Who makes the decisions? From Off the Beaten Path in Music

Who Makes the Decisions?

Have you ever thought about how many decisions you make in a day teaching music? How many plans do you make and options do you choose from regularly? One study found that teachers, on average, make 1,500 decisions every day. That works out to four decisions every minute! It’s no surprise educators are exhausted. (Check out this article, Battling Decision Fatigue, to learn more about this phenomenon.)The good news is, students can help make some of these decisions, and doing so will benefit them as much as you!

Who Makes the Decisions?

When students have autonomy in the classroom, the learning becomes more meaningful and long lasting. Research in Self-Determination Theory has proven this is true for students of all ages. Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is based on the same concepts. He found that human motivation stems from feeling a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose in what we do. By incorporating student decision making in the music classroom, we can help give them autonomy.

Make a List

Start by thinking about all the decisions you make daily or weekly in your classroom. It’s a good idea to write this down, as your list will probably be quite long! You may even choose to compile your list as you go through the day. Consider things like lesson planning, repertoire selection, assessment, seating charts – the list goes on! It’s okay if you forget some. You can always go back and add them later.

Once you’ve compiled your list, inspect it to determine which decisions only someone with your level of expertise can make. Put an X next to those decisions, or mark them in red, showing that they are decisions only you can make. Next, look for decisions the students could help you make. Place a – next to those decisions, or highlight them yellow. Finally, identify which decisions the students can take over, and make on their own. Highlight these decisions green, or put a + next to them. All the decisions on your list should fit into one of the three categories.

Looking at your list should give you a good idea of where your classroom is and where it can go in terms of student ownership. It’s likely there are several decisions only you can make – this is okay, and to be expected! As the teacher, the paid professional, it’s understandable some things only you can do. In my classroom, things like grades and finances fit into this category.

Hopefully, you also identified some decisions the students can help make, or take over completely. This is where you give them autonomy so they have ownership in the music room. These don’t have to be huge decisions – consider things like having students decide which warm-up or movement activity to do. They can help determine the concert performance order, or which section of a piece to work on in class that day.

Musical Decisions

Often when we make a list as described in the activity above, most of the items are procedural. However, we can also think about decisions that are musical in nature. How often in class are you making the musical decisions, and how often do students get to make musical decisions? In many ensemble classes, it’s normal for the teacher to make the musical decisions and share that information with the students. The ensemble members perform the piece as directed by the teacher. While this can result in outstanding performances, the result is only a recreation of music, as dictated by someone else. The students had little to do with the creative process.

“If we don’t give students the opportunity to make musical decisions in the classroom, they will never feel comfortable doing it on their own.”

What if, instead, the students could make some of these musical decisions themselves? Students could suggest different ways of interpreting the music. They could experiment with various expressive elements to see which best fit their vision for the piece. Some of their ideas will be similar to yours, some will be very different. Students may even suggest something you like better than your original plan – and that’s okay! Other suggestions may not work at all, and that’s a valuable part of the learning process. If we don’t give students the opportunity to make musical decisions in the classroom, they will never feel comfortable doing it on their own. My goal has always been for students to feel they are musicians, both inside and outside of my classroom. To do this, they must be able to take ownership of their learning and music-making.

Turn Your List Into Actions

As you go into the next week of teaching, think about ways students can make some of the decisions – both musical and otherwise. Start with something small and see where it goes. Ask students to decide which movements to do during a steady-beat activity, or ask them which piece they would like to rehearse first that day. Encourage students to make musical decisions for a melody they are working on in the method book or in class. Have students work up to making bigger decisions, knowing that you are positively impacting their learning and musicianship. Remind them that during the experimentation phase, there are no wrong answers! Sometimes we have to experience something we don’t like to help us determine what we do like. An added crescendo doesn’t sound right? Maybe the music needs a ritardando instead! It doesn’t matter what the first step is, as long as you start somewhere. The results are worth it!

Interested in learning more about student decision making in the music room? Check out these posts:

Pass the Baton: Empowering All Music Students

Have you checked out Pass the Baton: Empowering All Music Students yet? If not, what are you waiting for?

This book is a must read for teachers who want to empower students to become self-sufficient lifelong learners. It is a guidebook for creating a vibrant classroom where student learning is the first priority.”

-Kristin Gomez, MA, Director of Orchestras at Jefferson Middle School & Abingdon Elementary School

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