Instrumental music and the “Flipped Classroom”

I read an article a few weeks ago on the educational revolution known as the “flipped classroom.” It’s apparently taking tech-savvy districts by storm. While I cannot find the specific article I read at the time (that’ll teach me to stop aimlessly surfing the internet after two glasses of wine), I did find a pretty good article by Bill Tucker from EducationNext.org  that explains the radical new concept of the flipped classroom:

With teacher-created videos and interactive lessons, instruction that used to occur in class is now accessed at home, in advance of class. Class becomes the place to work through problems, advance concepts, and engage in collaborative learning.

The more I read about the model, the more I think it could be a great solution to today’s educational woes. And yet, I cannot help but think – isn’t this what instrumental music education has been doing for decades, now?

It’s true, we’ve only been doing it in the analog. We didn’t have fancy online lectures or pre-recorded videos. But, armed with a plastic clarinet and my trusty Standard of Excellence Book 1, I did all my rudimentary musical learning at home, from the comfort of my pink bedroom and with the undying support of Jazz, the family black labrador, who ran out of any room faster than you can say “Rubank” the second I started making my sweet, squawky clarinet music.

The instrumental music education model is essentially a trifold version of the sparkly new, trendily-named “Flipped Classroom” model. In the flipped model, students essentially do their homework at school, and receive their lectures at home. Content is learned at home, so that practice and application take place during school hours, under the watchful and guiding eye of the master teacher. This allows for students to engage meaningfully with the content, working with other students to construct understandings, and all the other warm, fuzzy educational jargon you’d like to add.

But wait — one look at my fifth grade (circa 1998) practice charts will tell you that us “band nerds” have been doing the same thing for years. Instead of learning musical content via YouTube lecture, though, students received weekly  in-school lessons to introduce and explain new concepts like fingerings, keys, time signatures, and rhythms. Then, we were expected to practice and reinforce these basic concepts at home throughout the week. Our homework (to practice) was essentially to learn our content. No, we didn’t watch a lecture video – we terrified our pets (and probably parents) with constant replications of the ideas and sounds we learned during our lesson. Step one, complete.

Step two, “engaging with content making meaning application working together peers constructing understanding [insert other buzzwords as desired]” took place during bi-weekly or tri-weekly band rehearsals. Our teacher was the grand overseer, finding ways for us to engage with the material in the real-world setting of ensemble performance. He or she chose pieces like “Aztec Sunrise” and “Engines of Resistance” for us to take the concepts we had learned at home (like playing softly or the ever-elusive counting eighth notes) and to practice and apply them as a cooperative classroom.

Tucker’s article from EducationNext.org cites specific benefits of flipped classrooms:

After flipping his classroom, Bergmann says he can more easily query individual students, probe for misconceptions around scientific concepts, and clear up incorrect notions.

Any public school band participant knows that the idea of correcting individual misunderstandings is pretty much the cornerstone of any given band rehearsal. Instructions were always tailored toward individual needs – often taking the form of comments such as, “Trombones, stop playing so loudly!” or “For the love of God, Trumpets, don’t rush the eighth notes!” (I’m not a brass hater, but let’s face it – even back then, the trumpets never paid attention).

In the article, Bergman states that, “I now have time to work individually with students. I talk to every student in every classroom every day.”

The story continues on to explain that

traditional classroom interactions are also flipped. Bergmann notes that he now spends more time with struggling students, who no longer give up on homework, but work through challenging problems in class. Advanced students have more freedom to learn independently.

Don’t get me wrong. This is truly great for both Bergmann and his students. But again, these miraculous educational concepts have been long in place by band directors since the early to mid twentieth century. Weekly small-group lessons traditionally group students by skill level, so that advanced students are constantly challenged, while struggling students receive the remediation and review they need without the pressure to perform at the level of more advanced peers. All students are brought together for the cooperative purpose of making music in the large ensemble, so that regardless of skill level, all members feel  a sense of ownership in the product of the band. One-on-one interaction with students occurs on a weekly, if not daily basis.

I think that the Flipped Classroom model of education represents a very forward-thinking and positive step toward a more effective, responsible education system, and I’m genuinely excited to see where it goes as its approaches and techniques continue to be refined. It is important, however, to remember that “school” does not just encompass the core academic subjects of science, mathematics and English. Perhaps if our educators and administrators were more open to analyzing and appreciating the approaches of the arts to the concepts of content-learning and skill-application, we might have realized the successful potential of the Flipped model long ago.

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One response to “Instrumental music and the “Flipped Classroom”

  1. …and there you have it…further proof that “everything old, is new again!” And yes, a squeak or two on the clarinet would send Jazz racing down the hallway! Well written.

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