Teaching music: homework or workshop?

January 20, 2007

In my music theory class I am experimenting with a new technique as an alternative to homework. (The homework involved is college level harmony exercises.) I have divided the class into groups of four (2+2) with similar abilities and temperaments. I hand out a set of in-class exercises for the class, and the students are to do them in pairs. Each takes turns doing the exercise and commenting on the other’s solution. Once the two are in agreement about their work, they exchange with one of the other 2 in their group, and they all have to find each other’s errors. I am hopeful about the process of doing-watching-doing-watching and then correcting each other’s errors and doing so in a good-hearted manner. It is important to instill sensitivity to giving and receiving criticism at an early age. (It’s all we can do to fight the pulp-criticism of American Idol.) As the students work, my two teaching assistants and I walk around the room looking over shoulders, making suggestions, answering questions, and upping the tension a bit.

Our school, or perhaps I should say, our curriculum, is so packed, our undergrads are in school from 9 to 5 and many have nighttime ensembles. They have no time to stop, have a meal, practice during prime time, or have much of a life. Our desire to pack their brains full of everything the faculty think is important has reduced the amount of available time to actually do homework to late at night. I am not in support of this option: students need their sleep.

Short of changing our curriculum, along with periodic quizzing, it is my hope that this kind of real-time work-learn-look-critique workshop can be an effective alternative to take-home homework.

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