Using Music to Develop Critical Thinking

For many teachers, making the change to PYP can be overwhelming, not only with all the jargon, but the complete shift in thinking. It’s not that the concepts are strange—it’s not even that we weren’t already doing these things. The change is in the focus, and one of the big focus points is in developing critical thinking.

Critical thinking isn’t just for PYP teachers, of course. It is one of the most important skills we need to develop in our students (and one of the ubiquitous 21st century skills that have come to the forefront of educational discussion). And it isn’t limited to a set of subjects; we can and should apply it to everything we do. So today I’m writing about some ways to develop critical thinking in your music class OR some ways to incorporate music into your classroom. You can make some great connections to literacy learning, using lyrics—or even music without words—in the context of making text-to-self / text-to-text / text-to-world connections. pyp-critical-thinking-music-listening-language-arts

Music is wonderful fodder for critical thinking because it speaks to us in ways that we can’t always explain or even understand. Instrumental music requires some level of critical thinking simply to translate it into words! Even the youngest students can do this successfully.

Any kind of music can be a starting point for thoughtful discussion: any genre, any language, any culture, solo or ensemble… You might choose music that speaks to you as the teacher. You might let students offer suggestions. Choose something familiar or unfamiliar, tonal or atonal, composed or improvised, recorded or live. Use some of the questions below (or see this post for more) to start your discussion, and off you go!

  • Why do you think the composer wrote this piece? (Perspective, Function)
  • How does the music make you feel? (Reflection, Connection)
  • How would it change if the performer played a trumpet instead of a violin? (Change, Connection)
  • How does the mood of the instrumental music support (or contrast) the mood of the lyrics? (Function, Connection)
  • What do the lyrics mean to you? (Reflection, Connection)
  • What does it make you think of from your own life? (Connection, Reflection)
  • What other music does it remind you of? (Connection, Perspective)
  • Why is this music memorable? Why has it stood the test of time? (Form, Causation, Perspective)


Once students have shared their initial thoughts, follow up with questions that encourage them to support their ideas (“What makes you say that?”) or think from different perspectives (“Why might ___ think differently?”). Older students might discuss in groups first, then share their already-developed thoughts with the class. You can take these discussions as far and as deep as you wish. No matter how far you go, simply modelling this kind of questioning and encouraging new ways of thinking will help your students to become better thinkers and learners.

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Response-ability: I was introduced to this term in a workshop with Cathryn Berger Kaye, a former teacher who focuses on service learning, and it has really stuck with me.


Instead of “responsibility” we think about “response-ability”: Anyone has the power to respond to the issues in the world, to address and solve problems. Maybe we can’t change everything overnight, but we ALL have the ability to do SOMETHING. I really like this way of thinking: empowering students to take action rather than burdening them with a job. Children want to do good, and they want to make a difference. Responsibility can sound like something big and overwhelming. Instead, we can focus on the things we can already do right now to make the world a better place.

How do you integrate a service mindset in your students?

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Up Close and Personal with the Instruments

I stumbled across this and just had to share. The Netherlands Philarmonic played Peter and the Wolf with GoPro cameras on several of the instruments, and put together this fantastic video! The camera on the trombone was my favorite.

This video would be great for students to get a close view of the instruments and a different perspective on how they are played. I know that when I share this with my students, many of them will just go watch it at home because it’s novel and fun.

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Responding to “I don’t know”

“I don’t know.” It’s a common response from students, particularly on those days when I make a point of calling on students who are avoiding eye contact and trying to hide behind someone. And I will start by saying this: It’s OKAY to not know. The tricky thing is trying to assess the reason for the “I don’t know.” Sometimes they know a bit, but can’t synthesize it or articulate it. Sometimes they know a bit, but not enough. Sometimes they know, but don’t know they know! In any case, here are a few of the ways I try to stretch that ubiquitous response out of the realm of a shoulder shrug and into the realm of critical thinking and metacognition.

“If you DID know, what do you think you would say?”

“Tell me one thing that you do know.”

“How could you think through it?”

“What questions could you ask to find out?”

“What are some of the possible answers?”

“What part of it do you know?”

“Where are you stuck?” / “Which part are you struggling with?”

I picked up the first one at a workshop (about something totally different) several years ago. It seemed ridiculous to me at the time, but students actually respond to it!

Other times, I might tell a student that I will take some other ideas while he or she thinks about it more. Some students just need a bit more time to consolidate the information. Sometimes a student can better synthesize and formulate a response after hearing it in the context of what other students are thinking.


