In recent months there have been many debates about video-conferencing platforms, camera angles, microphones and headphones. Alternative exam formats have been launched and new examination boards have emerged. We have all faced our own unique personal and professional challenges.
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic and re-engage with in-person teaching, it seems an opportune moment for the teachers at Encore Music Tuition to reflect upon our experiences of online teaching. Intentionally checking the accuracy and validity of our teaching assumptions is an essential element of critical reflection. During the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, our teaching assumptions were challenged more than ever before and we had to adapt quickly to find new ways to connect with, inspire, encourage and develop our students. Here we consider the ways in which the shift to online tuition influenced teaching and learning and assess any longer lasting impacts.
Promoting Independence and Autonomy
The shift to teaching online shone a spotlight on the extent to which our students relied on their teacher for participatory support. For example, with teacher tempo setting hampered by even the smallest online time delay, younger students, in particular, displayed a rather fluid sense of pulse. This, in turn, impacted rhythmic accuracy and fluency. Addressing this through call and response activities and mindful autonomous tempo setting have remained features of face to face teaching. Online lessons necessitated a more ‘hands off’ approach, and so our students became – and have continued to be – more independent as learners because they couldn’t lean on us in the same way. Now that we are back to face to face lessons we have found that more independence during lessons has led to greater independent learning between lessons too.
We discovered that compromised sound and video quality affected the quality of the feedback we were able to give. In some cases, we realised that a student’s technical set up had a much greater impact on the lesson than our own facilities. This presented more opportunities to encourage self-evaluation which we know can help students engage with their musical learning.
Asking students to self-assess the accuracy of their finger work or the range of their dynamics, for example, helped them to determine their performance weaknesses and identify appropriate practice strategies. Greater self-awareness led to improvements in independent critical evaluation which, coupled with autonomous motivation, resulted in students recognising their own achievements.
For some students, we introduced the submission of mid-week videos which we reviewed together during their lesson. This practice has proved to have ongoing value in preparation for performance.
Alternatives to Modelling
Before we fully invested in multiple-angle webcams, opportunities to demonstrate for our students were significantly reduced. We consistently support our students by modelling, showing and telling, and we discovered that two of these three elements were significantly reduced in a remote setting. Whilst experienced teachers adjust the degree of support to match the needs of the individual learner, suddenly we needed to modify the degree of help in response to a changing environment. Without the support of modelling, the importance of accurate verbal instructions was amplified. This led to a review of the clarity of language we were using, particularly when teaching rote pieces to early learners. In addition to providing clearer, more articulate instructions, we found that sharing a pre-recorded video demonstration was a viable alternative to in-the-moment demonstrations.
Variety and Place
An increased reliance on verbal instruction meant we had to allow more time during lessons for students to follow directions. We asked more questions to check understanding and found that allowing more space for pupils to process information was vital to ensure absorption. Different learning preferences seemed to assume greater significance and we became more creative as problem solvers. In some cases, teaching became more visual, using more cards, visual aids and games. Some lessons even felt faster paced as a result of changing activity more frequently.
We all keenly missed personal interactions during lockdowns. Reading body language and picking up an emotional undercurrent or nuance is very difficult on a video call. We all have a renewed sense of the value of the social aspects of teaching and learning music. As teachers, we discovered that we are adaptable. We were able to draw strength and support from the wider teaching community and our own small team was bolstered by the sharing of ideas, resources, challenges and triumphs.
Whilst online teaching may not be ideally suited to all learners, almost all our students have continued to thrive musically. They too, were encouraged by a sense of community which grew from repertoire and reading challenges, online recitals, virtual musical collaboration and a shared responsibility for the health and well-being of students, teachers and families.
Critically reflecting on our experiences will ensure the lessons we have learned as teachers during the pandemic will continue to shape our teaching in all contexts. Encore Music tutors had never taught online before March 2020, but remote lessons have now become part of our offering, allowing us to respond flexibly to student or teacher absence. Even now, as I write this article, a member of my household is self-isolating with COVID and my students will have their lessons online for at least the next 10 days… here we go again!