Sunday, April 23, 2017

Pedagogy: It's not what you think.

Warning:  This is a lengthy one...and a bit rambling at times...

I have been thinking about this blog post probably since mid-February.  I now realize the topic of "pedagogy" is at the heart of the differences between American and Finnish education.  Well, that and the way Finland values their people, which I covered a few posts ago.  

Before I delve into this tricky subject, I want to say that the process of struggling to figure out the Finnish understanding of pedagogy has been one of the most pivotal, meaningful, and personally shaping experiences of my entire time in Finland.  Much of what I am learning about Finnish culture has been easy to see: they don't wear shoes in school, the education system is free, they love salmiakki etc...  But this was a case of knowing that what I was observing was a new thing to me, but I couldn't make sense of it.  I have been blessed with an advisor who is good at sitting and talking with me, and who has given me literally hours of her time.  Most of our conversations have been fairly easy in that one of us asks the other about some aspect of our respective culture, and the other answers it.  This topic, however, was different.  I have come to understand that sometimes it is difficult to describe something about your culture when you are speaking as an insider, from a perspective where you're culture is all you know.  It's like the questions being asked don't really make sense because you can't even see what the question is.  What would the other option be?  This was pedagogy for us.  We were using the same word, but meaning very different things by it.  

Let's see if I can walk you through some of this journey....

Part of the application for a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Education grant is a proposed inquiry project.  Here's an brief outline of mine:

I wanted to create a resource guide for music educators based on what I observed in Finnish choral rehearsals.  The main purpose of my time in Finland was to increase my skills as a conductor and choir teacher.  I was also hoping to come back with a handy little guide full of new tools and techniques that teachers in the US could take into their classrooms.  Chapters one and two were meant to be brief descriptions and chapter three was going to be the meat of my project.  

An In-Depth Look at Music Education and Children's Choirs in Finland

Chapter 1: Music Teacher Training in Finland

Chapter 2: The Finnish Music School Model

Chapter 3: Finnish Children's Choirs
-Conductor Responsibilities
* Choosing Repertoire
* Learning the Score
* Conducting Gestures
-Tools and Techniques for Teaching Musicianship Skills
* Vocal Development
* Musical Literacy
* Part-Singing
-Rehearsal to Performance
* Song Presentation
* Planning Rehearsals - both short and long term planning

As it turns out, Chapter 1 is the only chapter that will remain the same.  The issue with Chapter 2 is that the Finnish music education system is much more extensive than just music schools. And Chapter 3...well this chapter is pretty much going to be thrown out completely. It became clear to me almost immediately that I was asking the wrong questions in Chapter 3.   

Let's back up a little.  The very first day that Sanna (you all know her as my advisor by now, right?) and I met to talk about my project, she suggested I look at the pedagogy in Finnish children's choirs.  Excellent, I thought!  I've got an entire chapter of my project dedicated to this!  

Now fast forward a bit.  Sanna invited me to teach a handful of songs to her choir - quite a generous gesture!  The first song I worked on was "On Suuri Sun Rantas Autius."  This song is a bit like a Finnish "Shennandoah."  The words talk about hearing the wild duck crying on the shores of a beloved lake, and the cries make the writer long for their home land.  Like a good choir director teacher, I spent time analyzing the piece and figuring out what a good "entry point" was for introducing this song.  Vox Aurea, Sanna's choir, is an advanced choir and I had a hunch they wouldn't need much help with the actual notes.  So I decided that a way to get right to the musicality of the song would be to focus on the mood of the piece.  I read the words to the choir and then I played them an audio recording of a loon call, which was the closest connection I had to a wild duck.  We discussed what kind of emotions a call like this evoked.  I had the choir sing the song with those emotions in mind.  I also noticed that the music had no dynamic markings, which I found unusual and interesting.  I had the choir break up into small groups and discuss what they thought the dynamics should be throughout the piece.  Then each group took turns writing out the dynamics on the board and we sang through the song according to each groups dynamic interpretations.  I should mention, I was absolutely impressed with the choir's ability to sing the dynamics differently each time.  They really did sing with such sensitivity.  Then my time was up so I said we would come back to this next week and make final decisions about dynamics as a whole group.

Pretty good lesson, don't you think?  Engaging, analytical, opportunity for group discussion, and repeated practice of the song.  This lesson had it all!  I was supposed to have worked on two pieces that day, but what teacher hasn't run out of time for their entire lesson before, right?

Not so much.  Sanna's response was basically:  "What was that?"  Her general feedback was that in the time I had to rehearse, I only got to one piece.  They have very little rehearsal time to learn LOTS of songs, so there is no time for things like what I did.  She did, however, agree that I had told the kids we would decide on dynamics next week, so she said I should work on it again next week and follow through on my promise...but be quick about it!

