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Independent Learners in our Groups? Yes Absolutely!

group piano classses Jan 29, 2021

When I first started teaching group piano, I did lots of research about what the recognised benefits are. This was mainly because I, like so many people, had only ever experienced individual instruction when it comes to piano learning, and I needed to convince myself, as well as all the families that I would hopefully bring into my groups, that there were benefits that outweighed private lessons (beyond just the cost, because focusing on that creates problems with the perceived value of your lessons).

One benefit that I was reticent to shout out about was that group learners develop independence.

To me, this said that group learners are left to their own devices, as the teacher cannot possibly attend to all of them at the same time. This was not something that I saw as a benefit.

But I realise now that I had misunderstood.

And that actually, this opportunity for children to develop their independent learning skills, is one that is not only beneficial, it is imperative for all areas of their learning. And, with certain elements in place, we have a wonderful chance to nurture it right in our group piano classes!

My realisation has come from the piecing together of a few different strands of thinking and experiences, the two main ones being as a mum:

The first is from the very earliest years of a child's life. I have three children, and with each one, I developed my understanding of the importance of giving them the respect and trust needed for them to build their own sense of self. From my first, who spent his first year with me constantly by his side, entertaining him, passing the toy to him that was just out of reach, to my third who has benefited from my understanding about respecting that they are capable and independent little people (I did a lot of reading of Janet Lansbury's ideas - "When we perceive our infants as capable, intelligent, responsive people ready to participate in life, initiate activity, receive and return our efforts to communicate with them, then we find that they are all of those things." - website link here).

Fast forward a few years and, in the midst of a pandemic, homeschooling has, again, taught me so much about this need for independent learning skills. As parents, we too often think that the result, the outcome, the product is what matters - we help them to make sure the answers they are submitting are correct without realising that it is the process by which they come to those answers that is what is important. The understanding of that process.

Once they return back to school, they won't have us sitting there beside them. (By the way this is a struggle I am having right now, rather than pinning it on all mothers - the balance needed when it comes to both supporting but also allowing for independence, mistakes and age-appropriate responses!).

And this is where independent learning becomes a learning characteristic that we need and want our children to develop. 

What are Independent Learning Skills?

It is fairly self explanatory what independent learning skills are, based around the ability for a child to find the tools to work things out, to problem solve, to rely on oneself and believe in oneself that they are equipped to learn, to understand and to progress!

And it is what these skills lead to, that offer skills for life such as self-belief, curiosity, critical thinking, and motivation.

Someone who has not developed these skills might look to an adult for "answers", or might ask for help without really trying to tackle the problem for themselves. 

But this aspect of not really trying for oneself is only a part of the problem or lost opportunity that comes from not developing these skills of independence. The sense of self, of belief that one can contribute, is valued, is what independent learning skills lead to.

Plus, if our teaching and learning is through tasks that have "right" or "wrong" answers, like so much of it is, we are missing out on opportunities to develop a child's love of learning, curiosity and intrinsic motivation, which all go hand in hand with independent learning.

So how does group piano nurture independent learning skills, and why should we be taking every opportunity to let our families, and potential families, know that it does?

I am a firm believer that music learning develops many learning characteristics; independence is one that can be missed off the list though (I am thinking of private instruction where the only real opportunity for independence is in home practice).

But when it comes to those aspects mentioned above, such as the development of curiosity, of intrinsic motivation and of a love of learning, music is incredibly powerful. It has a marvellous mix of open and closed learning opportunities, of creative thinking with fixed concepts.

Here are the ways that I ensure KeyNotes lessons develop independent learning skills:

Differentiation through Challenges

I like to talk about differentiation A LOT! It is something that is essential to any group learning setting, but the way in which we manage differentiation in our lessons, not only has the benefit of ensuring that each learner is provided with individualised tasks or inputs, but that also nurtures their independent learning skills, their sense of being responsible for their own progress, their motivation and determination to move onto a more difficult challenge.

Three or four different versions of the piece we are working on provides challenges that children can choose to work towards. They are developing the sense that knowledge, learning and skills aren't things that are presented as a "finished" product, but things that constantly evolve, and grow and to a large extent, depend on their own mindset to allow for that growth. 

They are also able to bring in another factor of independent learning and that is the ability to self-assess. With the understanding of the task at hand, and the possibilities to up-level it, they can consider what they are doing well and what they need to work on, independently!

