Continuing yesterday's article, with this connection sentence: "
Starting with some essential principles and then moving on
to the specifics of how, here’s a look at a kind of assessment that supports
the feeling of joy, inclusion, risk, community and belonging that a good Orff
learning means we have some criteria to determine what constitutes success in a
given task. From matching pitch to keeping the beat to articulating the vowels
and consonants to getting a good tone from the recorder, just about everything
we do with kids in music class has specific and concrete techniques and
understandings that can be observed, noticed and assessed. Assessment in the
music class is not a scheduled moment in the class, but a constant ongoing
conversation. It assumes the teacher has the criteria, knowledge and
observation skills to correct and adjust the students’ techniques and clarify
In music, what they know—
is a quarter note, this is called the pentatonic scale, this is a deceptive
cadence—is just a part of the assessment and often less important than what
they can do
. What they can do is also
assessable— again, technique on the conga, mastery of the melody, balance in
dynamics, etc.—and is woven throughout each class.
Though more subjective, what they can create
is also subject to assessment, brought out in reflective
comments both from the creators and the other kids watching or listening.
“I liked the part where one group was rising in their
movement and the other was falling.”
It felt like the
melody of the B section could use a harmonic change.”
“This passage had two many parallel parts. Consider changing
one to be more complementary.”
This is useful information. Giving each group an A or B or C
means being thoughtful about how to assess in a way that helps and encourages
the student to improve and move forward. Note how specific the comments above
were and without blame or shame or attaching a letter or number grade that
ranks it on some artificial scale.
Here we come to the prime reason
help the students.
Much of the number/letter grade systems in school are
based on competitive, harsh and often flawed judgment that aims to place
children in a heartless hierarchy with no concern for their tender souls. It
labels rather than guides them, fixes their efforts in what amounts to a single
snapshot in time instead of attending to the flow of their growth and
development. When we assess to help
children, we recognize and help them recognize that this is where they are in
this particular moment of time and this is what they need to move forward and
Many grading systems are based on the false notion that
grades are essential for motivation. But once the grading game begins, the
focus shifts from the pleasure of knowing things and finding things out to learning
the rules to please the teacher. The craft and joy of the subject takes a back
seat and the game of trying to figure out how to store things in short-term
memory in time for the test begins.
The back story to this idea is that human beings are lazy
and would sit around eating pizza and playing video games all day without a
system of motivation to get them off of the couch. But in his book Drive,
Daniel Pink affirms what most of us
already know: that our drive to master things is every bit as strong—and
perhaps stronger—than our hope to get out of work. It feels good to work hard
and make progress, especially in things worthy of our attention that we care
about, and tracing our journey from clueless novice to accomplished master is
one of the greatest satisfactions of a human life.
I always tell the children (especially 5-year old boys!) :
“You will have more
fun doing things well than doing them silly or sloppy. Any fool can do it wrong
and think it’s funny, but the real satisfaction comes from showing me—and more
importantly, yourself—what you can do and how you can work through the hard
spots to really accomplish something. Trust me, having fun by doing things well
is actually much more fun than avoiding doing them or doing them wrong on
purpose. You’ll be happier, I’ll be happier and your classmates will be
happier. And when we perform this in a show, your friends and family and other
people in the audience will be happy. And that’s why we’re here—to be happy for
the right reasons. Ready to get back to work?”
Which brings us to the main criteria I use in grading
children at my school—the level of their participation and effort. This is the
area in which they can choose how much and how hard and how seriously and how
joyfully they will work. They can’t control the musical environment of their
home, the opportunities to study of their financial or cultural situation, they
can’t choose their genes. In light of that, it doesn’t make sense to grade them
in relation to each other. The wealthy child brought up by machines and poorly
versed in interaction with other human beings will be so heavily disadvantaged
in comparison to his economically poorer but musically richer classmate who
grew up singing and dancing in the home and with extended family and in the
church and playing clapping games on the playground. They will come to my class
with uneven skills. So all I can do is help them mark their progress from where
they started at the beginning of the year to where they arrived at the end,
driven by their sincere participation and effort.
At the same time I’m speaking out against labeling kids with
letters and numbers, we in fact use numbers in our elementary school
twice-annual report cards. As follows:
Needs significant support.
Meets or exceeds expectations.
In the first, that means they can’t do or understand x, y, or z—yet. (The yet is crucial.) When
the group is singing G, he or she is singing a tone between Eb and E.
