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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Assessing Prior Knowledge in General Music

One of the most common questions I get these days is some variation on this one: "I'm starting a new job and don't know what they learned with their previous teacher- how do I assess where they are right now so I can plan my lessons?" It's a great question that puts the students front and center in the curriculum planning process- here is how I go about assessing prior knowledge when I am meeting new students.

The short answer is this: I don't start off by assessing prior knowledge before deciding what to teach. Assessing student understanding is an ongoing process for me. I plan out the concepts I expect to teach in each grade level based on my research and experience of what is developmentally appropriate (and other factors such as available class time/ frequency) and then I am constantly looking at student understanding and adjusting my teaching (regardless of how long I've known them).

Put differently, I don't decide what I think they can or should learn based on what they can do now. I have in mind already what they can and should learn and then use my developing understanding of their current knowledge, skills, and background to inform how I get them there. That doesn't mean I never change my mind about which concepts I should be teaching, especially when I am starting in a school environment that is completely different from my past experience (like I did in my current position). But even moving between drastically different schools, I have found my sequencing and expectations to be appropriate across the board for the most part- the difference is in how they learn most effectively and how they demonstrate their understanding as well.

So here's how this approach works out in concrete practice for me.

Start with a Plan, but Make No Assumptions
I jump right in when I start in a new position (or meet a new student coming into our school). I have a long-range plan in mind based on allotted class time etc, and I start teaching them as if I had taught them the previous year's content as well. I'm constantly reviewing anyway, especially when it comes to those fundamental skills we're building on year after year like rhythm and pitch, so I come in with 5th grade lessons that include syncopation, for example, along with quarter and paired eighth notes. I model and practice from the ground up, and adjust how much time we spend on it based on how quickly they pick it up.

Here's the thing: if your expectations are developmentally-appropriate and your curriculum is properly sequenced, older students will catch up quickly to fill in any "holes" they may have. Trying to teach dotted half notes and realize they don't know half notes yet? They can pick up both in the same lesson- you don't need to take them back to your normal sequencing of lessons to introduce half notes.

Never Assign Blame
I am always careful not to assign blame when I am working with new students, finding places where I need to "catch students up", and adjusting my lessons. Students pick up on my mentality pretty quickly, and if they get the sense that I'm looking down on their previous teacher, prior music education experience, or their musical experiences outside school, it will be a lot harder to develop a positive relationship with them. The reality is I have no way of knowing why they can't perform a certain task or answer a certain question. They may have actually learned it already- maybe I'm presenting it a different way than they're used to, using different vocabulary, or they're just having an off day (which I wouldn't pick up on if I don't know them well yet). This is why I don't think starting off with lessons that are below your expectations and "working up", or giving out pre-tests or otherwise assessing their understanding and then choosing your starting point is a good idea. You'll probably thinking they're further behind than they actually are because of all those other factors.

Rather than "I can't believe you can't do this", it's "this is our goal, here's what we need to do to get there"

Present the End Goal, Break It Down, and Get Them There
Go ahead and throw it out there- if you've decided they should be able to compose melodies using pentatonic solfege, then put that out there for them. If they look at you like you've got three heads, break it down. Maybe instead of notating it by hand, they can use computer software to let them focus on creating instead of worrying about writing too. Or take them through the writing process as a class instead of working independently. Maybe they can each write an 8-beat melodic phrase instead of expecting 8 measures. Present the task, listen to their questions, break it down, and help them achieve success. Older students won't get bored with review or think it's too babyish if they see what they're working towards.

In order for this approach to work, there are a few key elements that have to be in place:
  • an understanding of what is developmentally-appropriate
  • an ability to discern student understanding and adjust my teaching
  • a clear sense of which concepts/ skills are most important for students to learn
  • a willingness to constantly self-reflect and adjust my approach when students don't get it

These things come with experience- the longer I teach the better I am able to think on feet and adjust my teaching in the moment. But even beginning teachers can implement this approach by arming themselves with 1) a plan and 2) an understanding of students. I recommend two resources as key starting points if you want to delve into this further- my approach to long-range planning, and resources for responding to diverse student needs. If all of this feels intimidating or overwhelming, I encourage you to spend some time exploring the resources below- it's really all about a shift in understanding in each of these areas.

I still remember the first time I passed out a composition worksheet to my 5th graders when I first started in my current position. I thought I was starting with something pretty basic- just a 2-measure rhythm with a rhythm bank- and I explained everything step by step before passing out papers and sending them off. I started walking around the room and realized nobody had a clue what to do or how to start. At first I was taken aback and a little offended thinking they just hadn't paid close enough attention to my obviously-well-crafted explanation of the assignment. Then I paused. I had everyone stop working and I asked them what they were confused about. Eventually it came down to this: they had never seen a composition assignment specifically laid out in this way. We came back together, and I did one in front of them, talking through my thought process out loud. Then we did one together as a class. Once they had a chance to experience the process, suddenly the assignment became much easier and less intimidating!

Maybe in the first year in a new position, your oldest grades won't get to everything you hope or expect. Developing relationships with your oldest grades is going to be tough anyway, and it takes time for you to get to know how they learn and for them to adjust to how you run your classroom. That's OK. Keep in mind which concepts are the highest priority, and give yourself permission to take a few years to learn how each student learns best. Keep putting the end goal out there, and keep trying new approaches to get them there- if your sequencing is appropriate, then it's all just a matter of figuring out how to teach the students in front of you.

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