Teaching for the first time or teaching a new subject or type of group for the first time can be difficult. In music, it could be teaching a style or genre that you are not familiar with, whether it be popular music, world music, or any combination of unfamiliar territory. When I present my Rock Bands in the Elementary School Setting workshop to teachers mostly unfamiliar with teaching rock bands, there are three tips I give them for the section called “How Do I Do That?” There is also an entire chapter that delves deeper into these three rules in my book. Whatever subject you are teaching, these Three Golden Rules that I follow will help you to be successful. They give you the ability to let the learners learn and take the pressure off of you to know everything. These can also be used by seasoned teachers who are needing a fresh perspective on themselves or their students. Here they are:
Golden Rule #1: Have and Open Mind, Do Not Be Afraid to Learn With Your Students
When you learn with your students you are keeping one step ahead of them or even in step with them and in the process you are learning how to play and how to teach the instrument. In doing this, you will learn in the way your students naturally learn. You are more like your students than you want to believe. They learn best when they teach somebody else too. It is exactly like Lev Vygotsky’s theory of the zones of proximal development.
The zones of proximal development (ZDP) is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.”[i] From this definition, the teacher would be considered the more capable peer or the Coach. You could also do as the theory suggests and have the students teach each other. This also plays into the research of Lucy Green who suggests that the teacher should be the Facilitator and let the students do most of the teaching. Having the students be in charge will take longer but will take some of the pressure off you.
Golden Rule #2: Trust the Kids, They Know More Than You Think They Do
We tend not to give learners enough credit. The fact is, you don’t even need to know how to play the instruments because the kids will. The very first rock band that I coached at my current school had an amazing amount of skill, many of them could play their instruments better than I could. It was impressive. One learner in particular was completely self-taught and could play at a very advanced level. My YouTube Channel, has links to videos of that band, PennyBack, performing. One of the most jaw dropping performances that a band just a couple of years later did was their rendition of “Barracuda” by Heart. What is even more amazing is that all that I did was tell them that we were going to learn the song, and the kids did the rest. The only people in the band whose parts I helped to coach were the drummers.
I’ve also had learners who would be given the band CD for the year and have most of the songs learned the following week with zero coaching from me or anyone else. One of these students was a drummer who was going to extra physical education classes to improve his gross motor skills. I didn’t even know about this until the end of the year because his motor issues seemed non-existent when playing the drums. There is always someone in your school who can play something even a little bit. Your students, many times, know more than you think they do.
Professor Lucy Green is a British scholar who studies rock music, or informal music as she calls it, and its learning practices. Her research was instrumental in developing the Musical Futures program in much of Britain that teaches music by focussing on the learning practices of informal musicians. Her research took her into classrooms by actually working with students and teachers in real schools. Teachers involved with this project “…unanimously agreed that…using informal learning practices in the classroom has generally changed [their] approach to teaching for the better.”[ii] Teachers admitted that they were repeatedly surprised by their learners and that, in general, their expectations had been too low. They did not give learners enough credit for what they were actually capable of doing. Throughout this project, the teachers and the researcher realized that the main theme for the success of learners involved in this project was that of autonomy. Learners were given choice and freedom and therefore were presented with the opportunity to discover learning on their own.
Golden Rule #3: Think of Yourself as a Coach or Facilitator
Simply thinking about yourself as a coach or facilitator can greatly decrease the pressure on you and help to make learning with your students a very positive experience. The label of Teacher adds a level of stress that assumes you know everything and puts less onus on the learner. The term Coach implies that you are still in charge but are helping learners along to reach their goals while still giving them time to discover and learn from their mistakes. Think of a sports coach—a coach can still give homework, can still drill if need be, but in the end the onus is on the players to perform at the game without the coach, to learn from their mistakes and fix them on the fly. The term Facilitator is even more learner-centred still by almost completely removing the teacher from the picture and inserting them into a supervisory role while students discover much of the learning on their own.
My personal preference is the term Coach. For me, it is the happy medium between too much control and not enough control over their learning. This being said, I tend to flow between coach and facilitator depending on what students are doing or what is happening at the time. In certain situations while teaching, more of a Facilitator approach is needed. An example of this would be when we are writing our own songs and creating new ideas. Here is a continuum that helps me to visualize each of these terms:
Leader Teacher Coach Facilitator
At one time I would have used the term Leader synonymous with Coach. The more I thought about using this term to describe a teacher, however, I realized how negative of a term it can be in this context. The term Leader has a much less learner-centred implication and actually is almost, if not completely teacher-centred. It reminds me of old-school band leaders, conductors, and even world leaders, good and bad, who are deemed the all-knowing entities of their respective groups, accepting little if any student suggestion or feedback. Leaders lead, followers follow.
I intentionally use the term Learner instead of student in many spots throughout this post. The term Learner, like the term Facilitator is a much less formal way to think of the word but also shifts the teacher-student relationship to facilitator-learner. Student, like the term Leader or Teacher, implies a very rigid type of learning and does not take into account the explorative aspect of learning in general.
The overall theme here when experiencing something new as a teacher is to let go of your control so that the student can become the learner. The teacher becomes the facilitator and is to facilitate the learning by setting up learning environments. I hope you find these Three Golden Rules helpful when you are faced with something new. These are even helpful when not teaching something new but just trying to breed new life into your teaching practice. Try this with something you have been teaching for years. Let go of the control and just let whatever happens happen!
Are you more of a Leader or a Facilitator? Let me know!
Until next time, Happy Musicking!
i. Lev S. Vygotsky. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner and Ellen Souberman. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978).
ii. Lucy Green. Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy. (England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008).
Much of this post was previously published in Rock Coach: A Practical Guide for Teaching Rock Bands in Schools published by Steve’s Music Room Publishing. Pick up your copy on Amazon today!