I look forward to my weekly arrival at Musselburgh Grammar School for many reasons, not the least of which is to see what press cuttings Maestro Bob Paterson (PT Music) has left for me. They’re usually about subjects of mutual fascination – chess, science, education and, of course, music. Recently he left me some pages from the Guardian on my favourite pianist – András Schiff. It concerned his performance of all 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven. There was an invitation to download Schiff’s lecture recitals on the sonatas. I’m guilty of over-using the expression treasure trove but, if you are a fan of Schiff, Beethoven or of piano music in general, then that’s exactly what this is! As Robert Jones points out in a post today, “one of the greatest privileges in life is to be taught by someone who is passionate about their subject.” It doesn’t get much better than having such passion mixed with Schiff’s breadth of knowledge and expressive ability.
Slightly more than one year after the idea was mooted, I managed to visit Robert Jones class in NBHS to observe a whiteboard in action*. A Credit Maths class was tightening its grip on the law of indices. Not only was I impressed with the effortless and effective use of the many functions of the whiteboard, but also with the Activote apparatus. This handheld, wireless tool enabled the class to vote on a multiple choice answer – the results being instantly called up in bar-chart form. My first thought on seeing this was that it would encourage uncertain pupils to engage, as it seemed anonymous. I say seemed as the stats are available to the teacher, enabling him/her to see if anyone is struggling or excelling. They are, it turns out, also available to the class if they so vote.
All the observation I’ve done to date has been serendipitous and usually takes the form of over-hearing/eavesdropping while printing from a computer in a Music classroom. What I tend to notice, possibly more than content, is language – not only the words but the tune. What appears to me to be best practice involves simple language**, quietly expressed. And this seems as true of classroom management as of delivery of lesson content. And it was certainly true yesterday. Drifting individuals were swiftly spotted and nudged back on task – sotto voce; the balance of praise, encouragement and prompting felt just right.
There is no formal mechanism for instrumental instructors to engage in observation. As far as I know, there is no formal mechanism for teachers to observe one another once probationary years have passed. However, based on yesterday’s experience, I feel it to be valuable for several reasons:
- there seem to me to be more common principles than significant differences across the curriculum – any primary teacher would tell you that teaching is teaching
- when you’ve taught your own subject for some years, there is perhaps more to be learned from observing the teaching of other subjects – any inspired moments I’ve experienced in the last few years have had their origins in fields other than music
- it’s unusual to see your pupils in another learning situation and, given our in loco parentis status, this strikes me as a little odd
* What was nice about this visit was that the idea came round again after we’d played through a few mandolin and guitar tunes at lunchtime
** While the pupils were engaged in a few exercises, I took the opportunity to pick up a book I’d spotted on Robert’s desk entitled The Physics of Sailing Explained, and read a few pages of the chapter on the weather and why it exists. This impressive read was the perfect compliment to the situation – concise, unambiguous sentences in the right order. It seemed so easy you felt you could have written it yourself.