Who's Doing the Thinking in Your Classroom?

“Can our students think of ways to solve their problems or fix their mistakes, or are teachers doing most of the critical thinking in our classrooms?” NAfME member Karen Tordera asks. “Do our questions lead students to analyze or evaluate what they have done, or are we analyzing and evaluating for them?”

In a first-grade lesson:

Tordera asks students to read the rhythm (below) of the poem “Pease Porridge Hot” orally.

Afterwards, Tordera asks, “How did it go?” Most students say “good” and expect to go on. But she continues, “Were there any places where we weren’t quite together?” Some students identify the problem area (typically the third beat of the third line). Tordera then asks, “Can you tell me why some of us had difficulty in that spot?”

That’s when students start to analyze. They look at the pattern of the first two lines and discover that the problem lies where the third line diverges from the pattern set by the first two lines. “Once they discuss and identify the problem, they can more easily read the rhythm without mistakes,” she says.

Alternatively, Tordera could point out where the mistake occurs and tell students how to solve the problem, but “I’d rob them of the chance to think critically. They wouldn’t have to think about where the mistake is and wouldn’t even begin to think of why it happened.”

In rehearsal:

After students perform a piece, Tordera asks, “How did it go? Did you stay together? What could you do to make it better?” When students identify problem areas and suggest fixes, she uses their suggestions. After a while, students feel comfortable speaking up and raise their hands before she can start asking questions.

“The best part,” Tordera says, “is that they are thinking while they’re playing and singing. They aren’t waiting for me to tell them what I heard; they’re ready to tell me what they heard.”

If students can’t hear their mistakes while performing, Tordera records them. Before playing her students’ recording, she plays an anonymous performance of the same piece to give them practice evaluating it.

Tordera says, “Students who are accustomed to thinking critically about their work will be ready and willing to tell exactly what happened and be more engaged while the problem is being solved.”

Adapted from “What Were You Thinking?” by Karen Tordera, Wisconsin School Musician, April 2011. Used with permission.


Student-Centered Learning in the Arts has lesson plans for elementary, middle, and high school levels.

21st Century Skills Map for The Arts show how the arts promote critical thinking, problem solving, imagination, creativity, evaluation, and other skills.
Karen Tordera teaches K–5 general music and choir in the Whitewater Unified School District in Wisconsin. She is the WMEA state chair for general music.

—Linda C. Brown, Originally published May 11, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (nafme.org)