About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The conservatory model of education (and why it works)

Public education in America is struggling, and the surrounding debate is often focussed on assessment and finger-pointing.  We blame the students, the parents, the teachers, the administrators, and the legislators.  I am grateful to be a part of a system of teaching and learning that is flourishing.  The conservatory model is incredibly successful, and I think that it contains some wisdom that would well-serve education in general.  Here are some lessons that I wish to share about how my job sets me up to be a successful teacher.

Small classes


My office is also my studio and classroom.  I do over 90% of my teaching there.  I see each of my students once a week in a private session and once per week in a small group (usually of four students).  We also meet weekly as a large group.  75% of my teaching is one-to-one.

I get to know all of my students in a very personal way.  The emphasis on private teaching establishes a sense of trust and my students know that I care about them as human beings.  They feel safe to share their insecurities with me in a way that they would not be able to do in a large group setting.  The calm of a private lesson allows me to diagnose their needs in a very focussed manner, and to try various solutions.  Students ask questions that they might not ask in front of their peers, for fear of being embarrassed about what they don't know.  As a teacher, it saves time when a student can blurt out the words, "I don't understand."

The small group sessions present a regular opportunity to apply the skills learned in the private sessions.     In my teaching, we work on basic music skills and saxophone technique in the private lessons, and then we apply those skills in a chamber ensemble.  Again, this is done in a safe environment, away from the pressures of an audience.  The small group coaching format provides opportunities to teach individual responsibility and teamwork.  Chamber performance also instills independence, as there is no conductor.  We spend time working on drills, running through small sections of music, and refining the details that will lead to a quality performance.

The final piece of the puzzle is the weekly studio class.  This flexible time with all the students together allows for everything from specific lectures to coached performances by soloists or chamber groups.  In these sessions, the students are free to offer constructive criticism.  They share in the responsibility of teaching, actively participating in the learning process.  This progression from individual sessions to larger groups is an important part of building the necessary skills and confidence for public performances.  The studio class is the last stepping stone before taking the stage.

Individual pathways to success


I have a set of semesterly standards that my students must demonstrate.  These proficiency levels are an important part of my teaching, but they are only a guideline.  I recognize that every student is different and that they will not be able to achieve similar goals by taking the same path.  Every student is unique, which is why efforts to standardize education are doomed to fail.  In my opinion, the better approach is is to work towards discovering the best ways to help each individual to learn.  This is a time-intensive process that often results in hitting dead-ends, being forced to double back, changing tactics, and the occasional spectacular failure along the way.  The failing is probably the most important part - but more on that in a moment.

In identifying and addressing each student's weaknesses, it is vital that I have the freedom to temporarily forget about the standard proficiency levels.  When a student is unable to meet a certain standard, there is often an underlying cause that might not be easily measured by the usual assessments. For example, imagine that a student must meet a standard involving the ability to read certain pieces of music at-sight, and that a particular student cannot demonstrate the proficiency because of a difficulty in executing rhythms.  No amount of practicing sight reading would ever lead to a successful outcome without first tackling the rhythmic deficiency.  There might be nothing specifically in the standards about rhythm for that particular semester, but the "long road" approach is the only way to eventually acquire the desired skills.

Students progress on different curves.  Some will be moderately diligent in the practice room and easily meet the standards, while others will work much harder and spend a majority of their time on what might appear to be plateaus.  As an expert teacher, I am able to recognize the difference between a student that is not working, and one that is working hard to get through a period where progress is difficult to measure.  I need my supervisors and colleagues to trust me, so that the student and I can complete our work together, even if the standards of measurement fail to show what is happening.  Every student is unique, and for many, it is a long and winding road to success.

Deconstructing failure


Standardization is about measuring success - finding the correct answer.  Failure is not easily quantifiable, but anyone who has ever worked hard to succeed knows that failure is where the learning happens.


"I think it's important to have a good, hard failure when you're young.  I learned a lot out of that."  
-Walt Disney

In my teaching, I frequently use a technique that I have come to call "the guided crash landing."  Frequently, a student needs to experience failure, so that they can assess what went wrong and invent some practice strategies that will lead to a better outcome.  Sometimes the student must be allowed to stumble through a poorly prepared etude in a lesson, but a more extreme situation might call for a poor performance in front of their peers.  Failing is difficult and disappointing, but it is not the end of the world.  In fact, failure is not so much an outcome as it is a new beginning.

If my teaching was assessed only by successes, I would not be able to let my students fail.  This would completely change my profession.  I became a teacher because I love helping students to solve their problems, to deconstruct their failures, and to learn to be their own best teachers.  If my salary, or my job security was connected to a rigid form of assessment, I would be unable to really teach at all.  You can't measure how hard someone failed at art.  This brings us to the next important point.

Beauty is a cloud of possibilities


Art is about beauty.  Beauty is easily experienced, but difficult to measure.  Beauty happens in the spaces between people and art.  When we attempt to standardize beauty, we are left with skinny fashion models with bodies that don't exist in nature, clothes that nobody wears, and regular people in regular clothes feeling totally inadequate.  As each person is unique, their experience of beauty is equally personal.  In my own teaching, I have learned a lot about beauty from my students.  Interpretation happens as we perform and create, and as we observe.  Music can take us to places that we have never been, or show us an unexpected reflection of ourselves.  Art does not exist on a sliding scale of crumby to great.  A rating of beauty depends on what is being measured, why it is being measured, how it is being measured, and most importantly, who is taking the measurements.  Beauty is a cloud of possibilities.  You cannot completely contain it, and the more you grab at it, the more it slips between your fingers.

