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RUNNING HEAD: An Application of Learning Theories in Music

An Application of Learning Theories in Music


Chlo Plamondon
Northern State University

The methods that I use to teach music do not define me as a teacher. By mastering
an understanding of the principles and applications of an array of teaching methods, the

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

more free I become on my journey towards teaching effectively and passionately. I am a


fifth year teacher in Manitoba Canada and I have taught every grade from kindergarten
through to grade twelve. I currently teach grades nine through twelve concert band and
jazz band at a large high school in Winnipeg. This paper will discuss my understanding,
current application and aspirations surrounding four different accredited learning
theories. Among them are; Behaviourism, Constructivism including Zone of Proximal
Development, Gestalt Theory of the Whole and Blooms Taxonomy. The process of
gathering data and reflecting on my personal teaching practices in preparation for writing
this paper has given me the opportunity to not only discover new ways to explore
teaching music, but also to define concepts currently present in my teaching.
Behaviourism is the physical response one has to their environment.
Behaviourists are dedicated to learning and understanding why people act the way that
they do and what causes such behaviour (Behaviorism, 2010). Developing an
understanding of how certain behaviours are caused allows the teacher to promote and
encourage the types of behaviour expected of students in the classroom. When students
behave in an appropriate and specific way, an environment for rich and focused learning
is achieved. Behaviourist method is an appropriate method to use when working towards
the goals of accurate and skilled performances (Colwell, 2011).
Every day in my classroom I post on the projector screen what activities the class
will be doing in what order and for approximately how long. My students know what to
expect when they walk in the classroom, and know what to have ready to begin. This is
an influence on their environment and creates an organized start and flow to each class.
For example the word metronome on the screen means that they will need to have

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

their pencil out and no instrument right away. Stretching/breathing means to spread out
across the room, chorale means to have our their chorale books, and sight-reading
means that section leaders will have new music sheets to hand out. When students are
working hard and focused on making music together I am able to relax, joke around on
the podium and compliment how well the class is doing this makes students feel good
and want to repeat this type of behaviour. When students are unfocused and not working
on exactly what I am asking them to, my attitude towards the class changes. I will lecture
on behaviour, and show a general disappointment towards to class and shame in regards
to wasting each others time. This causes an unpleasant emotional reaction in students
and they will not want to repeat this behaviour in order to avoid the negative feelings.
Band class is quite enjoyable for everyone when we are working hard, and not as
enjoyable when they are not. Therefore, the majority of the time students choose to be
focused and buy in to the lesson I am delivering, because they know the other option is
unpleasant.
I rarely use extrinsic behaviourist methods with my high school students. When I
taught in elementary school I used more extrinsic reward such as free time for good
behaviour, or treats for completing practice hours. These types of strategy were effective
for immediate relief of a challenging position as a teacher, but what I found was that the
motivation was not to improve as a musician or enjoy making music together, but was on
getting through what needed to be done in order to receive the prize. Earning high
grades is an example of how I do using extrinsic behaviourism as a method of teaching.
If a certain type of behaviour gets the student a high grade, they will continue to act with
such behaviour. High grades are earned in my classroom by showing a commitment to

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

the program by attending class regularly and on time while respectfully and musically
contributing to the growth of our band.
I would like to explore behaviourist ideas further in terms of using the method to
develop more accurate musical habits in my students. Behaviourism can be connected to
the physical aspect of making music, such as muscle memory (Colwell, 2011). Using
skill and drill techniques with a focus on one hundred percent accuracy will cause
students to be able to recognize what they are playing correctly or incorrectly. More
positive reinforcement of accurate musical habits could lead to more technically accurate
performances in my band classes. Spending more time drilling fundamental skills in
class in a more teacher-centered way would definitely aid in students becoming stronger
performers. I am not completely sure that this is the goal of my program but with
balance of other methods this teacher-centered approach to learning could be an effective
part of what concert band class looks like.
The primary instructional techniques of Piagets model of Constructivist Learning
Theory are discovery learning and supporting the natural development of each child. In
this learning technique information is presented to the student based on their current
abilities within a specific cognitive level (Huitt, 2003). I believe that we as music
teachers have the ability to teach in a constructivist fashion every single day, and with
ease if we are in the correct mindset of student centered learning.
Formative, student centered learning takes place on a regular basis in my music
classroom. Instant feedback is given to students when learning their instrument, new
piece of music, or new concept. I can tell almost right away if a student is showing
understanding of a concept that I am teaching based on their ability to demonstrate the