Open-ended Learning

The subjective nature of music means that we can allow children to express their thoughts without needing to have a "right" or "wrong" response. We can ask questions, we can set tasks, and we can create opportunities that allow for deeper thinking, individual opinions. We can value each child's response and their feelings around music, validating their place in the learning context. What a wonderful opportunity that is! 

So I tend to do this through listening tasks, and although I will sometimes asked closed questions such as, "describe the tempo" I will never tell a child that they are wrong in their answer. I will hear lots of different answers and discuss how interesting it is that we all hear it differently. Then we might go on to discuss the intention of the composer (for this reason, we mainly listen to programmatic music!) and how the music reflects that intention.

Creative Tasks

Creative tasks also lend themselves very well to developing independent learning skills. Have you ever tried to compose with a class and have one or two children completely freeze because they find it impossible to not be told exactly what to play? And when they tell me they don't know what to do, I will give them just enough to make a start but reassure them that they can't go wrong as it is their very own piece of music. And although I might suggest they end on the tonic, I will give little else in the way of feedback once they are performing their final version, because whatever they have done is fabulous… Because they did it all by themselves. You can't get more independent than that! It is the process of composing that is of true value when it comes to developing their learning characteristics.

Let them be Successful

Ensuring there are opportunities for each child to be successful, no matter what that means for them individually, will help enormously when it comes to their enthusiasm for independence. Because this sets them on the path of self-confidence, a can-do attitude, positive self-efficacy. Checking in that you have made sure everyone has had that, "Yes, I did it!" moment, is imperative.

Independent Practice During Lessons

Finally, I come to the part that I thought independent learning actually meant, and thought parents would be put off by. But actually, in order to implement many of the aspects outlined above, we need them to have them practicing as part of our lesson. Although my curriculum is collaborative, they all learning the same piece at the same time (albeit varying versions as befits their individual progress), I have my students wear headphones for a portion of the lesson. They are then able to make their mistakes (very important for independent learning), work on those mistakes (even more important), master the piece, move onto a more difficult version, and generally be independent (as the teacher, I go around and give feedback/help as needed, so I am not completely leaving them to it!).

This is a reason that I don't have parents in my in-person lessons. Parents so often don't like to allow for mistakes (as mentioned above - we are so often after the correct result rather than allowing the process), and when I have had parents in the room I have seen them physically moving their child's hands into the right place, without any explanation of how to find the right place themselves (just as one example).

When it comes to online lessons however, I rely on parents! But I have to hope that they are respectful of the process whilst still offering the right level of support… I know, I am asking a lot, but they are all doing amazingly!

"I'm Done!" or "I Need Help!"

Ever tried to manage a classroom full of children insisting that they are "done" or "need help" after being at the keyboards for only minutes? I can tell you, it's exhausting! Running around attending to children who are, in fact, not done at all! Nurturing an environment where there is always a next step (and you have modelled what they are before sending them to the keyboards) allows for a more calm environment where you are serenely circulating and giving timely feedback as appropriate rather than being called upon from every which direction. Believe me, even with all this set up, I still have the regular "I'm done!"s or "I need help!"s, but I am very clear on making sure they have definitely considered all the steps that we talked about in the starter. Plus I know who they are, so I will likely respond with, "I will be with you in a moment", giving them some time to problem solve themselves.

Age Appropriateness

We once had a chat in our KeyNotes Music teachers group about how young teachers would go when it comes to our Little KeyNotes program (designed for ages 4-5). And one teacher hit the nail on the head… It's not down to age, but to levels of independence. That's not to say that, if a four year old joins my class but finds it very difficult to be independent, I will turn them away for not being at an appropriate developmental stage. Because I have seen this many times, and with the right set-up in your classes, they develop it over a few classes - in their first lesson coming up to you every other minute to ask a question, but by the fourth or fifth lesson, able to work things out for themselves. Having said that, there is much more likelihood that a 4-year old will be able to learn this than a 3-year old.

But it is not always down to age. Some of it is down to their prior experience. But it is one to consider nevertheless.

Well… I feel like I could talk/write for hours on this subject, but it has already turned into quite the essay so I will stop here!

In the meantime, back to homeschooling my own children; I have to try and find a way of getting my No. 3 to remember her capital letters without simply reminding her at every full stop! So yes I realise there is a fine line and the balance is tricky to achieve.

However I hope I have managed to explain why groups are so good for independent learning, what independent learning skills actually are, and how we can make sure we are nurturing them in our group classes!

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