Keeping it personal
Richard Crozier, ABRSM’s former Professional Development Director, explains how the concept of personalised learning can transform your teaching and outlines some simple ways to build it into your lessons. It may seem strange to contemplate the idea of impersonal learning, yet that is what prevailed in classrooms and music rooms for many years. Think of the class teacher, standing at the front of the room, giving a lesson to 30 children. The teaching material was not differentiated, so the teacher hoped that everyone would get something from it. Of course, the more able learners succeeded, in the middle there were many who did no more than ‘tread water’, and a number failed to grasp anything. Then, along came the idea of teaching with differentiated materials so that not all of the children in the classroom did the same thing at the same time, and this in turn led to the idea of developing an individual curriculum, tailored to meet the needs of each individual learner - in other words, personalised learning. In the music room, teaching is often done on a one-to-one basis, so it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that all such lessons were models of personalised learning, but unfortunately, the reality is far from this. For example, the same tutor books are often used for all beginners, with a failure to recognise the variation in preferred learning styles amongst students: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. So, how can you develop a greater awareness of personalised learning and begin to apply some of the principles in your day-to-day work? The first step is to adopt the idea of working as a reflective practitioner. In other words, taking a little time to consider, as objectively as possible, how effective each and every lesson has been. By engaging in that self-review, you will be better placed to plan what might happen in the next lesson, identifying particular strategies or resources that are likely to work best and contemplating which approaches gain the best response from that particular learner. The key here is in the learner’s response, because at the heart of personalised learning is the idea that learners become more actively engaged in the process – rather than simply having teaching ‘done to them’. By reflecting on the process, you can easily adopt the ‘plan–do-review’ approach to work. This means that every lesson is freshly prepared rather than just consisting of turning to the next page in the book, the next piece to be learned, or a standardised pattern of: warm-up; scales; pieces, and ‘Oh, dear, I’m sorry. We haven’t got time to do any aural this week’. Secondly, plan your lessons by starting with the learner’s needs. This seems a simple and obvious thing to do, yet it’s very often not the case. Be sure to focus on areas that need improvement, such as dynamics, phrasing and so on, because this will lead to greater musical understanding and enable the learner to develop independence much more readily. If your planning also includes dialogue with the learner, it can truly be said to be personalising the learning and the results will reflect this. But this approach can’t suddenly be turned on like a tap. The process itself needs to be developed with learners so that they appreciate the benefits too, and this will demand both time and effort on your part. Take a look at your teaching to see if music is central to the lesson and what better way than to use a pocket camcorder? This inexpensive gadget, or the video capability on your phone, will enable you to check your use of language and find out how much of the lesson is spent in talking rather than music-making. You will need to obtain appropriate permission from the student(s), their parents and school before making any recordings of course. There’s little doubt that, in most cases, a tailor-made garment is going to fit better than one bought off-the-peg. The same applies with teaching. By putting the learner – and music – at the heart of the lesson, we are increasing the potential for a better outcome all round. Why not use a little time this term to explore these ideas so that you can try a personalised learning approach with some of your students? You may find that lessons become more effective, fulfilling and enjoyable for everyone concerned.
This article was originally featured in the September 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.