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

concept. Students are given opportunities to decide where their abilities lie in many
different activities. One example is following the Lisk circle of fifths exercise - students
are able to choose to play around the circle in warm-up on roots-only for four full beats,
triads in four beats, full scale in eighth notes, or two octave scale in sixteenth notes (Lisk,
1987). The goal is that students will eventually all be able to play at the highest skill
level. This sequencing of skill allows students to naturally grow in skill at their own
individual pace.
Planning activities to stimulate prior knowledge before teaching new concepts ties
into the idea of a spiral curriculum, which is critical in planning for teaching with a
Constructivist Method (Gagnon). I am inspired by this theory to develop ways of having
students discover more on their own without little or no teacher guidance.
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a strand of Constructivist Theory
that centers on discovery learning within the appropriate level of guidance. The ZPD is
the area (zone) in which a learner needs guidance from a teacher in order to learn and
develop understanding for a concept. The educational goal is for students to eventually be
able to carry out learned concepts on their own and develop deeper understanding
through discovery. The ZPD is the stage that students live in before they are able to be
completely independent (Marsh, 2005).
In my own teaching, I use the ZPD to expand my students beyond their comfort
zones. By giving them a piece that might seem just out of reach, we can work towards
discovering new experiences and techniques that will help us fulfill our performance
goals. My grade ten band students are currently learning chamber music on their own for
a performance at the end of May. They have been given a library of small ensemble

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

music to choose from, and are given a certain amount of time per class to work on their
small group music together without any guidance from the teacher. These students are
under teacher guidance (ZPD) during full band class time, but then are challenged to
work on their own and make musical decisions and discoveries without guidance when
working on their chamber music.
I aspire to push students to their maximum comfort or discomfort levels
within their personal realms of learning. The theory of the ZPD motivates me to have a
better understanding of where each of my students are in terms of their independent
musical abilities. That is the point exactly - that the ZPD is changing all of the time and is
different in different situations and with different students and among different concepts.
Gestalt Theory is concerned with the nature of the whole of everything. It
argues that the whole is directly connected to and not separate from the parts that make
up a whole of a situation, either intrinsic or extrinsic. It looks to examine fundamental
assumptions of science and does not believe that science and life are separate entities but
should be looked at as a whole picture. It is the theory of the mind vs. the brain and
whether or not our conscious thoughts mean anything in terms of how we are feeling or
project how we are feeling. It argues that nothing exists in and of itself and that all beings
and experiences are a result of a whole experience (Wertheimer, 1924). What takes place
in the WHOLE is NOT the sum of individual occurrences, but the individual occurrences
make up the reality and experience of the whole.
What is taking place in each single part depends upon what the whole is, and in
order to teach Gestalt effectively, we must change the way we think about musical
concepts and how they relate the whole picture of what we plan to teach our students over

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

a long period of time (Wertheimer, 1924). Playing a B can mean many different things
depending on the whole situation. How do we explain to our beginners what a B really
is? Playing forte can mean to do something different for every instrument in the band. If
everyone in the band were to play a true forte on their instrument the result would be a
chaotic, blasting sound, and with understanding of the whole situation, each player
should understand what they need to do to contribute to the overall forte of the group.
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge in regard to method and validity, and the
investigation of what distinguishes belief from opinion. Gestalt theory suggests that we
need to look at the full situation (in every situation students lives, learning an
instrument, a new piece of music, curriculum planning across the school, the
development of an arts program in schools) and not attempt to understand through
separating the whole but by examining the whole.
Gestalt theory challenges me as an educator to look outside of the box and think
bigger picture when planning my year with my students. Perhaps what is most important
is that we create a positive experience and environment for our students to love and
understand music making and this is our whole and every lesson we plan and every
performance we do connects to that whole, but they cannot be separated in terms of
understanding how to instill love and understanding of music making in students.
Blooms Taxonomy is the theory of six mental levels of understanding within our
cognitive domain of learning. They are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis,
synthesis and evaluation (Bloom, 1956). Blooms taxonomy affects my teaching on a
daily basis with a constant goal of students being able to display understanding at the
highest level of thinking. Of the learning theories discussed in this paper, Blooms

