We had a productive discussion today at the end of my upper division course (students with four semesters of music theory under their belts). Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve really struggled with how to improve discussion. I’ve done reading, met with master teachers, observed, and experimented. But, today really was the first where I think I found a good combination of strategies. There were three:
(1) Prepare them by having them do in-class low-stakes writing on a good prompt. I told them ahead of time this activity would happen today. And, completing in-class low-stakes writing is part of their class grade (10%). I grade it P/nP. Finally, I was transparent about why we’re doing this activity. “We’re doing this for you to organize your thoughts a little bit on this question.”
Today’s prompt was two-fold. We had read an expert’s take on the “extra burden” of a minor-mode sonata form, and we had noticed the uncanny feature of a returning Introduction in the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. I asked them to think about how these two issues might feed into each other (or not) to create the remarkable effect this movement has.
(2) Tell them that I want them to talk to each other and not me. Reassure them that I will help the class if they get stuck or venture into less productive territory. And tell them that when they talk to me instead of their colleagues. I’m going to look at the floor. I’m not being disrespectful; I’m just giving them a visual reminder to talk to each other. This idea came to me anecdotally from a dear friend who tried it out with success last week.
(3) Tell them to put a big checkmark on their informal writing after they open their mouth and say something. Participation is not required, but this activity had the effect of 10 out of 11 (I think–I spent most of the time looking at the floor, so I’m not sure) students contribute. I modified this idea from the strategy discussed in this blog post by Maryellen Weimar.
Their discussion was great. I have some new ideas about this piece based on where they went in their 10-minute discussion. And the entire class invested in this inquiry in a more meaningful way than passively listening.
I’m hoping I found the magic formula. Maybe it’s only going to work today, but I do hope it’ll work 9 out of 10 times.