Orff Schulwerk and Constructivism

4 09 2008

Deconstructing Music to Construct Learning
June 29, 2008

“Tell me, I forget, show me, I remember, Involve me, I understand.”

The literature on constructivism is vast and varied; “[it] has become something akin to a secular religion” (Phillips, 1995 p. 5). While there are many different varieties, and many different names, the one common tenet of them all is that human beings can’t be “loaded” with knowledge, but instead are active seekers of meaning.  There is no single theory that could be called constructivism, but instead, there are some basic ideas that have been influenced by the work of many people.  The ideas are that: knowledge comes from within the individual, meaning is personally created by each learner, activities cause learners to access prior knowledge, learning is a social activity which is enhanced by collaboration, the outcomes of learning are unpredictable and inconsistent and, reflection and metacognition are integral parts of constructing knowledge. These ideas, whether explicitly stated or implied, have come to influence the attitudes and practices of the teaching profession.

It is believed that people learn by constructing their own understanding of experiences and that the creation of knowledge is in some way an active process.  It is this idea of active knowledge building that divides the different constructivist sects.  Knowledge construction can involve individual and social activities, or combinations of the two.  The Orff-Schulwerk approach to music education addresses knowledge construction activities in all of these contexts.  In social activities, according to Driscoll, “learners test their own understandings against those of others, notably those of teachers or more advanced peers”  (Driscoll, 2000 p. 385). The group work and collaboration used in Orff-Schulwerk allows individuals to contribute on their own level to the process of music making.  The constructivist approach to learning also states that learning must occur in context; “knowledge that learners can usefully deploy should be developed.  Moreover, this can only be done in the context of meaningful activity.” (Driscoll, 2000 p. 379)   Music making and practice is inherently situated in this manner.

The activity and experience of making music as a learning experience has been decontextualized in order to facilitate learning.  The work of Jerome Brunner states that,  “educators have considered the basic elements of a field of knowledge to be the core or essence of what students need to learn in that field”  (Wiggins, 2007 p. 36).  As a result of this music education  identified the “elements” of music in order to embrace Brunner’s ideas about thinking and learning in the 1960’s.  Breaking music learning into its elements certainly facilitated teaching, but it is unclear whether this is the best approach to learning.   Music is an art, and the sum of the parts does not necessarily equal the whole.  Learning the elements of music (rhythm, meter, melody, harmony, form, timbre, texture) in isolation does not necessarily allow students the experiences of authentic music making.  Much of the question about whether these elements of music can be taught in a constructivist ideology lays in the pedagogy of music education.

In order for music learning to be constructed, the musician must consider all the elements and how they relate.  This is a very complex task, especially for young children.  There are, however, some natural connections between musical elements which help.  For instance melody is comprised of rhythm and pitch; harmony includes pitch, rhythm and texture (Cutietta, 1993).  In order to teach music as a creative experience, it is necessary to build the knowledge and experience base of students at an elemental level and to take what is known and use it to build musical literacy. Unfortunately much early music education focuses only on pitch and rhythm.  As written by Covington and Lord,  “what makes a passage musical depends heavily on factors beyond pitch and rhythm -dynamics, articulation, timbre, register, texture-aspects for which a keen awareness is critical for performers, conductors, and composers” (1994 p.1).  In order to achieve this wide range of awareness, learning can be isolated to each of the musical elements in a meaningful context.  An Orff-Schulwerk teacher uses elements of music in a practical manner without losing their inherent musicality.  By isolating the musical elements, the ability to build on prior knowledge is greater, and students can be successful.

