Cooperative learning is “a practice that empowers students to interact with one another to realize a common goal.” In his blog post yesterday, Anand Sukumaran explained that this definition seems to automatically apply to a music ensemble. After all, performing well at the concert is a common goal, and musicians in an ensemble certainly interact. Indeed, sometimes the conductor’s job is to foster those interactions with their conducting.
However, Anand mentioned precisely why cooperative learning isn’t inherent in school ensembles even though it sounds like it might be: the conductor. Because the ensemble model focuses on the conductor, students don’t end up cooperating with each other in a productive way.
Of course, without a conductor, your ensemble won’t perform well, if at all. Just as athletes need coaches to perform their best, ensembles need conductors. More importantly, young musicians need teachers! Cooperative learning doesn’t mean abandoning your ensemble just to minimize the importance of the conductor. Rather, it means finding ways to help students engage with each other so that they take ownership of their own learning – and their own musicianship.
Let’s take a closer look at how you can use the five elements of cooperative learning in your ensemble rehearsals. More importantly, we’ll take a closer look at activities that can both create a more cooperative learning environment and also improve your rehearsals.
Like several of these terms, “positive interdependence” sounds far more mysterious than it actually is. Simply put, positive interdependence is about creating clearly-defined goals that require students to depend on each other. In order to successfully accomplish each goal, students can’t simply be individually successful; each student in the group needs to be successful.
Coming up with these kinds of goals sounds tricky, but in reality, this is about doing exactly what Anand suggests: removing the dependence on a conductor. When students arrive at their own musical conclusions they become successful as a group. Another example of positive interdependence would be students working together to master an ensemble-wide rhythmic pulse. Let’s take a look at what that might look like in practice.
You’ve clearly defined a goal for your students: a tighter, more precise rhythmic pulse across the ensemble. In your lesson plan, be sure to tie this goal to a state or national standard. Rhythmic pulse is a basic technical requirement for performing music, so this connection is typically just a matter of looking up which specific standard in your state addresses it.
Audiation and mentally subdividing the beat are skills that students can use to practice and develop a better rhythmic pulse, but cooperative learning techniques (like positive interdependence) will do a better job of working on this skill than individual testing. Have the class clap a rhythmic pulse along with a metronome. Then, with the metronome off, have students only clap on a particular beat (like beat 4).
This exercise promotes positive interdependence because the success of the group is immediately obvious. If even one student claps at the wrong time, the entire group knows that there’s more work to do. Your clearly defined goals at both the conceptual level (improve rhythmic pulse) and practical level (clap together) require students to succeed as a group.
The exercise mentioned above also promotes individual accountability. In the exercise, each student is responsible for clapping at the right time – a task they can also perform individually. This aspect of cooperative learning is all too familiar to ensemble directors. Too many second violins, altos, and third clarinets end up tagging along on the efforts of others or aren’t held to the same standards as their more visible peers on first parts.
It would be easy to assume that cooperative learning is all about the group. But the theory correctly identifies that the group is only as strong as the weakest individual. Finding ways to promote individual accountability within group activities is a critical part of creating a cooperative learning environment.
In the rhythmic audiation exercise, the group only accomplishes their goal when everyone claps together. That’s positive interdependence. At the same time, each individual is responsible for being sure to clap at the right time. That individual accountability makes the cooperative learning environment stronger.
Of course, don’t forget to watch closely when you do the exercise. Make sure students aren’t shirking their responsibility by not clapping!
“Promotive interactions” is another not-so-mysterious term when broken down. These are interactions between students that every professional development speaker dreams of. Imagine students supporting each other with encouraging dialogue and well-constructed feedback. Since middle-and high-schoolers aren’t exactly known for offering each other uplifting dialogue and thoughtful critique, it’s the teacher’s job to set up an environment where students can have positive interactions.
Sectionals are a great way to foster these interactions within a traditional ensemble rehearsal. You’ll be able to leverage your student leadership (section leaders) while continuing to make progress on concert repertoire. However, it’s important to make sure that sectionals have well defined, clear goals that include positive interdependence and individual accountability.
The conductor’s podium also serves as a reference point for promotive interactions. Be sure to model the type of interactions you want to students to have when you offer feedback.
All-state auditions or solo and ensemble contest preparation offers another opportunity to build a cooperative learning environment through promotive interactions. Having students perform this solo and chamber repertoire for their peers offers you an opportunity to:
- Model good feedback
- Develop listening skills with the rest of the ensemble
- Provide a performance opportunity for advanced students (and help cure stage fright!)
- Have other students offer feedback via promotive interactions
Promotive interactions also lead to better social skills for your ensemble. Minimizing interpersonal conflict is a vital part of creating a cooperative learning environment – and less conflict makes for more efficient rehearsals too.
Working on promotive interactions by having students provide feedback to chamber groups or soloists develops social skills, but this feedback can also extend to the ensemble as a whole.
Often, state standards require that students evaluate musical performances. Why not have them evaluate their own performance? Many directors do a “concert review” day. Tying this class period to a state standard – and including cooperative learning techniques – transforms what otherwise might be a less productive day into a rehearsal that builds social skills, listening skills, and strengthens your ensemble.
One way to work on these social skills is to assign various sections to listen for specific things. Perhaps the brass focuses on giving feedback to the ensemble on articulation and the woodwinds give feedback on dynamics. Again, the more modeling you do, the more productive students will be with their feedback.
The final component of a cooperative learning environment, group processing, suggests that a “concert review day” focusing on the performance itself might not go far enough. Group processing means that students aren’t merely evaluating their musical performance at a concert. They are also evaluating their conduct, group work (including promotive interactions, social skills, etc.), and practices leading up to the concert.
One of the strengths of a cooperative learning environment is that, by definition, a cooperative learning environment asks students to evaluate exactly how cooperative that learning environment is. Moreover, group processing has students evaluate their own contribution to the cooperative environment.
In practice, this means that feedback isn’t limited to pointing out weaknesses in performance after the concert. Challenge students to discuss why those weaknesses occurred. Empower students to take control of their own learning by having them offer feedback on the process that led to the concert.
Of course, this feedback will naturally lead to accountability. Perhaps students identify that they didn’t spend enough time practicing a difficult section and could do better next time. As the instructor, you can follow through by assigning more technical exercises for practice with the knowledge that your cooperative learning environment helped students see the need and importance of these exercises.
Over To You
Hopefully, you feel ready to try some cooperative learning technique in your rehearsals this year. Get started using our free lesson plan template. The template has room to include your own state standards, the repertoire your ensemble is working on, and activities that promote a cooperative learning environment.
Use our free lesson plan template to get started on your cooperative learning lesson plans today.