But again, sometimes students really don’t know. We have to allow students to be comfortable saying they don’t know, because that is clear feedback for us as teachers. As Confucius and Socrates have suggested, knowing what you don’t know is really important. And from there, we can use our thinking and questioning skills, our research strategies, and our networks to practice the ultimate skill: how to learn. So another important response to have in your repertoire is, “Okay. How can we figure it out?”

If you are hearing a lot of “I don’t know” in your class, you might want to give your students some actionable ways to respond instead. You can also download a free poster with some prompts here.

How often do you hear “I don’t know”? What strategies do you use to coach your students forward?

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Earth Day

April brings Earth Day, which is observed by people in countries all over the world. For the most part, our students have some awareness about the environment, and they quite naturally feel the need to take care of it. No matter what your subject focus is, you can take some time this month to explore what actions we, as individuals, can take towards sustainability.

In Music, I plan to analyze a few environmental songs, and I am hoping that at least some of my classes will have time to share the songs with the rest of the school during break times.

A bit of song analysis works not only in Music, but connects to Language Arts and Social Studies/Social Sciences as well. Younger students may only be able to touch the surface of what a song is about, but even older primary students can dig deeper into the lyrics, making connections to systemic problems, social structures, and world views that might contribute to a problem. This kind of thinking not only creates awareness of the greater complexities with the problem, but can prompt thinking and action for steps toward solutions. With my Grade 5 students, I have gone as far as to ask them to think about why—when so many people know that we need to “save the environment”—does the problem continue? How does a minority view win? The students have been trying to read between the lines and look for references in the song lyrics as well, which has really drawn them in! (So much that we didn’t get any further with the lesson I’d planned!)


In past years, I have asked students to respond to quotes about the environment, through music or just through discussion. I find that quotes are an interesting way to get children thinking about different views, about language, and about social issues. The way we interpret and contextualize them really lends itself to developing critical thinking skills! If you want to try it, have a look at my Earth Day poster and activity set, which has set quotations (related to the environment, but also to social action in general) on beautiful photos. It also offers some transdisciplinary ideas for how you might use the posters or just the quotes to stimulate critical thinking, action.

How do you recognize Earth Day in your classes? Is it a big deal at your school?

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Revisiting Culture

Well, apparently my iceberg post was recently discovered and has been shared around quite a bit, not only in education circles, but also political science, health, and social justice communities. I love that I’ve gotten some great feedback about it and that it has opened up communication and shared learning—exactly what it was intended for.

Coincidentally, today a friend of mine shared with me a new book that she is reading, which comes back to the idea of different cultures and how we misunderstand each other. While the premise is white teachers in urban (diversely populated) schools, the ideas extend more broadly to understanding students whose cultures are different from the teacher’s. My copy is still on its way overseas, but I’m looking forward to reading it!

It’s already getting quite a bit of attention in the media. Be sure to watch the video to the end, particularly at 7:23.

A couple of highlights from the article need sharing:

“I always say, if you’re coming into a place to save somebody then you’ve already lost because young people don’t need saving. They have brilliance, it’s just on their own terms.”

“…every young person who comes into the classroom has realities that vary from the realities of the teacher, especially if that teacher is from a different ethnic, racial, cultural and socioeconomic background. It holds that uniqueness about the youth experience as a fundamental and essential piece of teaching and learning. Before you teach content, you first teach to understand the youth experience.”

And my favorite, that we don’t need grants and iPads to make these changes. “Teaching differently is free.”

understanding-students-cultures-diversityEdmin makes some points that we have heard before: that our students have different experiences from ours, that what are doing right now isn’t working… But he’s going into classrooms, working with pre-service teachers, and trying to solve the problems from the ground up. He’s here to talk about how and why that needs to be done, and while some people are ready to get defensive about his title (a la #BLM backlash), I think we can all agree that this is a time to have an open mind to the solutions.

I’d love to hear perspectives from anyone who has already read the book. Please share your comments below.

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Happy Pi Day!

When I put in my university applications, I applied to major in both mathematics and music education. Music eventually won over, but the math nerd in me never disappeared. So today is just a salute to this magical, irrational constant in all its interdisciplinary glory.

What does pi sound like?

Listen to this version with several layers of pi, or the version of pi in a minor below.

