A PBL Pathway to 21st Century Deeper Learning Schools

From Discipline Problems to Problem-Based Teaching and Learning.

Driving Question: What’s Authentic?

Jim Bellanca

“What do I do?” Jan, a first year teacher hired at a Charter High School to teach music in an arts program asked. “I have a PhD, perform professionally, have three classes, one of which is a self-selected AP music class,  one is intro to Jazz and one is Intro to Music. Most of the kids have no idea why they are in my class.  They know they are in an arts school.  They don’t do homework, the think they can just get up and walk around or shout across the room whenever they like and could care less about the music theory the curriculum says I am supposed to teach.”

  • So much for the first myth that charter kids are all work.
  • So much for the second myth that the more a teacher knows subject matter, the more effective she will be.
  • So much for the myth that a young teacher’s enthusiasm is all that’s needed.
  • But not so much for the myth that adolescents are attracted mostly to social play in school. That’s been 200% true since Socrates sat with his first student. True then; true now. That’s the way the hormones flow.

So what does Jan do? Here are 8 things she and I concluded would help to answer her question. All our ideas come down to capitalizing on her students’ musical interests and immersing them in authentic problem-based-learning.

  1. Stop with the school-dictated worksheets that ask students to fill in blanks with musical notations.
  2. Stop assigning homework for skills and theories that they didn’t prove they understood while still in class.
  3. Stop worrying about entering a grade for each student each day as prescribed by the school. (Teachers are not book keepers!)
  4. Put the daily script handed out by the school  into the trash can or at least the top drawer of your desk.
  5. Forget about preparing the AP students for a final exam when they can’t yet read music. Start with the students’ interests in music and the instruments they play.
  6. Build on their love of socializing.
  7. Flip their homework.
  8. Find authentic questions built around a musical problem to solve–one that interests them!
  9. Engage with relevant problem solving  projects about music.
  10. Assess their progress as well as their results.

Now let’s think about these ideas in more detail.

