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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Deepening and Assessing Understanding: Applied Learning Circles

Today's post is the third installment in my series on making every voice heard in the music room, and it's the one I've been most excited to share. So far we've discussed community-building circles and problem-solving circles, and today we're talking about what I'm calling applied-learning circles. What's so exciting about this teaching strategy is how it encourages every student to think about and share their learning in a much deeper way!


To review, the basic idea behind these circles is to give every student the opportunity to speak and to help everyone practice their listening skills as well. Most of us as teachers probably think it's a pretty basic concept initially, but with all of the pulls we have on our time these days, how often do we actually have every student speak? For me, I realized it was not nearly as much as I initially thought.

The first 2 types of circles I discussed both focus on fostering a positive classroom community and developing interpersonal skills and relationships. As I mentioned in my previous posts, while these circles take time away from "content/curriculum" initially, they have the potential to actually give you more time for teaching and learning content in the long run because they reduce behavioral disruptions, particularly for students who don't experience a sense of value and belonging in the rest of their lives. Still, it can be difficult to justify taking too much time away from directly engaging your content/curriculum, especially if you have administrators and politicians constantly looking over your shoulder.

Applied learning circles bridge that gap.

In these circles, students are still each given the opportunity to share- the format is the same- but the discussion is centered around content. In order for this to actually work, the discussion will naturally focus on higher-order thinking questions, so this is the perfect format for deepening student understanding and assessing each student's level of understanding of a topic without the need for a written test. And these circles will continue to foster a sense of belonging and develop interpersonal relationships, just like the other circles. What more can you ask for???

Structuring an applied learning circle

The basic "ground rules" are the same for this as in all other circles, with a couple of exceptions:
  • we will go around the circle until everyone has a turn
  • only the person with the item (some small object you designate as the "talking piece", like an unplugged microphone or stuffed animal) is allowed to speak- this means even you as the teacher are not allowed to comment or ask follow-up questions when someone speaks 
  • each person will get 1 turn only on each question
  • anyone can choose to "pass" if they haven't thought of their answer yet on their turn, but if this is being used as an assessment, anyone who passes initially will need to give an answer after everyone has had a turn


The main differences between applied learning circles and other types are that students may be required to give an answer, there may be more than 1 question, and you may decide not to go in order around the circle when students are giving their answers. 

Examples of Applied Learning Circles

The possibilities are endless, but the basic application of this type of circle will be to take a musical concept and explain it in their own words, express an opinion or create something using the concept, or apply the concept to different situations. The questions can't be the traditional "test questions" like, "what does this term mean?", or "what is the term for this?". The prompts have to have multiple answers so that each student can share their own thinking. 

Here are some examples I have come up with to get us started:
  • Tell me one of your favorite songs, then (in a second round after everyone has answered) tell me what musical aspects do you like about the song (use musical vocabulary in your answer)?
  • If you were going to write a song in a minor key, what would it be titled? What instruments would you use?
  • You're writing a song called, "(fill in the blank)". What tempo would you use and why? Dynamics/ timbres/ style/ articulation/ tonality?
  • If you were deciding on the order of songs for our concert, what order would you put the songs in and why?
  • If you were choosing a music-related career, which field would you want to go into? 
  • (After listening to multiple versions of a famous song, like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" a national anthem, etc:) Which version did you like best? Why?
  • Why do you think the composer chose that dynamic level/ tempo/ etc for that part of the song?
  • Here's the beginning of this new commercial/ jingle I'm writing for purple monkeys who can curl your hair perfectly in under 2 minutes: (sing 1 phrase). What should the next part be?
  • (After watching a video of someone dancing to music with the sound off:) Describe the music you think they were dancing to.
These circles are a great way to get students thinking about, applying, and sharing their learning, and if the students are used to the format of circles in general, it will be a comfortable and quick way to get everyone talking- not just the ones that always raise their hands- in a much less threatening way. 

I can't wait to get going with these circles this school year, and I'm sure there are TONS of other great examples of prompts you could use in applied learning circles! I'd love to hear your ideas for prompts in the comments- let's brainstorm together!

If you haven't already, be sure to go back and read my previous posts on community-building circles (and an introduction to circles in general) and problem-solving circles. These applied-learning circles will work best in the context of a classroom environment where these other low pressure circles are already a part of the routine.



Looking for lesson ideas for K-6 general music that encourage deeper thinking and encourage students to show their learning in a variety of ways while meeting the National Core Arts Standards for music? Here's my full curriculum set.

Want to stay in the loop, see timely resources and ideas, and take a look at what I'll be covering in my classes each month? 


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