Styles and Strategies of Learning
“Research on the brain confirms it is easier to learn something new when we can attach it to something we already know” (Carnegie Mellon University, 2015 as quoted in Activating Prior Knowledge reading from ELL Toolbox, Ferlazzo & Sypnieski). When students have previous experience either with the subject matter or material that relates to the subject matter, there is a sense of comfort, confidence, and receptivity that enables students to pursue a higher level of understanding and knowledge. Myelin in the brain allows for faster, more interconnected pathways to become reinforced with repetition and more time spent with a skill and/or subject in order to lead students to greater mastery. Teachers absolutely benefit from utilizing students’ prior knowledge as a best practice.
My teaching practice has been built upon the premise of prior knowledge, starting when I was a stay-at-home mom to my children completing Early Childhood Education coursework at one of my local community colleges. I introduced concepts to my daughter and son as early as possible, and then continued to review these concepts whenever they came up naturally. Examples include potty training, learning the alphabet, music instruction, dance, swimming, and eating with utensils. In my observations, my children felt confident learning and building upon their prior knowledge because they could not remember a time when they knew nothing about the subject, and so they felt confident and knowledgeable but also understood that there was more that could be learned or mastered about any particular skill or subject.
Now as a music teacher in the classroom, I work hard early in the school year to establish a foundation of prior knowledge with all my students at my multiple elementary school sites, so that I can review, refer to, and build upon those concepts throughout the school year. Concepts such as steady beat, rhythm, music notation, and listening skills are so central to all music that we discuss them in every song that we listen to and learn. Music is a language that humans respond to and speak intrinsically but there is also a very technical component to it that can intimidate learners, and so every week I define music vocabulary words and play examples so students can hear how the concepts apply in many different songs, genres, and cultures. I see my music students only once a week for 25 minutes at the most, so I have to pare down my lessons to what is absolutely essential and will help students quickly feel successful and also remember what we have learned from week to week.
For example, I teach steady beat during the second or third week of school to all grade levels because it is so fundamental to every song and activity we do in music class. I define steady beat in a songlike, rhythmic way while I clap my hands to a steady beat, saying: “Steady beat stays the same. It doesn’t speed up and it doesn’t slow down. For that reason, I like to say that steady beat is the heartbeat of every song because it keeps the song going, and it keeps the song alive.” Then I teach the students how to hear a steady beat and then how to move to it and many different ways. For the remainder of the year, when I use the words steady beat again, I often repeat this definition so that students remember the concept and connect it to their prior knowledge gained during the first lesson when I first introduced the concept.
As a music teacher, I enjoy presenting music education and experiences that are accessible to students of all learning styles. Music is a full body experience, engaging students who learn best by many modalities: listening, moving, vocalizing, watching, playing instruments, and/or communicating with others. The more senses that a student can utilize to experience and create music, the more they internalize the music language and a level of confidence that allows for performance of music to share with others. I teach by rote often, which involves repetition of sounds and movement with the voice and/or with instruments (without the added complication of reading music notation) so that students can imitate my sounds and strengthen their ability to remember, practice, and perform music and movement combinations. This enables music learning and practice by even the very youngest students. I teach TK through fifth graders, and so we build musical abilities, skills, and memories from such a young age that by the time students are older, they have much prior knowledge and experience as musicians.
Music is a subject that overlaps with nearly every other subject that students learn in school, including math, science, reading, writing, poetry, P.E., art, public speaking, etc. Students that excel in one or more of their other school subjects can find success by applying their interest in their favorite core subjects into music. For this reason, I enjoy taking an interdisciplinary approach to teaching music. For example, I have spoke with students about the science of sound waves regarding how much energy and breath support they need to put into their higher pitched notes versus lower pitch notes while singing. We take note of and discuss the way that numbers relate to music. We discuss the connections between poetry, fiction, and song writing. I believe this leads to a well-rounded, enriched education experience in which students have an artistic and performance oriented application for what they learn in all their other classes at school.
I have found that my learning style has been broadened by my decades of music education, performance, practice, and teaching. I believe that music makes brains smarter and faster at processing information because it allows for all the senses and learning modalities to be involved and strengthened. Music students will find that their brains will begin to excel at executive functioning because of the amount of tasks their brains must process simultaneously in order to learn and perform a song. I am so grateful that I get to teach students to use their brains in sophisticated ways and share with them how I learn and process music after decades of experience and practice.