The second means they’re on the way. They can hit that G
sometimes or when singing next to this person (but not that person) or when
singing alone or when singing with the group, but not all the time and not in
The third means they got it. Pretty much every time. And if
they sing with an especially soulful feeling or with an extraordinary timbre or
are already hearing harmony parts, we won’t give them 3+ or 4, but mention it
in a comment.
Indeed, the whole game of numbers and letters is simply a
shorthand to convenience the teacher. But alone it’s pretty meaningless. It
robs the child and the parent of the specific comment that would actually help
and all assessment is only helpful if it’s specific. So on our report cards,
all numbers are followed by comments and the comments are as specific as
possible. It’s best to have at least one affirmation and one challenge. “So and
so had a breathtaking glockenspiel solo in one class last month and finally
mastered the grapevine step. Getting a clearer tone on the high E on recorder
is a goal for next semester.”
In short, assessment works best when it’s constant and
specific and comes from a growth mindset. All challenges include that important
phrase “not yet.”
From “Not Yet” to “Now
I Have It”
Everything we know about human learning from both common
sense and high-level brain research can be just about reduced to three words:
“Practice makes better.” Anything we apply ourselves to with intention and
attention and continue habitually to persevere through daily practice will reap
its rewards. If we seem to have no talent or aptitude for something—be in
basketball, bagpipe, ballet or biology—we will improve with practiced
perseverance. If any of the above comes to us like a gift from the gods, we still
need practiced perseverance to meet our talent. Studies show that the
difference between Conservatory students who made it onto the concert stage
from those who didn’t was about two thousand more hours of practice.
Knowing that we are “bad” at something because we haven’t
been exposed to it enough before and didn’t have sufficient repetition to make
the neural connections that embed learning in the brain is a very freeing piece
of information. We don’t need to add self-loathing or judge others failures. Of
course, there are many other factors of learning differences and emotional
readiness to learn and genuine interest in the thing to be learned, but mostly
kids just need time
to get better and
preferably time that’s fun, relaxed, exploratory, experimental, rigorous,
disciplined and guided by an expert teacher.
We would do well to remember that for most of our adult
life, we will never get a grade again. We may get a job performance rating, a
review from an arts critic, a trophy from a sports competition, but nobody is
telling Steph Curry or Yo Yo Ma that they got a B- in today’s practice or a C+
in the game/performance.
Without teachers hovering over our shoulder after we leave
school, we would do well to develop some solid sense of self-assessment and
this practice can start as young as preschool. One thing that has proved very
useful to me and very friendly with its no blame/no shame structure is the
following five stages of mastery: (Initially described as "Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill", the theory was developed at Gordon Training International. by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s. A Toronto teacher named Jen Hardacre passed on a version with number 3. added.)
- UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE
I don’t know how to do this and I
am unaware that I don’t know how to do it.
- CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE
I am keenly aware that I cannot do
this and it feels bad.
- AWKWARD PRACTICE
I am starting to get it, but I’m
not quite there yet. It takes a lot of effort.
- CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE
I can do it! Consistently! Though I
still need to concentrate intensely.
- UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE
It is so wholly a part of me that I
don’t even have to think about it.
After an activity, I ask the children to tell me where they
are, either by giving a number or more commonly, showing their thumb. Thumbs up
means “I got it,” angled up “pretty good”, horizontal “so-so” , downward “not
yet”. This is a kid-friendly version of the 5 stages list above without the
long words. (Note that you can’t give a self-assessment for number 1, which is
the most dangerous and difficult of all the stages. When people don’t even know
that they don’t know but think they know, well then, they can become President
of the United States. But it’s not a good thing.)
One problem of self-assessment arises when we don’t know how
we’re doing because we don’t have enough information or criteria yet for what
constitutes “good” in a particular genre. For example, when I improvise in my
Ghanaian xylophone lesson, I have to look at my teacher and ask if it’s okay,
because I don’t know what improvisation in that style should sound like. So
even though kids mostly know how they’re doing, there’s still plenty of room
and need for the teacher to assess alongside the student’s own perception.
I was hoping for a clear and understandable model of what
kind of assessment makes sense in an Orff Schulwerk program. Or any
program. But nothing is ever that
simple. There are so many factors in our complex choices about how to teach and
learn that we must pay mind to many of them at once. But if I had to reduce it
to five, I’d say this:
• Watch the children. Be aware of
their triumphs and struggles.
• Constantly give specific and
useful feedback to improve.
• Trust that the children are
learning the most important things and relax about attaching grades every step
of the way.
• Give the children the tools to
• Create engaging, joyful, relaxed classes that allow for
maximum learning. Have fun!
Now please memorize all the important points in this
article. There will be a test.