  1. Worksheets. Always a loser especially for students who appear to care less about the subject or the teacher’s rich knowledge. Just filling in the blanks or circling best guesses will bore students who have no idea of what goes with what. Instead of worksheets, Jan will think of protocols for solving musical problems such as how to write a simple score similar to a favorite songster. Crawling always comes before walking and walking before running.
  2. Homework.  Sure homework is important, as long as the kids know what they are doing, buy into the benefits and have the study skills. Instead of giving more practice worksheets on ideas the kids don’t understand, make an assignment that has a high-interest ratio, a task that is relevant. Since this is music class, Jan plans to spend a class period or two brainstorming and discussing what singers, bands, sounds, genres they prefer to listen to. As homework, she will send them to U Tube to find videos of performances by their favorites and use a protocol that asks them to list the musician’s name, the song, the genre and then what they like about what they are hearing. They bring this open worksheet to class and she will download the song/act for all to hear and see, and then conduct a round-robin sharing with each student contributing his or her favorite and leading the discussion about it with a visible plus/minus/questions chart.
  3. Grades. Having to take time to enter a grade for each assignment not done  is a waste of any teacher’s time as well as the students. Do they ever know it too!  Jan can save the grades for something important that she can take time to read or hear and evaluate at the end of the week.  (Note the “and hear”.  Since all her students play some instrument, why can’t she connect what she has to teach in theory to their playing?) Grades certainly won’t get kids who don’t care about grades doing their homework. Jan can save the little time she and they have together by doing away with meaningless grades on meaningless paper and connect their talent to the assignments. She is not a bean counter.
  4. Scripts.  If Jan is not a bean counter, she is also not a stage actress.  Her PhD says she is smart enough to do more than read instructions from a piece of paper. She certainly knows her content.  Her job is to motivate student interest in the music she loves. She will do that by finding out their personal musical interests and connecting those to her course work.
  5. AP Prep. Jan can threaten the kids all she wants. “You will not pass the course or the exam if you don’t shape up.” She can continue reading them scripted lectures about theory or classical composers. Or she can take them back to the basics, get them engaged in understanding music and take them as far as they can go. After finding out the music they like as her starter and engaging the classes in evaluating their own music (“How about a classroom top 10 chart!”), she can start playing and studying their songs before branching into other famous artists they might like. Then take their favorites to start the students on preparing simple scores (A requirement in the syllabus already) and perform on their own instruments. If she puts these ideas in to a kettle called “problems” and frames each task as a problem for the students to solve with her help, she will get a lot further than lecturing to them about what they should do.
  6. The Social Club.  Since her students love to socialize as do most healthy teens, Jan feels she can take advantage and use this natural disposition to engage her students in music study. Here comes 21st Century collaboration. We agreed Jan would form groups of three around one of the class’ favorite songs. (She would give everyone a chance to name a song, before an all class vote). After showing them how to score the song, she would ask each trio to write a similar notation. She would assign roles, set guidelines with a contract and call for self-assessment of how each team member helped the group. She would also ask each team to present (visually and/or orally) their results making sure that they have agreed only to make positive comments and discuss what they liked about each others’ scores. If they scores turned out well, Jan agreed it would be fun for all to play or sing the scores.  (Go back over this site’s last three blogs for more hints on turning socializing into collaborating with formal methods such as roles).
  7. Flipping Out. Here we are back at the flipped classroom. After Jan gets the class working hard in class, she intends to start giving out-of-class music problems of high interest that she thinks most can do with confidence. If she follows the above points until they are all working well for her and the kids, she will concentrate on making the class period as packed with problem based  learning as she can. Their engagement is her first goal.  Once that happens, she can make it tougher for them to complete all their class works in class time. Now they will be more ready to want to finish that work because the next day they will be reporting to their classmates. They should be flipping out because they couldn’t finish in class. There is no law against unfinished business becoming homework.
  8. Authentic Questions. From Jan’s descriptions, it is obvious that there is lots of 21st Century communication and collaboration among her students. Her challenge is to transfer that energy into 21st Century learning with one strategy being adoption of an inquiry model of teaching that switches from her telling students about music to enabling them to ask questions which interest them. Lots of strategies exist for helping them ask the right questions including astart-up investigation about their favorite music and artists with the 5 Ws in a newspaper graphic organizer. The very definition of “authentic” in questioning centers on questions generated by students about their relevant interests. For most adolescents, their music is about as relevant as one could get.
    1.  Inquiry. Any lesson can be cast as inquiry. It will take Jan a little longer to frame a strong driving question that is not answered just by the facts. She has noted that the number of kids who are always challenging her with “what if” questions. This she believes is her “in”.  Her own favorite fun musical activity is to mix music singers or composers works. “What if I wrote a song that mixed rock and jazz?”  That type of question could be asked every day starting with the students debating what it would take or what might be the results. Rather than just talk about the problem of the day, she would then let them work out their solutions with their own compositions and grow to full scale projects.
    2. Assess.   Jan now intends to build a grading system that will have the students earn points for answering questions, solving problems and performing. She thinks that if in a given month, they earn more points than the previous months, she will give bonuses. She Intends to try Mrs. Potter’s three q uestions so they can self-assess (1f) what they think they did well in a task (2)  how they could improve and (3) what help they need to get better. This will let her take time to work on their writing skills which appall her, but are not part of the music curriculum.

Now, dear reader, you have heard what Jan and I concocted. We talked about lots of other ideas, but about these she said “I can do that!” with confidence. She has made a written plan with dates and tasks spelled out.   In a few months, I will get back to you with what happened. Did the best laid plans of mice, men and women go wrong? Or did Jan grab her students’ attention, build on their  authentic interests and lead them to love their music? Was she able to stop talking at the students and pose questions and problems that they had to answer. Authentic learning that comes from student problem solving is not easy to make happen.  Jan is convinced she can do it.  In the meantime, Jan would welcome your two cents on authentic problem solving as the key to getting here students learning and making music through her first school year.



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