The Evolving Educator

Adaptation in a modern teacher

Category: EdTech

Teoria: a web-based theory & ear-training platform

As a teacher, I am always on the hunt for high-quality learning tools to share with my music students. Today, I’d like to write about the excellent, free website Teoria.com.

Teoria home page

Teoria is a platform for learning music theory & improving your ear. The website provides well-designed and thoughtful tutorials on concepts like reading scores, chord construction and harmonic analysis. These tutorials are accompanied by exercises which enable students to gain fluency with each concept. These exercises are highly-dynamic, allowing students to tweak the parameters of an activity to match their particular skill-level, goals and interests.

Though theory has a reputation for being stale and mathematical, I believe that all musicians should make efforts to develop their understanding of this domain. Theory lays bare the fact that music is both a shrewd science and a brilliant art. It elucidates the underlying structures of sound in a way that does not diminish, but rather, augments the art form’s beauty. The idea that music theory ‘limits’ your creativity is something I do not agree with. As the amazing musician Adam Neely reminds us, “Music theory is not prescriptive [i.e. a series of rules that must be followed]… but is a descriptive discipline which is one that describes or seeks to describe music on its own terms as it’s made in the real world, free of aesthetic or artistic judgment.” Theory is a tool for understanding musical phenomena, and, understanding these phenomena means we can emulate, utilize or modify them as we see fit during performance, composition or improvisation.

An example of a lesson

Now, theory aside, I believe that the greatest asset on Teoria is the ear-training exercises. Training your ear without a structured class or study buddy can be very difficult. It is hard to test yourself and rely solely on your ears when you are playing the instrument because you know precisely what notes are being played. Therefore, Teoria is an incredible tool for solo practice. The platform generates essentially endless ear-training exercises to aid you in becoming fluent with identifying intervals and chords as well as taking rhythmic and melodic dictation. The fact that it is browser-based makes it very easy to practice on-the-go or on a public or private computer. For students of mine who are serious about aural skill development, I cannot stress how useful this site is. As educational psychologists have noted, engaging in distributed practice (i.e. 5-10 minutes a day) can have remarkable benefits for learning. This is how I recommend using Teoria, for a few minutes a day while eating breakfast, waiting for the bus or taking a break from the hustle-bustle of life. I have been sharing this tool with students for years and will continue to do so, both in my 1:1 and group piano lessons.

Settings for 7th chord ear exercise

If you’re reading this & wish to try Teoria, please do so and let me know what you think in the comments!

-S

3D Printing Introduction

On Friday, September 27 I attended a workshop at UVic’s Digital Scholarship Commons on 3D Printing. I have never done this before, but am aware that it is an ever-growing domain in manufacturing and design. I took it mainly to become more well-versed in how the technology works, how it may be integrated in my future science lessons and to expand my imagination for what is capable with this tool.

Fused deposition modelling schematic.

Briefly, we learned about Fused Deposition Modelling in which minute layers of plastic are extruded and sliced to construct objects in 3D. The primary material is polylactic acid, a thermoplastic aliphatic polyester which is derived from renewable biomass (corn, sugar beet, etc.). This plastic is quite non-elastic and is prone to shatter and is therefore often reinforced during the printing process and with internal scaffolding called ‘infill’.

In the workshop, I designed two items. A 6-sided die and a keychain. The main platform we used was called TinkerCAD, a browser based computer-aided design program that allows you to easily construct objects and export them in a printable format. Having done some drafting in high school (thanks Mr. Hansen), I found the software to be very intuitive and easy to work with. In addition to this platform, we also accessed free 3D plans from Thingiverse, an online community for sharing schematics with others. The treble clef used in my keychain design posted below was taken from Thingiverse & modified with TinkerCAD.

My 3D Design in TinkerCAD

The final product

The workshop was fun, interesting and definitely got the wheels turning for potential applications in the classroom and at home. To give us a sense of scope, the workshop leader, Dani, told us about some incredible projects that involved using 3D printing including a group which developed a hyper-affordable, $200 3D-printed prosthetic hand for use in developing countries.

