Robert Kilvington-Shaw, head of Visual Performing Arts and Middle School Music Teacher at the American International School in Hong Kong, reflects on integrating PBL into his teaching practice.
In the autumn of 2020, I had the opportunity to attend the Project-Based Learning Immersive Program with Kyle Wagner from Transform Educational Consulting Limited. I felt so energised by the potential I saw within PBL, with its real-world pedagogy and student-centred approach, that I decided to jump straight into a PBL unit with my grade 6 students whilst enrolled on the immersive program. The result was a transformed learning context that allowed my students to produce satisfying and credible outcomes only a few weeks after I’d initially signed up for the course. Delivering a PBL unit whilst learning about PBL practice made the training relevant and applicable, and I’m so pleased I had the courage to engage with PBL from both perspectives simultaneously; it definitely led to some rich rewards for both me as a teacher and my students as musicians and composers.
At the time, we were in the thick of a hybrid model of on-campus and online learning. The online components of this model were proving to be quite a challenge. I’d seen a lot of talk from music educators about the necessity of ploughing on with the curriculum, but I soon found this to be inadequate in the context of my lesson design.
How can you sustain a model of practical hands on music making when the online technologies do not afford this opportunity? Instead, what other affordances of music technology could now be explored within the context of this new online setting, that perhaps had not been so obvious before?
I knew there had to be a better way to synthesise our current online circumstances with technology but what could this look like and where to begin? The challenges posed by our hybrid schedule did not just stop with online learning. Although the school faculty were delighted to have our students back, the on-campus element of our hybrid model certainly came with its quirks. With a collapsed timetable and half-days, students were whisked through shortened lessons in an attempt to make up for lost time; social distancing and only brief passing times between lessons stifled human-to-human interactions; at lunchtime, forward-facing students rapidly consuming their boxed lunches in a sterile and silent plexiglass atmosphere, far removed from the usual bustle of the school canteen. The campus certainly felt alive but not in a way that was familiar, and a strange surrealness was clearly being felt by both students and teachers.
During my commute to work one morning I found myself reflecting upon these new COVID-created challenges. As I contemplated the affordances within music technology, Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ began playing in my headphones. I often listen to ambient music first thing in the morning as I find it creates a clarifying mindset. As I listened to Eno’s work, my thoughts flowed from technological affordances to the transformative power of music on mood and state of mind. It dawned on me that bringing these two things together could be the key to devising my first PBL music project: could my students use music technology to create music designed specifically for the spaces within our campus, to generate a positive and uplifting atmosphere? By the time I walked into school my driving question had taken shape: how can music add value to the spaces within our school?
The Project Launch
The nature of PBL speaks to the importance of having the project front and centre from the get-go, to drive and concentrate the learning. As I learned in the immersive program, the best way to enthuse students with such a venture is to devise an immersive launch event that places them within the heart of the project. Having decided that my project was going to result in student compositions playing around the school campus, I knew that I wanted to give my classes a direct taste of the potential music has to transform the feeling of a space. I therefore took my students on a tour of various locations on our campus, where they reflected on the usual atmosphere of these spaces and then with ambient music playing (once more thanks to the work of Mr. Eno). Perhaps the most important transformation in this modelling process for me was that they did this not as outsiders looking in but instead by being placed directly at the experiential centre of the project’s aim. By experiencing the musical impact on feeling and presence within a space, the transformative power of music was made abundantly clear to all and buy-in was ensured.
Unforeseen schedule changes due to COVID-related challenges almost derailed the work ever being exhibited. However, this project was destined to end in a similar vein as it began: the valuable input of Kyle from Transform Education Consulting helped to get it up and running once more. Kyle had shown such an interest in my project idea, which I’m very grateful for, and he asked to feature a write-up as part of his regular PBL content. It was via this request that I knew the work had to see the light of day in the context originally instigated by the driving question.
Exhibiting the work has been a real highlight of my year, and has certainly laid bare the importance of exhibition as possibly the most essential element of PBL. Sound systems were set up around the school campus, including at the entrance to greet our community in the morning. A sound system was even rigged up in the corridors adjoining the Head of School and Principals’ offices, to great effect! It was an enriching experience to see the community engage with the work, leaving compliments for our students that reflected the positive impact of the music.
“What a wonderful addition to morning arrivals – thoughtful, so beautiful!” read one comment.
Other adjectives included calming, relaxing, interesting, amazing, peaceful and beautiful. These contributions from the school community presented the perfect response to the initial driving question and helped to round out the project, creating a sense of accomplishment in the students. Perhaps the most gratifying element of the exhibition was seeing the pride in our young composers as their music played throughout the campus.
On hearing her music playing in our school entrance way, one student admirably summarised the fulfilment she and her classmates felt:
“I loved how I could hear the music drifting towards me that I recognised to be my own work, which I’d spent so much time and effort on. It’s really great to hear the music being played in a way that we’d made it for and I think it totally changes the atmosphere of the school in a positive way.”
I believe this is as authentic as learning can be, and like to think that the gratification felt by the students mirrors Brian Eno’s sentiments as he heard his music playing in an airport for the first time.