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Improving Pedagogical Outcomes in Online Lessons


From Crisis Comes Opportunity

Probably the last thing that any could have predicted at the end of 2019 might be that, overnight, we would all be teaching all of our students online.

And yet, here we are. No doubt this move created a pressured environment where teachers have had to adapt quickly in order to continue to have the possibility of a teaching studio and income into the future.

Committing to Improving Your Practice

It is a well-rehearsed idea that out of crisis can come opportunity, but what does that mean?

In the face of this challenge, I decided that I would put the stress aside and would pursue one outcome: to significantly improve the quality of my teaching. To do this, I decided to review my teaching practices, the materials I use, and to reach out to my students – across the airwaves – and provide them with a meaningful connection, a meaningful lesson and to focus carefully on how I can help them improve so that, when we return to in person lessons, that they have been able to make even more progress than what was possible before.

Prior Experience

Fortunately, I am lucky to have prior experience of this online learning thing. I have been taking lessons for almost 10 years now with my excellent teachers: one of whom lives interstate in Australia, Dr Therese Milanovic, and the other that lives on the opposite side of the planet in New York City, Mr John Bloomfield.

They are both extremely experienced in communicating online. I have learnt much from them through this format and have experienced online lessons that are pedagogically as sound as an in person one.

Still, this didn’t prepare me for delivering lessons to children and teenagers who probably you wouldn’t have *ever* recommended taking an online lesson before now. So I had to think laterally.

Lesson Plans

Even though I mentor teachers each week in how to write effective lesson plans, I’ll be honest: I hadn’t written a lesson plan in well over a decade. Of course I have a plan for for each of my students. I write notes in excel spreadsheets for each of my students monitoring their progress against a set of outcomes I have determined for each of them. It sounds detailed, but it is more like an outline to help keep me abreast of what is going on with each student.

When I was faced with teaching all of my students online, I realised I needed to scale up the plan to ensure that the student was organised and also that it was clear to the parents that each lesson would still have excellent outcomes. It was as much a business decision as a pedagogical one.

Unlike me, I wasn’t sure that parents would see the value of continuing lessons online. I was thankfully wrong.

Disadvantages of Writing a Plan

The main disadvantage of writing a lesson plan for each student is that takes a lot of time. In the first week, it took half as long as the lesson length, so I massively increased my workload. On top of the stress of switching to online came exhaustion.

Advantage of a Written Plan

But after a while, the planning became very quick indeed. Last week’s lesson plan provides a springboard for reviewing things in the next lesson, to consolidate and to progress to the next level. It is also very easy to map progress against the curriculum I have devised for my students. So it turns out that it was a one-off time expense that has been paid back with more effective learning and lessons.

In these plans, I am constantly inventing new ways of covering several aspects of a music lesson at the same time so that, by the end of a half hour lesson, we have:

  • Worked on aural skills

  • Undertaken memory tasks

  • Sight read new pieces and exercises

  • Worked on some aspect of technique

  • Shaped a piece we’ve been working on for a while

  • Covered aspects of theory

  • Started working on a new piece

Again, I want to come out the other end of this being proud that I am delivering more effective lessons and that my students are engaged, feel connected to another human and are continuing on their musical journey. I don't want to get to the end of this crisis without having gained something from it.

Students Don’t Always Have Good Listening Skills

Not all students are good at listening to instructions. Sometimes you can say something until you’re blue in the face and still the student doesn’t understand! And to be fair to them, the online platform can have glitches in the audio. I have found that when the student has a copy of the lesson plan next to them, they can be reading the plan as you talk and this cuts out that confusion of not being able to listen and process. Another advantage.

Less Spoon Feeding

Another interesting aspect of all of this is that students are so used to being spoon fed. We write their homework assignments for them – then we have to remind them to read them and follow those directions. When a student is struggling to read or to find a hand position, we can physically put their hands into position so that the lesson time doesn’t evaporate.These things aren’t really possible any more.

We all know that less spoon feeding is important. Now we can’t do that. Students have to do much of the work for themselves, have to take the time to listen carefully, think, process and then act. By helping develop their listening capacities, we can facilitate a more healthy development of each student into independent, engaged and thoughtful learners.

Final Thoughts Two Weeks Into Online Lessons

There is much more I could write on this subject, but will summarise here.

One can only imagine what our lives would be if this internet thingy didn't exist. I am extremely thankful for the ability to continue my teaching practice thanks to the technology that I have in my studio.

Nevertheless, as teachers we were undoubtedly stressed with the transition to online, and so are our students! They complain of feeling anxious, distracted, unable to concentrate, overwhelmed by their school teachers and university lecturers giving them even more homework and even more responsibility for their own learning.

We can play a role in reducing that stress for our students: our lessons can be fun and engaging and we can cover so much with our students by taking the time to plan and slightly redesign our lessons.

As teachers and humans, we can plan to not just practise stoicism - a very useful quality in difficult times - but to go forth and create the best of the situation by improving our teaching, improving our communication methods and by striving to be the best teachers that we can possibly be.

Welcome to teaching in 2020!

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