As a "type-A” music teacher the word “unstructured” usually gives me pause. I am a planner, a list maker and I like it when things have some sort of order and predictability. However, over the last few years I have discovered a new comfort for giving students unstructured time within very specific boundaries and expectations. I will set up a task or an assignment and then let the play (yes...play!) It is during this time that the students can figure things out by themselves - a time when I do not give them the answers...or even the questions! They learn to make mistakes, be resourceful, learn from each other, take on leadership role and establish ownership of their own learning. I have found that “unstructured” and “structured” are not always mutually exclusive.
I covered another teacher’s general music class today with a group of students who I only knew by their reputation. They are currently at the beginning of the piano unit. I heard they were a bit unruly, and had difficultly with unstructured time. Without direct instruction things often got out of hand, students were off task and sometimes disrespectful to each other and the equipment. When there isn’t structure, there is always a chance of chaos and anarchy...especially with a room of 7th graders, right? Well, not necessarily….
With this particular group of students who did not know me, I made sure the class was fast paced and the unstructured times were short and very specific. Instead of saying “practice this song for 2 minutes,” as I might have instructed one of my classes, I asked this new class to “take 60 seconds and figure out the C, F and A minor chords and find all of them on the piano.” The directions were clear and the time was short. The unstructured time always works within the boundaries of clear expectations.
Using unstructured time also needs practice. It needs to be practiced the teacher: How long? With what tasks? In small groups or individual assignments? Which kids do well during this time? Which ones stay focused? Which ones need extra support? Which students work well with their friends? Which ones get distracted? Which ones talk with their friends instead of practice? When I am able to get that information, I can make adjustments in seating arrangements or use my proximity to encourage them to stay on task.
Unstructured time also needs to be practiced by the students. They need to understand the expectations for this time. Clear, concise and repeated expectations are absolutely essential for this to be successful. What happens if the students are not on task? Make this very clear as well and follow through.
The new class today was great - especially with the short unstructured times. The kids all played “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith with confidence and excitement. I was able to give them time to figure it out on their own and they were encouraged by their accomplishments. It’s also a good feeling to not have to direct every single minute of every class. It gives me a time to walk around to give support or enrichment when needed. And, of course, with this time I am able to make connections with the kids.