For the final week of our Psychology & Sociology class, we were mostly given the time to write our final paper. There were no assigned readings, just a Live Lecture on the topics covered this term and a Live Classroom to discuss the applications in our classroom of the prompt for our paper. The main thrust of the paper is discussing one or more of the psychological/sociological concepts from the course and how it might reconceptualize our pedagogy. The first concept that came to my mind was self-determination theory from Week 4: Identity, Community, and Music Making, but I also thought about digging more into constructionism, the theoretical framework I used in my research proposal for our Introduction to Research class. I ended up settling on constructionism, but I plan on reading more into self-determination theory during my “Spring Break” next week.
Prompt: For your final assignment in the course, you will write an extended paper in which you will discuss how one or more of the psychological and/or sociological concepts we learned about in this course might be applied to a reconceptualization of your own pedagogical approach. The purpose of the assignment is for you to demonstrate an in-depth understanding of one or more psychological or sociological topics, as well as to apply literature on your selected topic to a critical analysis of your teaching practice. Papers should be about 2500 words, not including references
In your paper, you should do the following:
Select a theory, perspective, or topic that we studied this semester. If you would like to select a psychological or sociological topic that was outside the scope of the course, consult your facilitator.
Provide an explanation of the most important concepts related to your topic or theory.
Briefly review some of the most important research that addresses your topic, or that uses your theory as a theoretical framework. Be sure to include research from beyond music education.
Concentrating on your specific topic, theory, or perspective, provide the reader with a depiction of teaching and learning in your classroom. Include an explanation of your teaching context, a description of the students, and a description of your teaching practices.
Based on the literature you reviewed, and your own reflections on teaching and learning in your classroom, discuss how you might rethink your approaches to music teaching. This section (as well as the remainder of the paper) needs to be explicitly connected to scholarly literature.
Constructionism as a Lens for Learning Music
Several different researchers have developed theories for how people learn, which influence how educators design instruction. Cooper (1993) traced theories that have influenced instructional design from behaviorism to cognitivism to constructivism (p. 12). Behaviorism and cognitivism developed from objectivism, a theory that learning occurs through experiences and accurate representations of experience (Applefield, Huber, & Moallem, 2001, p. 36). Behaviorists such as Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, Edward Thorndike, and Burrhus Skinner believed people demonstrate learning through observable changes in behavior (McInerney & Putwain, 2017, pp. 132–134). Cognitivists measure learning by examining how cognitive systems in the brain process information (Applefield et al., 2001, pp. 36–37). Constructivists conceived of knowledge structures learners constructed as they made meaning of experiences, and the field developed through the work of progressive educators such as John Dewey and researchers including Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner (p. 36). Papert (1991), a colleague of Piaget, extended constructivism with his own theory of constructionism: learning is a reconstruction of knowledge and is most effective when the learner constructs a meaningful product (p. 1). Used as a lens for designing music instruction, constructionism can guide music educators to practices that result in students learning music effectively.
To understand how constructionism is an extension of constructivism, one must first have a better understanding of the latter. There are several different views within constructivism of how learners construct knowledge. Piaget believed learners constructed meaning through several interacting processes: accommodation, adaptation, assimilation, and equilibrium (McInerney & Putwain, 2017, p. 7). Each of Piaget’s processes involved learners relating new experiences to previously constructed meanings and incorporating them into their cognitive structure (pp. 92–94). Vygotsky and others saw knowledge construction occurring socially and collaboratively with others (Applefield et al., 2001, pp. 37–38; McInerney & Putwain, 2017, pp. 109–110). Bruner posited learners construct knowledge through conceptualization, organizing their environment by categorizing new information experience into meaningful units (pp. 113–114).
Progressive educators such as John Dewey advocated for the application of constructivist theories to education. Aligned with the constructivist idea that learners construct meaning through experience, Dewey (1902) called for curricula to allow students to relate new information to prior experiences (p. 13). Students should construct knowledge by physically interacting with objects (Dewey, 2009, pp. 217–218). Dewey’s advocacy has led to the modern implementations of models such as problem-based learning and maker education (Socol, Moran, & Ratliff, 2018, p. 158).
Much of the theory of constructionism aligns with constructivist ideas. At its core, constructionism is “learning by making” (Papert, 1991b, p. 1). Papert said constructivism shares the belief that learning is the “building of knowledge structures” regardless of the circumstances in which the construction occurs, but constructionism adds the belief that learning best occurs when the learner is “consciously engaged in constructing a public entity” (p. 1). Wilensky (1991) clarified the construction of a public entity to mean interacting with concrete as opposed to abstract objects (p. 194). Papert (1991b) pointed out that if one believes constructionism to be more effective than instructionism, constructing knowledge as more effective than transmitting knowledge, then it would be impossible for any person to tell another about constructionism; the only way to truly understand constructionism is to engage in experiences that help a person construct knowledge (pp. 1–2). Learning is active, an action one does, not passive, something one receives (Falbel, 1991, p. 30)
Examining the beliefs of both Piaget and Papert reveals similarities and differences between theories of constructivism and constructionism. Ackermann (1991) discussed similarities and differences between Piaget and Papert from personal experiences with both researchers. She described them both as constructivists—viewing children as builders of knowledge and external realities—and developmentalists—having an incremental view of cognitive development (p. 272). Both Piaget and Papert used the process of adaptation—maintaining balance between accommodation and assimilation, Piaget’s processes of modifying or integrating elements into the cognitive structure, respectively—to define intelligence (p. 272). The construction of internal stability interested Piaget; whereas the dynamics of change interested Papert (p. 272). Piaget emphasized assimilation and what was needed to maintain the organization and structure of the cognitive system (p. 272). In contrast, Papert viewed intelligence as situated knowledge—constructed in a specific context—and encouraged learners to become one with the phenomenon under study (pp. 270, 272).