Finally, it did not go unnoticed to me that the workshop occurred on the same day as the Global Climate March. I felt a little bit conflicted attending it and felt compelled to investigate the environmental impacts of 3D printing. An article by Megan Nichols weighs the costs and benefits of 3D printing. According to her analysis, 3D printing consume 50-100 times more electricity than equivalent production methods. However, this impact can be offset by the notable benefits of using less material, producing items locally (thus reducing distribution emissions) and using recyclable thermoplastics in the future. I personally see the potential for 3D printing to reduce our environmental impact when used strategically to provide small-batch items when needed and limit unnecessary manufacture.

For any others interested in taking this 3D printing workshop, there are two other dates this fall (October 10th & 28th) and registration is available.

-S

First Google Hangout Experience

In order to get the ball rolling on our EdTech inquiry project, I met with Graham & Geoff via Google Hangouts on Sunday. It was very useful to have all the team members together, sharing thoughts and collaborating on a relatively latency-free platform. I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the pros & cons of the platform after my first use.

Pros:

  • free & browser-based: the fact that the platform is browser-based makes it much more convenient. Instead of having to worry about ensuring that everyone has a Skype client installed (and updated), it is very convenient to just use Firefox to access the service.
  • low latency: I didn’t find there was much lag or that we were talking over each other
  • potential to expand functionality: we were using the Google hangouts online app, although it appears that there is a browser extension as well. This may enhance its usefulness

Cons:

  • no whiteboard or media space: as far as I could tell, there is no shared whiteboard or media space. For some reason, I expected there would be some sort of work area where we could sketch or place text or images that everyone could access
  • plugins: we had to delay our meeting by about 15 minutes in order to get everybody updated on plugins. As such, it wasn’t as seamless as it could have been
  • can’t replace face-to-face: while it was convenient for us to be able to meet remotely, it was not quite the same as an in-person meeting. In terms of engagement and communication, I would place it somewhere between a 3-way call & an in-person meeting

Anyways, that’s just my $0.02 on Google Hangouts. Moving forward, I think I’ll try & use it a few more times. I’m curious about the G Suite and the various tools that exist for long-distance communication and conferencing. I have been thinking lately about a potential project in Socials or Science class where my class pairs up with a ‘sister class’ in a different country in order to collaborate on a project over vast space. Google Hangouts & other tools that are related may help, assuming the students and parents consent to its use.

-S

Piano Program Pilot Reflection

Having completed much of the mental leg-work and preparation for the group program, I finally had an opportunity to see it in action! With help from three of my friends – Sam, Alex & Sylvie – I did a live pilot of the piano program. The three learners & I met for 1 hour at a time over a two-week period to see how they were able to learn in this context.

Some footage of the pilot learning environment.

Overwhelmingly, it was a success! I thoroughly enjoyed teaching in this social environment & was always on my toes. The students really enjoyed it as well (as evidenced by their unanimous desire to continue with the program). After we completed our second session, the participants participated in a discussion and debriefing with me. Below, I’ll share some of the strengths and areas for improvement that were revealed in the pilot.

Program strengths:

  • Social – over the two sessions, the participants seemed to bond & get to know one another. They felt comfortable sharing their experiences, discussing challenges and celebrating the group’s successes. Moving forward, I’ll continue to find moments for sharing at the beginning, middle and end of the sessions. For instance, learners shared some of their favourite piano music with the group which was assigned as ‘listening homework’ to broaden everyone’s horizons.
  • Productive – as I hoped, the sessions were highly productive for the students. The individual time to work fostered focus. During circulation, I was able to correct errors and draw attention to aspects like technique, articulation and rhythm. Overall, the students were learning at a rapid rate, having passed through ~30 pages of the Faber Primer book & Adult Beginner Course in only 2 hours. Sight-reading of notes & rhythms was as good or better than what I see at this point in 1:1 students.
  • Challenging – learners reported feeling lots of self-efficacy. I was particularly happy to hear from them about their experiences with performance anxiety! They agreed that working solo was great for learning and polishing. In all the learners, however, they felt the familiar tense sensation of performance anxiety whenever I plugged into their keyboards and began to listen. I see this as a huge benefit – getting exposed to performance anxiety in bite-sized pieces. If I manage to frame these encounters with lots of positive reinforcement, balancing any tips with genuine praise for their progress, I believe we can extinguish or lessen the nerves they feel playing for others. This will make it easier for them to eventually perform their work publicly.
  • Encouraging – the learners also noted that they enjoyed having other beginners around. They could overhear little tips and comments I made to others and be reminded to integrate these practices into their own play. It also made them feel good to hear that others were having trouble with note recognition, rhythm reading and finger independence (issues that plague every musician).
  • Affordable – The director of the studio has agreed to charge only 50% of the typical rate for hour lessons in the group format. This is great for the learners.

