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How to set weekly learning goals

In my post, The Worst Way to Start a Lesson, I advocate rather than starting a lesson with "did you practice?" we start with a review of the previous lesson's learning intentions that the teacher and student develop together. I thought I would explore this idea further in this post.

We use learning intentions (or goals) and success criteria at Advantage Music Academy to structure and guide students' practice. If you're a school teacher, you'll likely already be familiar with these terms, but I'll explain these terms in relation to our context as instrumental teachers because in the classroom, teachers structure lessons around predetermined learning intentions informed by a curriculum, but in instrumental lessons, the learning intention often emerges throughout the course of the lesson.

Learning intentions are explicit statements about what the student is learning. Compare the following instructions in a student's diary:

Play four bars with the correct fingering.

I am learning good habits of fingering.

The first learning intentions is short-sighted; it's focused on just four bars of one piece of music and the goal is to be correct in this isolated context—it's not really a learning intention at all. The second targets a fundamental skill that applies to everything. This learning intention doesn't use the term "correct" fingering because I want students to learn to make informed choices and problem-solve instead of being spoon fed. After all, that's what the overarching learning intention is all about; not being "correct" or accurate, but developing good habits so that students can easily and economically achieve the sound they desire. Moreover, the second is in the student's voice. Instead of reading instructions given to me from my teacher that I must follow, I—the student—am reading what I am learning to do and reinforcing that idea every time I read it. I have my students learn this intention and repeat it back to me. I come back to it again, and again, and again. Every time they mess up fingering, and it's evident that it's a habit, not just a one-off error, I have them remind me of the learning intention and fix the errors by themselves.

But how will students know that they are achieving the learning intention? Students need to know what success looks like. Every learning intention should be accompanied by two to three success criteria that will enable the student to self-assess. In our example of fingering, I might use the following success criteria:

  • My fingering choices don't cause any discomfort;

  • I don't change positions more than I need to or run out of fingers; and

  • My sound is consistent.

Notice that the learning intention and the success criteria are written in simple language and in the student's voice. The second point would otherwise read: "My chosen fingering is economic", and a young beginner would have no idea what you're talking about. When we set the learning intentions for the week, we must include the student in the process to foster ownership of learning. I like to ask: "based on what we achieved/did today in the lesson, what is it that we are learning?" I guide the student's response because the learning intention needs to be challenging and achievable, and I want to teach the student how to develop learning intentions themselves.

Inevitably, you will come to the question of how broad or specific a learning intention should be. It really depends on the student. For example, I develop separate learning intentions for staccato, legato, and dynamics for students for whom these are new concepts or for students who know these concepts but aren't yet fluent with them. I also have a learning intention for drawing out the character of a piece and this frequently involves use legato, staccato and dynamics effectively. This learning intention is perhaps not as broad as it is high level. I can't give this learning intention to a student who is not yet fluent with staccato, legato, and dynamics. Having said that, the intention can remain the same but the success criteria can be adjusted. Compare the following:

Learning intention: I am learning to communicate character.

Success criteria:

  • My staccato is varied in its intensity;

  • My legato is varied in its degree of connection; and

  • My dynamics are exciting and wide in range.

Learning intention: I am learning to communicate character.

Success criteria:

  • I play staccato;

  • I play legato; and

  • I use dynamics.

The learning intentions above are the same, but the success criteria is adapted to the student's needs. The first is appropriate for a student who is already able to play staccato, legato, and dynamics fairly well. While the second assumes some knowledge of these concepts, it doesn't ask for the same level of maturity in their execution.

Contrary to most classroom implementations, learning intentions and success criteria usually emerge throughout the lesson rather than being predetermined. Learning intentions should reflect what happened in the lesson. For example, if fingering were not an issue, our example intention above would be inappropriate. We need to deal directly with what the student needs. I've seen student diaries in which the teacher lists the same items week after week after week. How is the student doing the same thing every single lesson? There are two possible explanations. One is that the teacher is on autopilot and ticking boxes because, "you have to do this, this, and this in every lesson because that's what my teacher did with me, and that's what my teacher's teacher did with them...". We are all guilty of saying to a student things like,"ok, we have to move on and do your scales now because we're running out of time." Why do you have to move on? Do the scales next week, or next month, or focus on scales for a whole month later in the year—what does it really matter? We need to keep the big picture in mind. Another possible explanation is that the teacher is imposing their own ideals upon the student rather than responding to the student's unique needs, but we need to address the student's learning needs, including the student's pace of learning in a very direct and explicit way.

By the end of a lesson, I find that two or three key issues typically emerge around which we can form learning intentions; any more than three will overwhelm the student. Often, I deliberately ignore some issues. When my staff observe me teach, sometimes they turn and look at me, and I know in their heads they're saying: "aren't you going to address that?" But I'm strategically ignoring some issues because I want to limit how much we address in one lesson. I aim to develop one learning intention that applies to all learning materials. For example, a learning intention concerning fingering or keeping time can apply to the lesson's repertoire and technical work. Again, we need to keep the big picture in mind: we teach skills, not individual pieces of music. At the same time, it's important not to force one specific learning intention for everything if it really doesn't apply to everything.

I hear you: "but sometimes students just need to get on with learning the notes." Absolutely. In the early stages, learning to read notes is indeed a large and necessary focus. But the student still has something to learn other than "notes". Why do they have to learn the notes? Teach them that notes on the page are merely the best method we have come up with to write music down but aren't themselves music. Like reading a book, the imagination ultimately creates the images, not the words. But you have to be able to read fluently, understand style, and so on, to conjure up a rich image; the more fluent the reading and deeper the understanding of the text, the more nuanced the image, the more nuanced the communication of that image. Learning the notes on the page is a prerequisite to communicating the music (let's not get into the rote learning debate here). So how do you make that into a learning intention? "I am learning the notes so that I can get on with making music." (Yes, even with primer method book material, written or not, there are many things you can add to create a musical performance. We need to teach students to be musical, foster habits of the mind and ear, and model musicality from day one).

Conclusion Set a maximum of three (I am for one or two) clear and specific learning intentions each week that are challenging and achievable. Develop big-concepts that cover as much of the student's learning material as possible but don't neglect things that require more specificity. Learning intentions are not instructions, lists of page numbers, bar numbers, and scales; they describe learning. Include the student in the development process. Give the student two to three success criteria to self-assess their progress toward those learning intentions. Keep the big picture in mind. Pick your battles—don't overwhelm students with several different learning intentions every week. Then, hold students accountable by immediately following up on those intentions in each lesson. You can assess your own teaching by asking the student what they learned before developing the learning intentions at the end of a lesson. It should be obvious to them because you worked on, at most, only three key concepts you clearly articulated and for which you made success criteria explicit, repeated several times and checked are understood by the student. Students often tell you what they did in a lesson, not what they learned. How the student responds will tell you something about how well you communicate in the lesson.

Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with postgraduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is the founder and director of Advantage Music Academy—a music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.

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