Researchers have viewed constructionism in juxtaposition against other theories of learning. Contrasting concrete and abstract objects, Wilensky (1991) described concreteness as the quality of a person’s relationship with their constructed object (p. 198). In constructionist learning, people develop meaningful relationships by constructing objects in the world, externalizing their knowledge (p. 202; Resnick, 1991, p. 151). Turkle and Papert (1991) related the contrast between concreteness and abstractness to soft and hard approaches to learning, respectively (pp. 166–168). A hard approach to learning uses abstract thinking of objects from a distance, preferred by Piaget; a soft approach uses more concrete forms of reasoning by developing a close relationship with objects (p. 166). Because theorists like Piaget valued abstract and logical thought as the pinnacle of cognitive development, researchers often view concrete reasoning and soft approaches as inferior (p. 168). Segall (1991) and Resnick (1991) encouraged educators to acknowledge that children may approach subjects with diverse thinking styles, constructing knowledge in different ways, and educators ought to not privilege certain approaches over others (pp. 235–236; pp. 156–158).
Research into constructionism began in 1985 with the work of Papert’s Epistemology and Learning Research Group, a part of The Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Harel & Papert, 1991a, p. ix). Much of their research occurred through instructional software design projects (ISDP) where students designed software for a variety of different purposes (Harel & Papert, 1991b, pp. 43–48). The main project they discussed involved students designing software using the programming language Logo to teach users about fractions (pp. 48–49). They found their subjects had developed a personal conception of fractions; appropriated the project by demonstrating engagement, individuality, and creativity; adopted rhythms of work that contributed to completing the project creatively; and developed metacognitive awareness by finding problems, being flexible with designs, plans and solutions, controlling distractions and anxiety, and practicing self-evaluation and reflection (pp. 60–69).
Kafai and Harel (1991) expanded the project to incorporate fifth grade students consulting fourth grade students who were designing software for third graders (p. 111). Their case studies demonstrated how ISDP had facilitated individual construction of knowledge in multifaceted ways through social interaction (pp. 138–139).
Other researchers in Papert’s group focused on learning through design and diversity. Resnick and Ocko (1991) demonstrated that students make deep connections with mathematical and scientific concepts by being given freedom to create objects that are meaningful to themselves and others around them (p. 144). Resnick (1991) discovered that projects with personal meaning to learners come from a diversity of project themes, working styles, and entry paths (pp. 156–158).
Research pertaining to the theory of constructionism continues today. Wagh, Cook-Witt, and Wilensky (2017) found connections between the constructionist concept of “tinkering with code” and practices of inquiry-based science (pp. 636–637). Peppler (2010) explored how media arts offer ways for students to situate knowledge within their own cultures (pp. 2119–2120). Halverson and Sheridan (2014) shared the belief that art-making is a representational domain, therefore it fits in the constructionist view of learning (p. 498). While the construction of objects may be central to the arts, Peppler (2010) found constructionism to have had little influence on the arts or arts education (p. 2122).
Teaching and Learning Through the Lens of Constructionism
Currently, I am a substitute teacher in the Charlottesville City and Albemarle County Public Schools and looking for music education jobs in central Virginia. Prior to moving to Virginia in the summer of 2018, I taught in Ankeny, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. In Ankeny, I was part of a six-person professional learning community (PLC) of band directors providing instrumental music to students in grades 6–12 across three buildings in our North feeder system. Each director had at least one concert and one jazz ensemble in addition to a studio of roughly 120 students. We scheduled classes so the PLC could be present in every rehearsal—pulling individual or small groups of students out for lessons once every 6–8 school days. I was responsible for the 10th-grade Symphonic Band, the first of three high school jazz bands, 6–12th grade low brass lessons, and a non-AP music theory course. I also co-directed the marching band and pep band with my colleague at the high school.
Our PLC developed a standards-referenced curriculum for delivering instruction through rehearsals and lessons that emphasized student performance of idiomatic literature. In a standards-referenced system, teachers grade students on academic proficiency alone, but students advance through grade levels regardless of their level of proficiency (Marzano, 2010). Our standards detailed specific elements of rhythmic, tonal, expressive, and ensemble literacies for each instrument at each grade level (Hable, 2017c). Students performed summative assessments every six weeks using etudes from instrument-specific method books that demonstrated a variety of standards (Hable, 2017a). Teachers evaluated assessments using proficiency scales and used assessment data to conduct tests for inter-rater reliability and to respond to students who did not demonstrate proficiency (Hable, 2017b, 2017d).
