Journal Entry 4, LCEForum 2017: Designing workshops that are focused on learner engagement

The Purpose Thread of this workshop was community life, with a focus on learner engagement.

Richard Mannoia, taking us through his TA magic.

Richard Mannoia facilitated an interesting workshop today, in fact, he facilitated two as a sort of comparative study so that we could experience a lesson plan that was 1) NOT learner centred or focused on learner engagement and 2) INDEED focused on learner engagement. The purpose thread (LCE term for purpose or goal) for both workshops was Community Life: the purpose being to enhance the life of the community, in this instance the “community” consisted of 25 TA’s attending the lab and Barbara Ellman our other facilitator.

A little more about the Community Life Thread

As mentioned above the purpose of the Community Life thread is to activate and enhance the artistic assets within a community in order to enrich its quality of life…a broad definition of art is dedicated to a broad inclusion of participants…US examples include Appalshop and Mural Arts Philadelphia…One would seek to asses the impact on community members, how their attitudes and perhaps their behaviours have changed, even how the functioning of the community has changed.

— 2017 Lincoln Center Education.

As Richard’s artistry is as a clarinetist for the NY Philharmonic in addition to a variety of other impressive venues, he lead us in a music workshop that was focused on enhancing the groups sense of community, music making was the medium.

How to NOT design a workshop

First Richard presented each of us with 1 page of densely packed information. It was long-winded, arbitrary and well to be frank simply boring, especially for the learner who is not familiar with classical music. He then told us to to form groups and discuss the information. He gave us little direction or very few prompts as to what to focus on or what was relevant or necessary to extrapolate. I, remembering my 13 year old self in Mrs Barlow’s classes, turned to my group and said, I have no idea what i’m supposed to focus on, I have no context and feel flustered. A BFG (bearded, friendly giant aka really gentle, really tall human and also musician) in my group used his expertise to try bring focus to the conversation and pointed out that the two musicians who were mentioned in the piece lived a very long time ago. And so the focus of our discussion was about Stassov’s and Mussorgsky’s relationship to one another.

We then got another paper with pictures of four instruments and listened to 4 melancholic tracks that were “representative” of each of the instruments. We were asked to describe the sound of each instrument. This was somewhat difficult. We then listened to a piano only version of Pictures from an Exhibition in contrast to an orchestral version of the same composition and asked to compare the two in a group discussion. It seemed that the group discussion leaned to individuals explaining their preferences and why, we seemed to lack the tools and vocabulary to articulate objective analysis. The conversation was also still random and unfocused. It was thankfully at this point that we switched to the second lesson plan.

Traditional Learning Resources that are information heavy and static are often inaccessible for learners to engage with new ideas.

How to design a workshop

The second workshop Richard lead started off with him having us form groups of 3–4 people. Each group was given a piece of fabric and asked to use language to describe the texture of the fabric swatch and it composition. Our group passed around the fabric swatch observing and describing it’s different attributes, “there are various threads”, “threads have different colours”, “the threads were different thicknesses”, “made of various materials” and “they were woven in various patterns”. We could all describe the attributes we saw, we didn’t have to be musicians.

Exploring texture

We were also given a simple task, but the instructions were very clear. We then shared our observations with the bigger group and responded to how texture may occur in music.

We the listened to the two pieces of music and Richarch asked for us to compare the piano version with orchestra version. Respondes with observations such as “the piano version was less dynamic than other” and “like the threads, different instruments had different qualities — wind instruments differed from when the string instruments joined”.

Because the the previous activity allowed us to explore textures (something that was accessible for us all) we had been primed to listen to the music. The previous activity equipped us tools that could help us describe our observations. Throughout both activities Richard had also framed the dialogues and guided our observations by asking very specific questions, thus helping us assess composition through observing “texture”.

Simple instruments for explorative exercise.

Our groups were then invited to select instruments and create own own music, by humming and playing our instruments to a phrase or verse of music we all knew. As we were still exploring texture, we asked to come up with two contrasting ways to play the same song. The constraints were clear and simple, but also allowed for the freedom to play and explore. As individuals we could explore the various ways to play our instruments and then we had to collaborate as a group to make the same phrase of music sound different, my group played around with Miley Cyrus’ Party in the USA. After spending a couple of minutes we shared with the group and we asked to describe the strategies groups had adopted to create contrast such as the types of instruments, varying tempos or range in volume.

So why was the second lesson more successful than the fist?

In summary, the fist lesson plan never served the purpose that Richard had set out to achieve, which was enhance community life through music making.We only talked about what we heard, we never collaborated, even in the simplest way. The first lesson tried to cover a variety of topics and skimmed over a lot of information in a short period of time, but in a way that was inaccessible and difficult to retain. The second time round we only explored one aspect of music making which was texture, and we explored this in depth, so much so that we were activated. Richard prepared us and put instruments in our hands that made us more than listeners.

For a moment we were musicians analysing and exploring instruments, making creative choices and collaborating in making music. For a moment we were changed from learners to musicians, and it was fun!

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