Letting Go of the Reins

In my last post I wrote about Dan Pink and mentioned his three key points of engagement: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.  I want take a closer look at Autonomy.

Are we ready to let go of the reins?

For many teachers there is a correlation between control over students’ learning and classroom management.  There are fears that if students are left to their own choices that mayhem will ensue.  Who amongst us hasn’t had that back-to-school dream of the class that just won’t listen? I know I have, many times.

How do we foster constructivist learning within the confines of modern curriculum?

I want to share with you my reflection on my Independent Music Project.

This assignment came about as me trying to fill that time in June in the post-festival and post-concert season.  I decided to do an independent music project.  In a nutshell, I told students that they were in charge.  They needed to seek out a musical selection they liked and perform it solo or in a small group.  They were also able to choose to do their performance on an instrument of their choosing; it did not have to be their band instrument.   The sole stipulation was that whatever they chose, it had to be appropriate to a school setting (no foul language).

This assignment had a high degree of engagement.  One student chose not to do the assignment but the majority dove right in.  What was interesting to me was how much more the students got out of this assignment than I thought they would.

I had students choose to arrange their own music which included transposition, theory, and music notation – all 3 of which we only scratch the surface in class.  However,  because there was a need for these skills, they had to teach themselves and seek out the information.  Some students decided to compose their own music.  This was exciting for me!  Composition is difficult (or maybe just difficult for me and I’ve been viewing composition through my own lens).  I also had students seek out their own music – through the internet or through music stores – either way, they had to filter through a vast repertoire of music to find the right level for them to play as well as something that they would enjoy playing.  Students who decided to perform as a group also learned valuable time management and organizational skills – It’s hard to get a group of 5 people together.  Half of the performances were memorized and memory was not a requirement of the assignment.  All students had to learn to deal with performance anxiety which as musicians is something we all learn to deal with.

I was inspired by the vast array of talent that these students had that I had never seen.  I usually only see the students in one dimension – on their band instrument.  Who knew that the back row flute player had such a beautiful voice?  That my lead trumpet player could play Metallica on the drums? That my saxophone player could play classical piano and was about to take her RCM exam?

I also found their sense of community and support for each other amazing.  There was little to no teasing happening, huge applause and support (even if there was a breakdown – breakdowns are inevitable) and an intense curiosity of “What are they going to do?  What’s coming next?”.  Their shared experience of the project brought them to a true place of empathetic support for each other.

I had been scared to let go of the reins, but when I did two things happened:

First, the class did not break into mayhem. Second, there was engaged learning happening that I was removed from.  Next steps are to see if I can find similar ways/methods/assignments to bring this to my other courses (most specifically my math class).  If you have thoughts or ideas, I love to hear them!


Image Source: http://bit.ly/qrclOh


4 thoughts on “Letting Go of the Reins

  1. Bravo, Jeff. Amazing things can happen when we trust our students. I’ve found similar things to what you report here. Great stuff, and I know it takes courage. But aren’t the pay-offs worth it? I’m not advocating abdication of our responsibilities as teachers. I do think students like structure… they want to know you know what you’re doing and that they are in a safe and well-designed environment. But they don’t have to constantly be told what to learn, what to do, and when to do it. When we trust our students, they can surprise us in some wonderful ways. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. I second! What a wonderful experience for your students, but also for you! Your post reminded me of Anne Davies work around assessment and criteria. She talks about setting clear expectations for students, the target if you will, so students know exactly what is expected of them. When students know the goal, it is much easier for them to be creative and inventive.
    It sounds like you provided them the structure that they needed to be successful and the guidance to help them achieve, both in their compositions and in their cooperation. Congratulations and thank you for sharing your success story!

  3. Awesome. The things I remember from music class are our independent projects. I remember going to great lengths to put together a music video I composed, performed, shot and edited. It was one of the greatest (academic) memories of High School. Now if someone could figure out how to get funding for a programs in my school division….

    Were there any motivation problems or did everyone seek to challenge themselves?

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