Thinking about Orff Schulwerk – and teaching students and teachers how to incorporate this approach into developing 21st century skills – has been a life-long goal of mine. You say, “But 21st century skills have just emerged.” In theory, they have always been part of our Orff Schulwerk approach from the very beginning.  It is just now, that 21st century skills have been pronounced as important for success in all areas of life in educational jargon. Particularly communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration jump out for me because these four areas have always been the focal point of Orff Schulwerk.

I am certain all of you who teach Orff Schulwerk include communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration in your lessons. Whether these skills are successful in your lesson is possibly due to how often you use group work.  In my teaching experience, group work was not always as successful as I had imagined it would be. So many variables exist when putting young students together to accomplish a task. I also understand you cannot assume your students know much about cooperating together. This skill needs to be taught, talked about, and practiced in order for cooperation to happen. I have found that when cooperation is positive, the results of the task are positive.

To begin, I found it important to talk to my students about how things work in the world. All of this talking – you might think – takes away from teaching music, and you only have such a precious amount of time for that.  However, after putting cooperation in place, you will find, how quickly, succinctly, happily, and, more importantly, successfully learning about music improves.

A few suggestions:

  • Talk about what you are going to be doing differently when you have “group work”
  • Make some posters and hang them around the room with “kindness words” as reminders – practice using these words
  • Practice listening skills like looking at the person talking, sitting still, thinking about what the person is saying, repeating what you heard, and being quiet.
  • Practice how to resolve conflict. What can students do to solve an argument or disagreement?
  • Practice talking one at a time. Using a talking stick is a way to facilitate this skill. Pass the talking stick so when a person is holding it, only he/she talks and everyone else listens.
  • Practice sharing: taking turns talking, playing instruments, giving ideas
  • Practice, practice, practice all of the above
  • Make a poster to remind students how to “get the job done.”

✓ Share ideas and listen
✓ Decide on what to use
✓ Practice until it is good

There are many ways to put students together, but when you begin to do this, make sure you consider gender, skills, personalities, academics, race, behavior, culture, religion and so on. I found this to be the most difficult challenge for me. In cooperative learning, it is important to have students in their groups for a long period of time in order to develop loyalty. When each student has a vested interest in their group, their work is much more vested. They want to be successful for the sake of their group. Their group becomes the impetus for the best results.  The pride they take in portraying their group efforts becomes a major factor in the musical results they share with the class. That is one thing I never experienced before I began using cooperative learning techniques. When I haphazardly threw groups together to complete a creative task, the results were never that good. There was a lot of bickering within the groups, and cooperation issues sidetracked the task. I was frustrated and so were my students. Skills were not improved, concepts were not understood, and there was no sense of completion.

In Orff Schulwerk, when we have students compose and improvise, that is the creativity aspect of our teaching. When students communicate through improvisation or through direct sharing of ideas to create a class piece, communication skills are directly impacted. When students listen to a performance of their peers, or discuss how a piece of music they have listened to via audio could be improved or how it effected their emotions, communication is happening. When students have a problem given by the teacher to solve, to discover a better ending for a phrase, or to pass around a piece of rhythmic music to add to, their critical thinking skills are developing. And, when students work in groups to create a melody, or any other piece they might share with the class, their collaboration skills are directly involved. It is our responsibility to stress these skills along with the students’ musical skills.

An example of a cooperative learning strategy for a lesson idea may be to use “think-pair-share” beginning with individuals, then partners, and finally expanding to a foursome. This is an easy way to begin using cooperative learning. Pose a problem, i.e. play a short phrase on your recorder, and ask the students to think how they might show the phrase with their arms. Ask them to individually practice this movement several times while you repeat the phrase. When they like their solution, ask them to pair with a nearby student and share their ideas. Next, ask them to either combine their ideas or take a little of each and put it together to create just one solution. This is the beginning of compromising, an important skill when collaborating. Practice until it is synchronized and makes a beautiful movement phrase with the musical phrase. Share some of these with the class. To expand, (if you can see the students are ready), pair the duos with another duo and ask them to share and then use part of each to create a single movement phrase with four people moving altogether with the same movements.

When using these cooperative strategies, it is important that students know how they will be assessed. In this instance, you might tell the students they will be assessed not individually, but as a “team.” You are looking for tension and relaxation in the movement that corresponds with the tension and relaxation of the musical phrase. Also, you are looking at how well they compromised by being good listeners and solving any conflicts together.

Once you and your students have practiced 21st century skills within the framework of cooperative learning and Orff Schulwerk, you will be amazed at how easy it is…  and how rewarding music classes become when students have the skills to collaborate, communicate, create and think critically together.