Students in Ankeny
During the 2017–2018 school year, 620 students enrolled in 6–12th grade band in Ankeny’s North feeder system. The certified enrollment for Ankeny in 2018 was 11,977.02 students (Ankeny Community School District, n.d.). For the 2017–2018 school year, the Ankeny student demographics were 90.82% White, 2.64% Hispanic, 1.49% African American, 2.66% Asian, 0.12% American Indian/Alaska Native, 0.06% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and 0.64% Other (Ankeny Community School District, n.d.). The graduation rate for the 2016–2017 school year was 96.32% with a 7–12th grade dropout rate of 0.58% (Ankeny Community School District, n.d.). Ankeny has ten K-5 elementary schools, two 6-7 middle schools, two 8-9 middle schools, and two 10-12 high schools, divided in half into North and South feeder systems.
Students in Ankeny take general music in kindergarten through fifth grade. Beginning in fifth grade, students can elect to take band which meets twice per week before school with small group lessons occurring once every six school days. In 6–8th grade, students can elect to take band and/or choir which meets every other day opposite study hall or the opposite music elective. In 9–12th grade, students can elect to take band and/or choir daily, but choosing to do both eliminates the option for any additional electives in ninth grade. Jazz band and show choir are extracurricular opportunities that begin in seventh and eighth grade, respectively. Marching band is a required component of 9–12th grade band. At the high school, students also have the option of taking Music Fundamentals—a non-AP music theory course—or AP Music Theory. There are no options for orchestra or non-traditional music education courses in Ankeny.
Because our PLC delivered instruction across grades 6–12 together, many of our teaching practices were the same. We would select literature for our ensembles that taught concepts related to our prioritized standards and regularly perform that literature for the public. Our PLC decided to use takadimi to teach rhythmic literacy and conversational solfege to teach tonal literacy (Hoffmann, Pelto, & White, 1996; Feierabend, 2000). Teachers addressed elements of expressive and ensemble literacy in rehearsals and lessons using repertoire. We specifically selected method books for each instrument at each grade level to address concepts we wanted students to know, understand, and be able to demonstrate.
In Music Fundamentals, there was not a curriculum guide or set standards dictating what content I needed to cover in the course. Instead, I would have conversations with students about what they wanted from the class. Most students were in Music Fundamentals as preparation for AP Music Theory. A handful of students would take the course to have a low-pressure way of learning more about what was happening in their band and/or choir classes. Each year there were always a few non-traditional students who had learned to read music outside of school or did not read notated Western music. This freedom allowed us to set individual goals to explore music together, moving towards students’ desired outcomes.
Looking at these practices through the lens of constructionism, both elements meet the basic “learning by making” that Papert (1991b) posited (p. 1). Students in ensembles were exploring literature to construct knowledge about literacies we had identified. Music Fundamentals students were constructing knowledge by studying Kostka and Payne (2008), the text selected during the previous curriculum review for both music theory courses, and composing music following the rules of tonal harmony. Because teachers selected the repertoire being studied, I do not think our students moved beyond a basic construction of knowledge by making music. Students did not likely situate their constructed knowledge in the contexts of their lives outside of my courses (Ackermann, 1991, p. 270). Other than enjoying the emotions they experienced performing certain literature, I do not believe students developed a meaningful relationship with the knowledge they constructed from performance (Wilensky, 1991; Resnick, 1991). Because we focused on students demonstrating the standards our PLC had identified, I am afraid we as teachers privileged the approaches our students took to constructing that knowledge (Segall, 1991; Resnick, 1991). We practiced instructionism to transmit knowledge to our students (Papert, 1991, p. 1).
Rethinking Approaches to Music Teaching
Looking through the lens of constructionism, I believe there are better ways I can help future students construct knowledge through developing close relationships with concrete objects they make. Topics in music education can be quite abstract to students: how does one make a characteristic tone or interpret this articulation or expression? By providing students with the autonomy to explore their instruments, I can provide them with means to make abstract musical concepts more concrete. As an example, the dynamic pianolikely begins as an abstract concept to a student. How do I play soft? What does it feel like to sustain and control that dynamic? How can I manipulate my volume? By working with students as they explore their abilities to create sound on their instrument, I can help them construct knowledge using approaches that are familiar to them. Students in music need time to explore their instruments like students in ISDP took time to design software to teach fractions (Harel & Papert, 1991b). These approaches can still work in the ensemble setting, both by allowing students to explore literature I have chosen, as well as by providing opportunities for students to choose literature which interests them. In Music Fundamentals, I should allow students to explore literature which interests them in order to help them construct knowledge. Constructionism as a theory of learning can inform my practice by helping me recognize my students need the time and space to construct knowledge through making music.
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