Want to use pi in your own teaching today? Assign each digit to a pitch, color, movement, gesture, symbol, sound, pose, interjection, picture…anything! Then start creating. Take inspiration from the first video and use layering or duration to make it more interesting. Or take inspiration from the second video and add some other kind of context (colors, backgrounds, accompaniments, noises) to give it texture. The possibilities are endless!

Are you celebrating Pi Day in your classes?


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Instead of “I don’t know”

Okay, the title is a ruse. Children say, “I don’t know.” You can’t stop them. It’s a go-to response, it’s natural, and it’s fine. But what we want is for students to not stop there. “So you don’t know (or you don’t think that you do). Now what?” Let’s follow up that automatic response with some action. When a student doesn’t know, encourage that student to continue to one of these:

Could I have more time to think about it?
May I ask a friend for help?
Can you ask that in a different way?
Where could I look for that information?
I am not sure, but what I DO know about it is…
I am not sure, but my best guess is…


I know that some teachers want to replace “I don’t know,” but I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge that you don’t know, and it’s a good thing if a child is comfortable admitting if he or she really doesn’t know. From my perspective, “I don’t know” as the first step to learning!

Want the prompts hanging on your walls? Download a poster with all the questions, or click here for a complete set of individual posters here.

What do you do with “I don’t know” in your classroom?

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10 Fun Formative Assessments

Here are some creative formative assessments for this beautiful Friday! Get children using their critical thinking skills to synthesize their knowledge and apply what they have learned. These ideas can be used in any subject.

  1. Students design an ad (for a magazine, a website, a poster, a billboard…), creating the text and visual content for a newly learned concept.
  1. Students tweet a definition of a new term in 140 characters or less. (I have a board where students can write their “tweets” on the way out of the classroom, but you can also actually tweet them from a classroom account!)
  1. Students compose a poem to describe a composer, scientist, explorer, literary character, etc. An example for structuring the poem is in the downloadable version, but it can be adapted to fit different levels.
  1. Provide the students with a common misconception about a topic. Challenge them to justify why they agree or disagree.


  1. Break the class into cooperative groups. Provide each group with a topic (a theme, character, concept, historical figure, process, etc.). Each group should act out a scene that gives insight into their topic.
  1. Students draw a picture that illustrates the relationship between two new terms, and caption to explain the illustration.
  1. Ask the students to write two open-ended questions related to the new learning. The students should aim to write higher-level thinking questions, as appropriate for the age level. Then each student exchanges with someone else, who will answer the questions.
  1. Assign the four corners of the classroom as “Strongly agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly disagree.” Read some statements and have the students go to a corner based on their understandings and opinions. Choose a student from the “agreement” side and one from the “disagreement” side to justify their choices.
  1. Have students write their responses to a question or provocation on the board. Then ask students, one by one, to cross off one that does not fit, explaining why.
  1. Ask students to write a journal entry from a different perspective: that of a book character, a historical or contemporary figure, or even an inanimate object.


Click here for a downloadable version of the list.

Looking for more formative assessment ideas? Check out these Exit Slips, or a comprehensive Formative Assessment Mega-Pack with over 100 different ideas, printables, and tips for using formative assessment.

You also might want to check out these 50 digital tools for collecting feedback on learning.

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Context, Not Drills

There is a lot of debate about homework these days. When I was in school, homework was pages of multiplication problems, or reading a text and answering simple recall questions (usually worded identically in the question and the text, so it was easy to scan and find the answer). I would like to believe that is not happening so often anymore, but I know from my own conversations that some teachers are unsure about the learning and practice they are sending home, so I thought I’d share my own thoughts.

learning-context-homeworkThe knowledge and skills we gain in school do not exist in a vacuum; they are not there just to add to a skill set. My subject is music, and I used to drill students on notation—a fairly advanced skill, and not a very exciting one to learn. But I have learned that not many things are exciting when they stand alone. Learning needs a context. Instead of presenting students with a staff and a rhythm pyramid, I gave them an instrument. Now we can create music and then understand why we would want to write it down, or we learn to read music better so that we can play increasingly advanced music. Suddenly notation has a greater purpose, and the students are much more motivated to learn!

The same thing works for math. It’s not just about manipulating numbers, but a thought process. Give students logic puzzles and word problems so that they have a reason to learn probability or division. Provide a context that presses them to learn and practice those new skills. And you could say the same about habitats, history, the water cycle, color mixing… anything. Give the students a problem to solve, and by necessity (and with much more motivation) you will be able to bring in the skills.

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