This essay was written as part of my Postgraduate Certificate in Performing Art Teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in 2017.
How has group-piano teaching impacted my approach to teaching in general? How my group-teaching has changed as a result of applying Cooperative Learning.
A year ago, when I started to teach group-piano classes, I realised that I would have to think fundamentally about how my pupils learn. Since I have introduced Cooperative Learning (CL) to my group-piano classes, I have had to rethink my role as a facilitator, more often than as a teacher, who gives pupils responsibility and engages them more widely in the learning process.
I have learned to balance dominative and integrative communication with my pupils (Coats, 2006, p.72). Moreover, it helped me to improve a relationship of trust with my pupils, which developed my confidence as a teacher, because my lessons are not only based on my experience but also on my pedagogical readings. My lesson plans became an illuminator rather than legalist, as I respond to my pupils’ engagement with the material. Teaching groups made me also think more carefully about material, because intrinsic motivation is essential in a group dynamics but difficult to cultivate in each pupil. Members of the group should feel connected to each other by a shared goal, which is very often driven by the piece they play. I also started to incorporate fun activities, such as rhythmical games or scale championship, to my lesson plan, simply to develop a deeper sense of enjoyment in my lessons. Learning about theory helped me tostructure my curriculum and improved my self-confidence in my daily instructional choices and in my values.
Furthermore, studying at the Guildhall is a way to question my teaching practice and nourish it by a better understanding of some theoretical pedagogies. Since the beginning of this course, my teaching practice has moved from an intuitive and experience-based method to a more informed pedagogy. CL method explored within the group-piano context, appeared to be an accessible and valuable strategy for teaching fundamental piano skills at a secondary level.
Group teaching is rooted to the idea of creating independent learners, which is one fundamental aim of my pedagogy. Pupils should experience a healthy struggle with their technical problems, in order to learn how to practise well. It also helps them to develop their problem-solving skills and tenacity. In my one-to-one tuition, my pupils are most likely to wait for me to give them all the answers straight away and it can be easier to give them the solution and move on to the next bar! When a fingering is not obvious, repeating the passage in order to find the best solution is an ideal way to learn a challenging section. Group teaching addresses this issue brilliantly as pupils are aware that they are responsible for their own learning and each others’.
As Duckworth (1999) explained, a group-piano instruction can provide “a social environment in which a student is supported and motivated, even challenged by peers” (as cited in Fisher, 2010, p.8). In a peer group setting, my students not only learn from me but also from their peers through observing and imitating them. Consequently, CLoffers more than just a way of learning, as it is not only a method but also part of the content, or something to master as a skill itself. Once pupils are familiar with CL, they will be able to use it in a wider context than a group-piano class (Jacobs, Power and Loh 2002, p3.).
Piano group-lessons are an enjoyable way to educate a broader range of pupils. They offer pupils a social learning environment, which is especially interesting if we consider the instrument as one of the most solitary. In this student-centred method, I define myself as facilitator, who guides my pupils in the learning process (Fisher, 2010, p.53), rather than an instructor.It isparticularly rewarding to mentor pupils to be fully involved and active in lessons and develop their sense of belonging. Beyond learning the piano, in a group lesson pupils are encouraged to listen to others, think critically and therefore become independent learner.
Despite the limitations, the outcome of these lessons is rewarding both for teacher and pupils, and it is a worthwhile endeavor to challenge and question my practice as piano teacher. After this 8-week unit, I now have a deeper understanding of how pupils can be stimulated within their groups, despite their various abilities, and how to sustain an enjoyable and inspiring learning atmosphere. CL gives me the opportunity to hone my pedagogical skills and urges me to find more creative ways to solve problemsencountered by my pupils. In the future, I would like my private pupils to benefit more from my group-teaching experience, by including a few group workshops in their curriculum.
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