So I taught the song again the next week.  I don't honestly remember as many details about that rehearsal, but I know we decided as a group on the dynamics and we rehearsed a few tricky spots that I was noticing note-wise.  I thought it had gone better.  Again, not so much.  Sanna still seemed confused about the choices I had made for that rehearsal.  She posed questions like "was I happy with the speaking vs. singing ratio" and "what did I think about the timing / effectiveness of the session."

I was starting to stress out!  I'm here on a FULBRIGHT, for goodness sake, and I felt like I was coming across as some American yahoo who didn't know how to run a choir rehearsal.  And it wasn't for lack of trying on my part!  I put a lot of thought into both of those rehearsals.  Aaaagh!

Sanna and I met the next week to talk things over.  At some point during this conversation she again mentioned that I should examine the pedagogy of children's choirs. As we began discussing "pedagogy" it was clear we were not understanding each other.   I remember her saying "well...maybe the issue is in each of our understanding of pedagogy."  But neither of us were doing well at articulating our understanding of pedagogy.  It was a frustrating position to be in.  I wanted to do well by her, and I wanted to learn the Finnish way, but we were struggling to communicate to each other.  

All I knew was that she was giving me another chance to work with her choir, and I did NOT want to screw it up.  But I didn't really know how to fix what I was doing.  I remember thinking and thinking about this.  I was frustrated, I didn't understand, and I didn't really even understand what it was that I didn't understand.  It was like there was this big black hole that I wasn't able to penetrate.  I can remember coming up with a brilliant solution to my problem as I was walking one day.  I sent her an email asking if she would be willing to give me a sample "lesson plan" of what she would do if she were me.  How would she use those 30 minutes to work with the choir?  I thought that if I could see how she would use that time, maybe I could prepare by trying to do my best at following her modeling.  She responded by saying that she'd be happy to try, but that's not really how she thinks about teaching.  She said she doesn't decide beforehand what she will teach, but she listens to what the singers' needs are and reacts accordingly.  She comes prepared with many different plans and then works in cooperation with the singers to meet a shared goal. 

Again, aaaaagggghhhh!!!!  Of course I don't disagree with this, but you can see how I was struggling with knowing what to do with this.  I mean, what exactly was I supposed to do?  I wanted a step by step guide about how to improve my instruction.

We met again and Sanna suggested that I talk with a professor from the education department who was from England but has lived in Finland for 20 years. Sanna thought a native English speaker with an "outsiders" perspective may be able to help make sense of the confusion I was experiencing.  

I met with this woman and basically explained to her everything I've written above, and this is where the breakthrough happened.  She understood immediately what I as talking about and described it like this:

In America (and apparently England too):
Pedagogy = specific techniques, tools or methods used to teach and assess different skills or content.   This is teacher or process centered.

In Finland:
Pedagogy = The process in which a child grows in personal and cultural development, and how the teacher uses various tools to help each child in the process according to what works for each individual child. This is student centered.

Understanding this difference made me realize I had been asking the wrong questions.  The question wasn't "what tools and techniques do they use in Finland."  Those are basically the same as what we use.  As Sanna says, "Educational research is universal."  I kind of agree. Instructionally, I have seen nothing new happening in Finland.  The difference isn't in their tools and techniques, the difference is in their approach to education.  So the correct question to be asking was, "How does Finland approach education, and what does this look like in a choral setting?" A primary goal of Finnish education is to help students discover who they are and to grow into their own personal identity.  Educational ideals are not imposed on students they way they are in the US.  There isn't one definition of success (ie, high scores on tests.)  Teachers here are expected to know something about many different methods and instructional models, and then look at their students as individuals and choose the instructional method that is right for them in that moment.  

So what did this mean for my time with Vox Aurea?  I decided to just focus on the music.  Each time I've been asked to teach a song, I prepare by making sure I know the score really well so that I'll be able to spend all of my energy listening to the choir and responding to what I hear.  I've taught through a very straight forward method - basically teaching the songs by playing the music on the piano.  There is not much creative about the teaching process, but then we get to the "making music" part more quickly.  And since I've done that, Sanna has said, "That was perfect, Rachel!"  This is quite different that the training I've received in the US.  I can see pros and cons to both systems, but I am avoiding making judgments, and simply trying to learn the Finnish way.    

As a result of all of this learning and reflection, the three chapters to my project will now be:

1. The Finnish Music Education Model
2. Music Teacher Training in Finland
3. The Finnish Approach to Teaching and Learning in a Choral Setting

1 comment:

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