Part Six: Reflective Partnership Teaching

From ” Times Have Changed”

by Merlin B. Thompson

How can music teachers communicate successful learning processes with their students? What sort of engagement is most effective? How might this communicative process differ from previous generations of music teachers? What has changed?

This essay is the sixth in a series devoted to the theme: Times have Changed. In this essay, I demonstrate how teachers may incorporate interactive communication in their teaching approach through Reflective Partnership Teaching. As always, my goal is to assist teachers as they respond to students in today’s music teaching context.

Communication – How music teachers’ communicate with their students is something that matters a great deal. What students achieve, how they participate in music lessons, what students do as followup at home, what teachers understand of their students, how teachers pass on skills and knowledge – all are products that link with communication. To get a sense of what effective communication entails, it may be useful to do some backtracking.

For several centuries, music teachers have worked within the one-on-one structure of master/apprentice teaching wherein teachers’ primary responsibility with communication is to pass on music skills and knowledge in the most efficient way possible. Typical master/apprentice communication might be described as a one-way street where information flows from knowledgeable teachers to less-knowledgeable students. Teachers determine linear developmental processes and set out goals for students, making sure to provide students with the right information at the right time. With students conditioned to look to their teachers to make decisions, teachers necessarily do a lot of talking, take control of students’ journey, and minimize the potential for errors or detours. 

Reflective Partnership Teaching – In contrast to the one-way street of master/apprentice teaching, Reflective Partnership Teaching is modelled after a two-way street of collaborative teacher/student interaction wherein teachers and students’ actively share their reflections and awareness with each other. Of course, teachers continue to pass on music skills and knowledge – that’s part of their job. However, two-way street communication means teachers also work diligently to promote students’ reflective participation in age-appropriate and level-appropriate ways. Reflective Partnership teachers facilitate three essential steps: 1. Get the background, 2. Explore current perspectives, and 3. Determine future actions.

In Step 1: Get the background, teachers invite students to share reflections on aspects of their home practice. Whether students have concerns or confidence is important for teachers to know about. Students’ home practice is where the bulk of students’ development takes place and during a week of practicing, lots can happen – achievement, setback, followthrough, forgot-to-do. It makes sense for teachers to actually find out rather than assume what transpired at home since the last lesson.

In the next step: Explore current perspectives, teachers invite students to communicate their pre-performance goals and post-performance evaluations throughout their music lesson. With pre-performance goals, students confirm their readiness or unpreparedness to follow through on their home practice. Prior to performance, when students indicate they’re completely prepared, everyone may anticipate a confident performance. When students indicate they’re not well-prepared, teachers may offer encouragement with statements like “Let’s see how things turn out” or “Give it your best shot”. 

With post-performance evaluations, students demonstrate their level of musical awareness and teachers affirm how much they value students’ reflective input no matter how brief. When students point out the successes in their performances, this step takes the pressure off teachers to find glowing things to say about students. When students point out their failures, they open the door for teachers to assist with resolving rather than identifying failures. When students indicate they’re not sure what’s going on, they open the door for teachers to offer encouragement with statements like “Thanks for that, I see where you’re coming from” or to assure students they’re not alone with statements like “That’s what you’ve got me for”.

In the final step: Determine future actions, teachers and students work together (brainstorm) to determine meaningful followup. Through this collaborative reflective process, teachers assist students with building and exercising their own toolkit of effective strategies for musical development. In this step, it’s not about teachers dictating to students how to continue their musical journey; it’s about teachers collaborating with students so that students gain their own understanding of strategies they may rely on and when those strategies are most effective. This means teachers reinforce effective strategies that students come up with on their own – and additionally – teachers also broaden students’ viewpoints with strategies that students cannot find on their own. 

Benefits – Reflective Partnership Teaching helps teachers acquire a much more accurate picture of students’ musical journey. Because Reflective Partnership teachers understand where their students are coming from and they welcome their students’ reflective contributions, the combination of teachers’ and students’ cumulative thoughts will always outrank what teachers might accomplish on their own. 

For students, there are both musical and personal benefits of Reflective Partnership Teaching. When teachers consistently invite students to reflect/examine their own musical experiences, students come away with a stronger, more personal relationship music. Such collaborative reflections serve as conduits for deepening the integrity of students’ musical explorations. On a personal note, collaborative/reflective processes also provide opportunity for students to genuinely exercise their own voice, exploring how they think through challenges/opportunities and figuring out what they have to say. 

Times have Changed – What seems desirable is for today’s teachers to shift their communication approach from a one-way street to a two-way interactive thoroughfare. Such modifications may require a readiness for  trial and error before teachers feel genuinely comfortable or effective, as might any exploration into unknown territory. The upshot is that communication in this model has an extraordinarily positive impact on students’ musical development because musical explorations aren’t isolated from the rest of students’ lives. Students’ musical journeys are always connected to who they are, how they treat themselves, how they view the world, and what they do to make the world a better place for everyone. How could it be otherwise?

Now that I’ve got you thinking about how Times have Changed related to communication, here are a few questions for your attention:

  1. How do you feel about the one-way street of master/apprentice communication? 
  2. Reflective Partnership Teaching involves three steps: Get the background, Explore current perspectives, and Determine future actions. Which feels most familiar? Which feels new?
  3. How can Reflective Partnership Teaching help you to communicate more effectively?
  4. How do you feel about change?
  5. What makes you nervous about Reflective Partnership Teaching?
  6. What makes you excited about Reflective Partnership Teaching?