Areas for Improvement:

  • Integrating Adequate Theory Practice – the group lessons are designed to ‘first teach the hands, then the head.’ I would prefer that students learn to play before being inundated with cumbersome and discouraging theory. That being said, I would like to find a way to dovetail this work with appropriate theory exercises, perhaps from the Faber series.
  • Tightening Up Explanations – when you have so many learners to inspire and guide in only an hour, it demands that really tighten up your explanations. Instead of having minutes to describe the function of a dotted rhythm, you may have only 30 seconds. I think this is a challenge that will really promote my growth as a musician and teacher by forcing me to truly comprehend the core of a concept in order to explain it effectively and efficiently.
  • Mixed-Experience Groups – while this pilot cohort are all beginners starting at the exact same level, it is conceivable that I will have groups in the future. I want to strongly consider how to have groups of mixed ability levels moving forward but still keep the communication, discussion and ensemble performance features.
  • Rewards System for Young Learners – my years tutoring at Sylvan taught me the potential value of token economies for promoting good habits in students. I envision, especially for <13 learners, implementing a system where students earn ‘quarter notes’ for meritorious behaviour (asking good questions, attention to detail, encouraging groupmates, etc.)
  • Use of Technology – could music-education games like Ningenius and StaffWars be used throughout the lesson to diversify the experience of the learners?

Anyways, overall, I am pleased with how the pilot went. Since my pilot group is going to continue with their lessons, I’ll get lots more opportunity to hone this and consider how this program qualitatively differs from my 1:1 pedagogy.

-S

Most Likely To Succeed Film Response

MLTS

In my Technology Innovation in Education (EdTech) class, we were tasked with watching Most Likely to Succeed, a 2015 documentary that focused on an innovative public school in San Diego: High Tech High. The principal subjects were two freshmen classes and their year-long experience with a project-based, interdisciplinary learning model. HTH has no bells, no subjects and no tenure (teachers are hired on single-year contracts and given complete liberty with their class).

The film was very well-produced, edited and shot. It provided a compelling and intimate window into the dynamics of each classroom and the experiences of teacher and student alike. Furthermore, it raised significant questions about the extent to which our current education system is dated and requires a fundamental overhaul to meet the demands of our information economy. Here are some of my major takeaways:

  • I agree that a shift towards teaching soft skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and resilience is crucial. This is what excites me most about BC’s New Curriculum.
  • I was impressed by the effectiveness of public exhibition as a model of assessment. This aligns with the expectations of the ‘real-world’ and teaches students to focus on application and accountability in their work.
  • There were some incredible demonstrations of teaching. For instance, I was fascinated and moved by the segments documenting the post-exhibition debriefs of the two students, Brian & Samantha. When the teacher managed to balance a critique of Brian’s stubborn attitude with an acknowledgement that he was visionary, I was very impressed. I particularly appreciated when he said, “We don’t want you to stop being Brian.” In the case of Samantha, it was incredible to hear her reflect on the development of her ‘voice’ over the term.
  • A criticism is the film’s generalization about the education ‘system.’ They seem to suggest that there is a ubiquitous, dated ‘Old Way’ which has persisted for 124+ years and is overdue for extinction. However, I see teachers continuing to innovate all the time, even within the confines of the industrial education system. I believe, in fact, that a balance of Old & New is what is best for students. This perspective is expanded on by John Selfridge, who posted a comment to a review of MLTS in the Wellesley Reporter