Interdisciplinary by design


My students will tell you that we take frequent side-trips into areas outside of music.  I have never seen Pythagoras on a music syllabus, but I can't teach my students to play in-tune without teaching some math.  It sometimes takes a full lesson to thoroughly explain the math of tuning, and why it is important. We also spend time exploring philosophy, literature, and culture.  Just this semester, I took several students over to the physics lab to participate in a collaboration with some physics majors.  None of that is on my syllabi.  The time invested in these excursions would be hard to justify by looking at my proficiency standards, but we are planting the seeds of intellectual curiosity.

There is no single destination for every student.  One might become a high school band director, another a music therapist, and another might leave music entirely and go to law school.  One of my graduates is a math teacher, some are freelance performers, and some are in the military.  They benefit from exposure to a wide variety of perspectives.  Again, it is the cloud of possibilities that will somehow point them in the direction of their dreams.  In many cases, they haven't even dreamed the dream yet.

Long-term accountability


I frequently hear the argument that assessment standards are used to keep teachers accountable.  As a professional educator, I obviously am not without bias, but I cannot imagine how anyone can believe that standardized testing of students can possibly paint an accurate picture of a teacher.  If test scores in a certain classroom go up or down in two subsequent years, just how useful is that information?  The situation worsens when we see that standards, and the tests are constantly changing.  In many cases, the specifics are politically motivated, influenced by lobbyists, and put in place with very little input from teachers.  I doubt that there is a single person on earth that went into teaching because they wanted to help students to improve their test taking skills.


                     "Education is a process, not a product."


We tend to force teachers into a defensive posture before they even begin to teach.  Teachers need to be trusted and given the room to take chances.  Almost every teacher that I know would like to be able to take a chance on an unlikely student, but they don't always have that kind of flexibility.  I worked very hard to earn tenure, but that tenure is not a suit of armor.  Tenure is the protection that I need to be able to take some chances, especially on students that might not succeed.  Those students are the ones that really need me, and they are the reason that I teach.  The super talented kids with tons of support and resources are headed towards careers, with or without my help.  It is the kid that needs teaching that I live for.  Some of those students are not going to make it, but they deserve a chance to try, and as a society, we should offer them that chance by supporting the teachers that can make a difference.

I am not held accountable from year to year, as measured by the course evaluations or some kind of multiple choice exam.  The university steps back and lets me work.  I am evaluated in the long-term, according to my body of work, and the successes of my graduates.  Success takes time, more than anything else.  Education is a process, not a product – it is best evaluated as such.  Many of my more successful students were fairly mediocre in the middle of our work together.  They bloomed later, sometimes years after graduation.  If I had been evaluated on their junior-year jury examination, I might have lost my job, but they turned out to have terrific careers.  It took time, because education is a process, not a product.

Contextual assessment


Every semester, my students are required to give a final performance for a panel of professors.  They are expected to demonstrate the work that they have done, over the course of the semester.  Each professor grades the student individually, and the average of those grades becomes twenty percent of the student's final grade for the semester.  This is a standard form of assessment in music.  The student will perform music from the standard repertoire, and different students will often perform the same compositions.  In some ways, this is a pretty standardized method of evaluating a student.  Each student is assigned music that is considered to be playable by a musician at their level of expected competency, and that repertoire provides an effective measuring stick.  If the student cannot successfully perform the piece, or the student has difficulty with certain passages, or even aspects of that piece, it calls into question whether or not the student should be assessed positively.

There are a few things built into the process that provide context into each unique situation.  First of all, each student fills out a form that lists everything that they have worked on, over that semester.  Every exercise, every étude, and every piece of music.  This often reveals an overarching theme to the work, giving insight into what might seem like a subpar final performance.  It can also show the opposite, and point out that a student is coasting on talent.  So this form of contextual assessment provides some accountability, but the review of the teacher/student is only twenty percent of the final grade.  This balanced approach works very well, which is why it has been used by conservatories for a long time.

Moving forward


I am certainly not implying that we can easily integrate any of these elements into a K-12 classroom environment.  Private instruction is expensive, and the research isn't totally conclusive on class size (although it arguably points towards long-term benefits for smaller classes.)  Teachers are continually expected to do more with less, all while aiming at the moving target of standardized testing and ever-shifting assessments that are tied directly to funding, and ultimately, to the security of their own jobs.  With that said, I know some amazing teachers that are already doing some of the things that I suggest, and more, even if it means swimming against the tide.

I have a number of distinct advantages, most notably that I choose my students after an audition and interview process.  They must also be accepted into the university at-large.  My studio is a group of accomplished young people that have already demonstrated considerable academic and musical success.  I can flunk a student out of the class if they aren't making it, and my job is not in jeopardy when a student drops out (as long as I maintain my target class size, which is easy because eager prospective students are lined up out the door).

It is also worth pointing out that I am the only saxophone professor at my university of approximately twenty-thousand students and a thousand faculty members, and only one of a handful of saxophone professors in the entire state.  I had to win the position in a national search process, and if I left my job tomorrow, there would easily be a hundred applicants to fill the spot.  Professors in the humanities tend to work more hours for less pay than faculty in other disciplines.  No matter, I feel very fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to work hard in a field that I believe in, and in a system that works.  If anyone tries to break it, they will have to get by me and Practice Monster first!



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