UbD and the Ensemble: Backwards is Better!

Essential Questions: Why aren’t my students learning what I’m teaching? Why do I feel like I have to reteach concepts over and over and over again?

NCCAS Review Starts Today!

The National Coalition for Common Art Standards announced recently that they would be releasing drafts of the K-8 Art standards for review this evening. I watched the orientation video and was thrilled to find that the new Common Arts Standards will include Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions to accompany each standard!

The NCCAS is revising the 1994 Arts Standards for the 21st Century!

The NCCAS has deliberately chosen to help teachers in both general music and performance classrooms identify the understandings that students need to be successful as musicians.

The “So What?” of Music Education

One of the biggest buzzwords in music education in the last few years is advocacy. Everybody knows that music education is one of the first things to go when budgets get tight. Music educators lament the diminishing position of formal music in our society and the National Association for Music Education has gone as far to establish whole organizations dedicated to music education advocacy like the Advocacy Groundswell or the Give A Note Foundation.

These organizations are established to “cultivate an online community of NAfME members from across the country interested in participating in advocacy initiatives, engaging in discussions about advocacy and regularly digesting advocacy news”  and “to expand and increase music education opportunities for all children. 

But why do we need advocacy? We haven’t always needed to defend our profession so vehemently to school boards and superintendents. Certainly the culture has changed, but I’m not sure that’s all. I think the main reason that music educators struggle with advocacy in their districts and schools is that the reason for music education is not evident in every single rehearsal.

It’s not just about budgets. No one doubts the necessity of math or social studies (though curiously only one is tested regularly). I think it’s easier for music educators to get caught up in planning for concerts, half-time shows, or competitions that we sometimes fail to communicate the purpose and reason for our work in music education. We still know what those reasons are, but we fail to communicate them to our students, parents, administrators and communities.

I believe that Understanding By Design has the potential to refocus the work of band and choir directors by refocusing on the “Why?” and “So what?” of music. When we structure our units, performances, and rehearsals around the enduring understandings at the heart of musical life, we argue for music in schools with every lesson we teach.

Three Stages of Design

McTighe and Wiggins offer a model for curriculum unit design to ensure that the whole design is aligned to the understandings students should have at the end of the unit.

Identify Desired Results

What musical understandings should students possess? What questions are central to musical understandings? What questions and debates have musicians, composers, or philosophers wrestled with throughout history? What are the understandings that link all of the associated musical skills we want our students to learn?

By defining our desired understandings, questions, knowledge, and skills, ensemble leaders can structure rehearsal planning not only around preparing for a specific performance, but for preparing students for a lifetime of creative music making! Identifying the desired results answers the “so what?” of daily rehearsals!

Determine Acceptable Evidence

Is performance enough? Is it possible for students to do well in a playing test without understanding the concept? What kind of evidence would I need to prove student understanding? How do I know they will use that understanding on the next musical challenge?

What real-world musical activities can students engage in to prove they have gained a deeper understanding of a musical concept? When music educators think more deeply about the kind of understandings they want students to achieve, they design authentic performance tasks for students to prove that understandings. These performance tasks for authentic assessment should relate to and inform the students musical performance. They should reflect the real challenges that musicians face in the world and evince the musical understandings achieved through musical practice. Again, when students encounter real musical challenges that result in deep understanding, the reason for our work as music educators becomes evident in the daily work of students.

planning learning experiences and instruction

How well do my current strategies foster student understanding? What doesn’t work? Where can I become more effective? Are my teaching strategies resulting in student understanding? How well are my rehearsal strategies pointing toward the enduring understandings I want my students to achieve? 

The daily rehearsal plan must evince the design work we have done as educators so that students come away with the skills necessary to perform in concert as well as the understandings necessary to make musical decisions in future musical experiences. When students are confronted with the questions at the heart of musical study, each rehearsal and practice session becomes a quest to deeper understanding.

The UbD Design Standards

In the world of UbD, it isn’t enough to use the system to design a lesson. The authors stress the importance of submitting designs to critical review by the designer, administrators, and peers using established standards that ensure that unit designs are truly aligned and best elicit authentic understandings.

This process of critical review also enables teachers to collaborate, refine their skills, and build their professional repertoire in order to better create learning experiences for their students.

UbD Design Standards by Stage

UbD Design Standards by Stage

Stage One: To what extent does the design teach musical concepts behind the musical skills and literature used in the design?

Stage Two: To what extent does the assessments measure understanding and not just achievement of skills or discreet knowledge? It is not enough to provide the musical experience. Assessment of understanding and for learning is vital.

Stage Three: How does the daily rehearsal engage students in meaningful learning for understanding?

This is what I failed to account for in my first UbD unit. I didn’t connect the performance to the musical experience. I relied on simple activities and hoped that enduring understandings would find their way into the lesson! I didn’t present students with the challenging questions at the heart of the musical experience. Not because I didn’t try, but because I don’t think I understood it fully myself!

That’s why I’m so excited to read through the K-8 Common Arts Standards! They have the potential to help music educators identify the understandings that all students should have in the arts.

How do your units and rehearsals match up? How successful have you been in structuring your rehearsals for enduring understandings and transfer? What specific strategies have you found successful in teaching for understanding and transfer? What enduring understandings and essential questions have caught your students’ attention?

Enduring Understanding: Units designed with the desired results of learning at the center are more likely to result in authentic student understanding.

2 thoughts on “UbD and the Ensemble: Backwards is Better!

  1. Pingback: UbD and the Ensemble: Understanding – More than just the facts! | James Patrick Jensen

  2. Pingback: Ubd and the Ensemble: Goals, Big Ideas, and Where to Start! | James Patrick Jensen

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