Vygotsky’s social constructivism research discusses creating a “zone of proximal development” among students to promote learning and interaction. How do his ideas influence student pairs and groupings? How might you incorporate ideas in your own teaching?
Lev Vygotsky’s sociological theory highlights the importance of social interaction and collaboration for children undergoing the learning process. Social learning environments allow children to create meaning together out of what they absorb from interacting with a “More Knowledgeable Other.” This MKO could be an adult (a teacher or parent) or a peer, and so long as students are able to talk through and explore learning with the MKO, this educational environment will allow for cognitive development and influence the way students think and what they think about. Vygotsky went on to discuss an important principle called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which he states in his own words as: "The distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers." (Vygotsky, 1935). The ZPD is the area in which the most thoughtful instruction must be given so that the student can develop skills and thought processes that will lead to future cognitive independence and maturity. Vygotsky was an advocate for peer collaboration in which one student who is more knowledgeable can provide a fellow student with the guidance necessary to achieve higher levels of understanding within the ZPD, all by social and collaborative interaction. If one student explains a concept to another, not only is the student who is less knowledgeable learning (perhaps better from a peer than from an adult), but the student who is more knowledgeable will achieve a higher level of understanding on the subject as well. Teaching content requires a higher level of understanding of the material than does learning, so the more knowledgeable peer will better understand the concepts because of having to teach it to another student. This is helpful for teachers because it underscores the importance of group work and heterogeneous pairings in the classroom, which allows the teacher to facilitate and support learning rather than command it from the front of the classroom. Teachers can circulate the classroom and offer group specific guidance instead of teaching into a void in which some students may not feel comfortable asking questions or talking through the learning process in front of the entire class. LaQua discussed that student pairs and groups should not be extreme opposites of each other (the least with the most knowledgeable), but rather be closer to each other on the cognitive spectrum with one more knowledgeable than the other.
This is a fascinating concept and one that has many implications for the learning environment in my music classroom. Empowering students to teach each other is something that I have already done in the classroom with one coming up to the whiteboard to act as a “mini professor” to explain their answer to a music question. I tried this in my first year of teaching and while it can work, I believe the Vygotsky twist on this technique of empowering students to teach each other would be to put my students in pairs or groups so that they can talk through the material. In doing so, more children will have the opportunity to verbally explore the material with each other and with me as I check in with the small groups, which will then allow them to more thoroughly internalize the content and develop cognitively. The social and collaborative interaction is the key to allowing students to learn best.
I have definitely observed that many students learn best when they can talk through an idea and also when they can learn with others in a social environment rather than by struggling alone. My son, who is 10 years old and in 5th grade this year, is absolutely what I would call a “social learner.” He has difficulty with projects and reading that he has to work on by himself, but along with a few of his friends he is capable of writing a 100+ page fan fiction novel based on the Legend of Zelda. Under a few minutes of my guidance, his slides on the water cycle became colorful and creative and he came to appreciate his learning aptitudes by talking through Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence. On three to five nights a week, before lights out at bedtime, my son and I discuss current event headlines that we read together from the New York Times app on my phone, and if we have time and we want to learn more we read the whole story and discuss. I have witnessed his cognitive development blossom during talks that we have together, which appear to bolster his confidence as an academic thinker. I do see that the more intellectual time I can spend with him, the more developed and capable his mind will be. My dad spent similar academic time with me when I was in school, and I cherish those memories to this day.
In the music classroom, I have facilitated activities that involved the entire class learning to sight read musical notes on the whiteboard but when I presented a music game I created that centered on this concept to my supervisor while we reviewed my portfolio for the year, she suggested that I turn it into a small group activity so that more students could talk through and figure out the correct answer together. I understand now why she had this feedback, and Vygotsky would most likely agree. I look forward to utilizing more of Vygotsky’s theories in my future music classes.
Gottesman, Shayna, Theories of Early Childhood: Maria Montessori, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. TouroSGottesman.
Cherry, Kendra (2020, April 28). The Zone of Proximal Development as Defined by Vygotsky. Very Well Mind.
McLeod, S. A. (2018, August 05; updated 2020). Lev Vygotsky. Simply Psychology.