Friday, July 15, 2011

Learning Variation and Immersion

By Mark T. Burke

When I think back to my high school days, one particular class comes to mind, Physics.  I loved Physics class.  Each day we learned something new, in a new way.  We would infrequently just sit at our desks and listen to lectures.  Most often, we sat or stood at our lab stations with various gizmos and measuring devices surrounding us.  I remember wearing white lab coats and those hideously large protective goggles.  The setting is so vivid in my mind.  I can remembers specific labs, including the lab on acceleration.  We used a little car with a red tape attached.  As it accelerated away, it pulled the tape through a machine that kept a constant beat going with two small hammers hitting each other.  As the car accelerated, it pulled the tape faster causing the hammers to leave marks on the tape at an ever growing distances.  When the car stopped, we started the task of measuring the distance between dots.  From those calculations, we determined the car's rate of acceleration. 

Why the memory of Physics class creates such a vivid picture in my mind has become more obvious to me over the last several years.  Today in particular, as I continue my work on an AMAZING course writing project, I am reminded how important Learning Variation and Immersion is. I am also reminded of how little I remember from my high school music classes and lessons.  What I remember most from my music experiences are the marching band bus rides and how much we laughed.  I remember a few marching performances, but, not the educational activities.  Don't get me wrong, I had wonderful teachers.  So, why can't I remember my music educational experiences?

Over the last 12+ years, I've noticed a difference in the way curriculum is built for STEM subjects as compared to music.  Great STEM courses rely on Learning Variation and Immersion (LVI).  LVI is a term I've coined to describe the strategies (and effort) course developers and teachers use to keep students engaged.  STEM courses employ LVI to a high degree, most likely because we feel we MUST keep the kids engaged.  If we don't, they will hate the subject, test scores will decrease, our schools will fail and jobs will be lost.  We put high stakes on gaining student's attention and keeping it. When we develop music courses however, our first approach is drill and practice, repetition and disciplined practice.  While courses rich in LVI keep kids guessing about what they will do in class today, traditional approaches to teaching music ensure students KNOW what they will do in class today.  In college, my music history classes were DROP THE NEEDLE classes.  I HATED those classes and hated the thought of even GOING to class.  As such, I did extremely poorly.  In fact, my teacher seemed to revel in the fact that few people could pass the course.  He grew up with, and was taught that music was about disciple and repetition. So, he taught that way.  My fear is that that legacy still exists.  But, we can change that.

Employing LVI in music classes, like any class is a challenge.  Teachers (and in my case, online course developers), must CREATE more than they have in the past.  So, is there a magic "must do" list to ensure a great LVI level?  Here are a few suggestions.

1.)  Create a unique activity for each topic that provides opportunities for students to THINK
2.)  Create numerous opportunities for students to experiment and demonstrate their results.
3.)  Create situations for students to defend their thoughts and support their opinions with evidence.
4.)  Engage the students in the progression of learning (ie...demonstrate how skills connect to each other and discuss the importance of how one skills enables growth in another).
5.)  Create opportunities where student failure does not result in "punishment" or "belittlement." 
6.)  Create opportunities for students to do REAL work.
7.)  Create opportunities for student to work with students (not just play, WORK).
8.)  Create opportunities for students to build products based on their own CREATIVITY.
9.)  Create opportunities for students to experiment on their own.
10.)  Create opportunities that go beyond your understanding and skills (as the teacher or writer).

What did I miss?  LVI is a new way of thinking for me, so my list is a work in progress.  I believe if we follow this guidance, we can create a variety of activities and immerse the students in the learning process, just like my Physics teacher did for me.  I also believe this approach will ensure more students remember their music education experiences. 

Tell me what you think.


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