    The notion, so persistent in the film, that teachers should incorporate project-based learning and peer collaboration into their classroom environments is nothing new, and the suggestion that it is shows just how naive those who made and praise this film as visionary actually are. Sure, there are schools and teachers who are behind the curve–and there are many reasons for their being so–and many may benefit from seeing the film. But if more critics of education would spend more time in classrooms–which are diverse nationwide in their practices if nothing else–they would realize that there is no American educational system or model that we can either praise or criticize. Rather, we probably have thousands of schools that could serve as success stories all across our country and, therefore, models for others to emulate. We don’t have an “educational system” in crisis; there is no “educational system,” and there is no “crisis.” Instead, we have some failing schools, attended by kids from lower middle income or poor families, children who live in households where English isn’t spoken, or where substance and/or other forms of abuse are present. Whatever failures we have witnessed in our nation’s schools in recent decades, they are not the failures of any particular pedagogy; rather they are the consequences of the larger social problems we face. The sooner we realize that educational failures are social failures (each causing the other) and do something about it, the better positioned our children will be to take on the challenges of this, their century.

  • Finally, I love how this film made me consider the persistent question of breadth vs. depth. My personal experience with the lecture-based, content-driven high school model has perhaps constrained my imagination of what school can be. I invite disruptions to my expectations because I believe they will make me grow. The model of HTH appears to facilitate deep understanding, engagement and meaning-making in the students in a way that the traditional model may be unable to. As I proceed through this program, I imagine I will continue to grapple with breadth vs. depth question.

Anyways, that’s a few of my takeaways. I’d encourage anybody with an interest in education or youth to watch Most Likely To Succeed. Beyond a fantastic production value, the movie truly makes you think. Finally, I’d love to discuss any and all of my praises or criticisms in the comments below.

-Sasha

A Social Model of Piano Pedagogy

This June, I was fortunate to be hired as the new piano instructor at the South Island Studio (SIS). The director of the studio, Lonny Koch, floated the idea during my interview that we could develop a Group Lesson program at SIS.

My initial reaction was confusion and a little bit of dread. Having always enjoyed 1:1 lessons with my teachers, the idea of a group piano lesson seemed to be a pedagogic and logistical mess. How could a teacher effectively instruct more than one student at a time? However, Lonny & I registered for a primer course by a piano instructor named Daniel Patterson which provided us with a basic model for group lessons. We worked through those materials & considered how we could modify the program to match my teaching style, experience and musical worldview. In the end, we developed a system for 3:1 lessons which I will describe in brief below.

In essence, the experience I am trying to address with the group lessons will be familiar to anyone who has taken 1:1 lessons with an expert: the experience of trying to realize a teacher’s suggestion as they watch. For instance, while I was taking lessons in jazz piano this summer, I found myself wishing I could enter into a private practice ‘bubble’ to work through a suggestion from my teacher. He might ask that I perform a passage in a certain way, or practice a lick in twelve keys. Having him watch over me created a sense of performance anxiety and doubt which clouded my thought and slowed my progress. This is what I am trying to address.

If you’re wondering about the format, refer to the diagram I’ve included below. Everyone has their own digital keyboard and is practising with headphones while I circulate to give feedback and guide your progress. Having a private sonic space to work in allows you to hone and develop your music at your own pace & without the anxiety of having a teacher hover over you. Furthermore, it builds self-sufficiency and sight-reading ability by encouraging you to develop your own inner-teacher. Throughout the lesson, we remove our headphones and come together to have discussions, learn new concepts and play aloud as an ensemble.

Schematic diagram of the proposed learning space.

Moving forward, I have four principle goals for the program:

1. To emphasize playing first and foremost. Teaching the hands more than the head, at least initially.
2. To create a supportive, social, fun environment in which to learn piano, collaborate and get excited about the instrument with other beginners.
3. To make it more accessible by charging a significantly lower hourly rate.
4. To build self-efficacy & teach students how to practice.

This section of my website, found under the Inquiry >> Group Piano Lessons Program tab, will document my experience of developing and implementing group piano lessons at SIS.

-S

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