Playing With PBL: Confessions of an Orff Music Teacher


Originally posted at AOSA.


I pay more attention when I’m uncomfortable. My heart rate begins to increase and all of my senses become more acute. In my professional career I’ve learned that this discomfort is often a signal that something profound is about to happen. I humbly admit that I felt a similar feeling during my Orff levels training. Many times I have felt it in my 15 years of performing and teaching… as if I am on the precipice of something that is about to change what I thought I knew. Most recently, I felt it again when I participated in my first Project Based Learning training this past June with the Buck Institute for Education.

For the three-day training, I was the only arts educator among dozens of classroom teachers. Like many of them, I had only heard about PBL and that it is spreading rapidly through the realms of education.

Similarities between PBL and Orff Schulwerk
During the training, I discovered that PBL is very much like something I already knew: Orff Schulwerk (OS). Orff music education combines music, movement, drama, and speech into lessons that are similar to the child's world of play. In fact, PBL parallels OS in a way that provides common ground—and the potential for shared language—between classroom teachers and arts educators. The similarities are remarkable, as both focus on the following characteristics:

  • Process and experiential learning
  • Collaborative group work where each student has a role and contributes his/her own personal touch or strength
  • Importance of ongoing feedback from both students and teachers
  • Development of material that is authentic and accessible to students (expounding upon what they already know and want to learn more about)
  • Use of an entry event or “warm-up” to quickly engage students
  • Sustained inquiry where the students become researchers for their own knowledge to achieve a purpose (i.e., a multimedia presentation on how to reduce global warming in school, a 4-phrase group movement piece to accompany an instrumental arrangement on xylophones for a music performance)

The most striking similarity in PBL and OS, one that casts it as an educational trend arts educators can support, is that there isn’t just one way to do something, nor is there just one right answer. The BIE facilitator led us through several PBL activities, and in each we found ways to honor the approaches and opinions of others. What resulted was a variety of ideas that invoked creativity and thinking “outside of the box.” This is something that children already do well and that adults often must relearn. We become independent learners, particularly when our authentic voices and thoughts are heard and we are given license to investigate further what is meaningful to us.

And some differences...
The main difference between PBL and OS is documentation. Formative and summative assessments are much more defined, but not static in a formulaic methods-based way. For example, BIE’s Project Design Overview planning form expects teachers to articulate which Common Core standards and/or student learning objectives are being practiced and more importantly, how they are being met in the process. The focus here is not on breadth of knowledge acquisition but accountability by the teacher. The students are also held accountable as they document whether specific goals they set for themselves are being met.

This type of documentation is something that can be used and practiced much more in OS, particularly in the planning stages of our music lessons and/or repertoire choices in order to ensure that we are truly addressing the desired music standards or skill sets. While I don’t find it practical for an Orff teacher and her music students to be writing about everything they do in the music classroom, I do believe this type of accountability—whether it be via documentation, class discussion, or individual reflection—is worthy of pause during the various stages of music-making.

I also found PBL’s emphasis on teachers nurturing collegial relationships with peers to be of particular interest. As we Orff folk know, our “village” tends to be the Orff world. But through PBL, I believe it is possible to develop meaningful and collaborative connections with classroom and other subject area teachers in one’s own school environment.

For example, the PE teacher and I are developing a school-wide “Music & Movement” project that will focus on the relationship of music and wellness as they “play” together. In another example, I am assisting students in composing tone poems - on xylophone/recorder/violin using the pentatonic scale - to accompany text about ancient Chinese dynasties in their 6th grade core class. While the possibilities are endless, this type of collaboration requires built-in planning time with co-workers, more instruction time with students, encouragement and support from administrators, and greater inclusion of the arts in the school community at large.

Will PBL work for you?
Arts educators often feel under-represented, lacking support from our leaders, voiceless, and alone in our perseverance to bring music, art, and dance to the world. But I think that can change. Through our knowledge of OS, the rising interest in PBL, the dissolution of No Child Left Behind, and the adoption of Every Student Succeeds Act (where the National Association for Music Education has helped make music a core subject now required by law), we can truly become a part of the educational conversation.

You will find PBL to be very compatible with OS. It offers a way to share in conversations about our artistic work, and how OS classrooms support this approach to teaching. PBL may be relatively new to the classroom, but it’s a way of teaching that we already know and can develop even further. As an educational model with an emphasis on authenticity, it enhances the pursuit of art and meaning. Orff teachers have been doing this for decades already and it continues to be a means of connection and learning that is needed more than ever... for us, for our students, and for the world.

To find out more about Orff music education, visit the American Orff Shulwerk Association.

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