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

Taxonomy is the most regularly practiced method in my teaching. Students move through
all six stages of cognitive understanding in my classroom, and the goal is that by the time
they leave the music program. By demonstrating an understanding of the highest level of
thinking in music, students should then have the capacity to continue to enjoy music with
understanding for the rest of their lives.
Knowledge is recalling and remembering material that has been told to you. I
believe that teaching at this level is necessary sometimes, especially when the material is
brand new. At the beginning of the year, I will often teach my beginners songs by rote.
They simply repeat back to me what I have asked them to play displaying knowledge of
their understanding of the concepts learned so far. Theory testing is another way that I
use knowledge in my music classrooms. Students demonstrate that they know what
certain musical terms mean. Comprehension is the lowest level of understanding a
concept. Students at this level show some amount of ability to grasp the meaning of the
material. An example in my classroom would be students recognizing rhythms and note
names on a piece of sheet music and showing some ability to play them on their
instruments correctly. Application is using the material learned in a new situation. My
high school band students can apply concepts that we learn in our warm-up time, later
into their sheet music. I will teach new rhythms in our warm-up and they will appear later
in their repertoire in a new context. Students show an application of skills learned and
practiced earlier in the lesson.
Analysis is the stage that starts to require a deeper level of thinking about music.
This is being able to understand how the smaller components to a concept combine to
create the whole idea that is being taught/learned. An example would be a student

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

understanding how 6/8 time signature works and sorting out a new rhythm on his own
based on his understanding of the time signature, strong vs. weak beat, the mathematical
part to how six eighth notes fit into a bar, and how the notes are grouped together.
Synthesis is the understanding of a concept so deeply that the student can apply the
information learned to a new concept in order to figure out the new concept with little or
no guidance. This would be the same student from above taking their understanding of
6/8 time signature and applying it to 12/8 or 16/8 or 2/8 or any other time signature for
that matter. Evaluation is a demonstration of complete understanding of a concept that
they have total confidence in their understanding and could judge the value of the
material for a given purpose. This would mean that the student has the ability to listen to
and help a classmate learn the concepts that they already understand. The student will be
able to analyze what their classmate is doing incorrectly and help them to fix the problem
and understand correctly (Bloom, 1956).
Teaching methods are useful to know and understand as music teachers because
they give us strategies to use to reach all of our students. There are as many different
ways of learning as there are students in our classrooms, and the wider the breadth of our
knowledge of learning, the more likely we will be successful in reaching all of our
students. In my opinion, the goal of education is to inspire students to love learning and
to help them discover within themselves the best and most rewarding ways to learn with
hopes of them becoming lifelong learners. Each of these methods discussed have
similarities and differences, and I hope to one day be able to determine which theory and
method will best suite different students and to have a large variety of techniques
available to help them on their unique educational journeys. Through writing this paper I

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

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have began to understand and can now refine how and what I am teaching day in and day
out in my music classroom.

References

An Application of Learning Theories in Music

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Behaviorism. (2010). In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from


http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/behaviorism/
Behrens, R. R. (1998). Art, design and gestalt theory. The MIT Press, 31(4). 299-303.
Bloom. (1956). Blooms taxonomy. Major categories in the cognitive domain of the
taxonomy of educational objectives. Retrieved from
http://cehdclass.gmu.edu/ndabbagh/Resources/IDKB/bloomstax.htm
Colwell, R. & Webster, P. (Eds.). (2011) MENC Handbook of Research on Music
Learning: Volume 1: Strategies. New York, NY. Oxford University Press.
Forehand, M. (2005). Blooms taxonomy: Original and revised.. In M. Orey (Ed.),
Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching and technology. Retrieved from
http://www.kjakalski.d41teachers.org/enews/think_tank_articles/articles/BloomsT
axonomy.pdf
Gagnon, G.W., & Collay, M. (n.d.).Constructivist learning design. Retrieved from
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Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from
http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/cognition/piaget.html
Lisk, E. (1987). The Creative Director: Alternative Rehearsal Techniques. Oswego, NY.
Meredith Music Publications.

Marsh, G.E., & Ketterer, J.J. (2005). Situating the zone of proximal development. Online
Journal of Distance Learning Administration. 8 (4).

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Retrieved from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/summer82/marsh82.htm


Wertheimer, M. (1924). Gestalt theory, max wertheimer (1924). Retrieved from
http://gestalttheory.com/maxwertheimer/gestalttheory/