In the Orff approach, the starting point and element is rhythm, with speech patterns used as the basis for rhythmic development.  Melody begins with three tones and progresses through the diatonic scale to ancient Greek modes.  Harmony starts simple with drones and moves to complex arrangements.  All of these elements, however, are presented in a context of collaboration and group activities, which allows for this deconstruction of music into its elements.  Individuals can work on separate elements so that when the whole group plays togehter, the end result is something musical.  “Orff-Schulwerk can be described as a model for the design of learning experiences; its main thrust is musical learning, but it has strong implications for cultural and social learning as well.”  (Shamrock, 1997 p.41)  The goal is to create individuals who are comfortable with music making, who can sing, dance, play instruments, use rhythmic speech in music and drama, and combine all of these in their own compositions.    In the Orff approach to music teaching and learning, the process  is elemental, creative, collaborative, experiential and holistic.  These are all concepts that fit within the constructivist framework.  “In the process of exploration and creation, the learner chooses and permutes the knowledge, constructs hypotheses, makes decisions, and while performing these, relies on cognitive structuring.” (Crisp, 2006 p.1)

Carl Orff, and his partner Gunild Keetman, understood that children need to move, explore, try things out and use their imaginations. Because of this understanding, the Orff-Schulwerk also has a large social development component. There is an emphasis on social interaction and collaboration which fosters a learning environment where individual competency is used to support and strengthen that of the group. Students compose in small groups, large groups, and improvise individually.  In this collaborative environment, students learn not only music but valuable social skills.

The Orff-Schulwerk is considered a process rather than a product oriented method.  While the same musical piece might be used with several classes, the product of their work will surely all be different. “The same basic elements and format may be used repeatedly, but the essence of the pedagogy is that each group of participants must go through the discovery learning process of experimenting, selecting, evaluating, discarding, and finally combining materials in a way that satisfies that particular group.” (Shamrock, 1997, p.43).  The teacher in an Orff classroom acts as a leader, helping to guide the process to a successful result.  As students gain an understanding of musical elements through experience with Orff materials and process, they form a foundation which they can apply to any musical style or period.

In the sociocultural context, learning occurs when there is a shared understanding among individuals; what happens in learning, is the transmission or sharing of cultural knowledge (Driscoll, 2000).  Having a common foundation of knowledge in the musical elements helps to establish this shared understanding and allows students to make connections with historical or popular music.  Integrating recorded music which is culturally or historically relevant into the curriculum is easily facilitated in an approach like Orff that doesn’t have a set curriculum.  Additionally, since the Orff process is text based it can be adapted to any language or culture allowing for a shared understanding between diverse classes.  “An educational program is not the collection of courses a student takes or the participation in musical organizations offered” (Campbell, 2007, p.27)  but lies in the experiences, activities and the contexts in which learning occurs.  The shared understandings, and shared experiences afforded by the Orff process allow learners to experience a basic level of all the elements of music.

Listening to, describing and thinking about music is common in many cultures.  The metacognition that is required to describe or think of music requires guided questioning by the teacher.  It is a pedagogical practice rather than one of process.  The one constructivist idea that is not addressed in the Orff process is that reflection and metacognition are integral parts of constructing knowledge.  While metacognition does happen when students are composing, or working in groups, it is not explicitly discussed in the Orff-Schulwerk.  Explicit ideas about metacognition, would require the focus to be on the individual, where the Schulwerk is very much focused on the group as a whole.  In addition,  metacognition reqires students to have a foundation of knowledge with which to base their thoughts.    Since the Orff-Schulwerk is primarily aimed at young children, the knowledge base is vast and varied.  According to Driscoll, “students must have a base of knowledge that may be related to the strategies they are learning” (Driscoll, 2000 p.111).  While students of any age can render an opinion about a piece of music they have played or learned, that reflection is not likely to be metacognitive unless the student has a framework of knowledge about music from which to build.

The constructivist ideas around learning, activities and social context are addressed by the elemental approach presented in the Orff-Schulwerk.  There are some who challenge the idea of breaking music into basic elements, on the grounds that it decontextualizes the experience and dilutes the learning.  Separating music into its elements is no different than separating addition and subtraction, or studying map making as part of community.  In the end, the separation allows for a nearly complete constructivist environment, in which students can sing, dance and play while they learn.

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