and assessment.  I know I never felt that way about my teachers.

For instrumental music teachers, the Then and Now of assessment can help us reach students more fully.  If we can understand how motivational quality, integrated, prescriptive assessment can be, we will help our students reach new levels of musical skill like no other generation.

Are you using good assessment technique?  What have you tried?

Do you agree that music instruction can be improved by considering how students think of assessment today?