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Whats the Problem!?:

Exploring the Potential of Problem-based Learning in an Ensemble Setting

Richard Laprise


Can you think of a research-supported strategy that simultaneously encourages critical and
creative thinking; develops knowledge, skills, and affect; promotes meaningful connection with
music; and creates life-long learners? I have found that problem-based learning (PBL) effectively
meets and exceeds these criteria by providing an engaging opportunity for students to use
higher-order thinking skills and create meaningful connections with the music they are studying
through the context of real-life problem scenarios. An authentic problem with multiple solutions
allows students to collaborate and develop into independent learners while actively engaging in
the music they are studying. This strategy, used effectively for over 50 years in other educational
fields, has rarely been used in music education, but the potential that PBL has to positively
impact your students learning is well-worth exploring.

Keywords: problem-based learning, music ensembles, music education, higher-order thinking,


Whats the Problem?

How do we increase opportunities for students to think critically and creatively while

making meaningful connections with our subject? In my teaching experience, administrators

have spent a considerable amount of time and resources trying to help teachers answer this or

similar questions. They offer professional development opportunities and provided multiple

strategies and examples to encourage students to use higher-order thinking skills like analyzing,

evaluating, and creating. However, most of the strategies and examples relate to math and

English classes with subjects like music being ignored, which makes it easy for ensemble

educators to say that the strategies being discussed do not apply to our own classroom. I have

heard colleagues say it, and, truthfully, I have said it before too. Mostly, I was concerned that

trying these strategies that were labeled as working great in math and English classes would

detract from my curriculum, be unproductive, and be unmusical. However, I do want my

students to think critically and creatively. I also want to use my time efficiently by making sure

my lessons provide a high-quality musical experience for my students. Many strategies fail to

meet these standards in an ensemble setting. However, I have found that problem-based learning

(PBL) effectively meets and exceeds these criteria by providing an engaging opportunity for

students to use higher-order thinking skills and create meaningful connections with the music

they are studying through the context of real-life problem scenarios.

What is Problem-based Learning?


Problem-based learning is a creative approach to enhance students understanding of a

topic and promote higher-order thinking skills. These experiences use authentic contexts that are

relevant to real-world problem scenarios and serve as a starting point for the development of

knowledge and skills.1 As in real-life, each PBL experience has multiple solutions and

encourages students to move beyond just problem solving and using pre-existing knowledge to

complete a project. It has three main characteristics: 1) it is organized around a relevant and

holistic problem scenario 2) it engages students as active stakeholders and 3) teachers facilitate

and coach students thinking and inquiry.2

For over 50 years, PBL has been successfully used in the education of medical students

and has since been applied to science and math classrooms as well as music therapy programs.

An example of a medical PBL experience involves a patient who comes into the students office

complaining of chronic knee stiffness.3 This simple prompt is built around a relevant and holistic

scenario for medical students and puts them in a position of a working practitioner, making them

stakeholders. From this starting point, the students must consider all factors that relate to this

ailment, research any information they do not know, and then offer their diagnosis and

suggestion for treatment.

The University of Delaware has been one of the leaders at incorporating PBL into their

curriculum by using PBL strategies not just in science and math courses, but also in their music

theory courses.4 Dr. Philip Duker created the PBL scenario titled A Day in the Life of a

Forensic Musicologist for his theory class.5 The problem scenario begins with:

Your group has been hired recently by a [sic] law firm Ayle and Bebach which handles
music copyright violations. They are making a bid to Robin Thickes management to
handle an upcoming lawsuit concerning his music. Specifically they want your group to

compare Thickes song Blurred Lines with Gayes Got to give it up and compile
evidence that could be used to argue that the pieces are distinct.

The scenario is relevant, relating to actual events that happened within the past few years, and

holistic since the entire issue is presented at once. The students role is established in the first

sentence. Furthermore, enough information is given to allow students to immediately take

ownership of their learning and allow the teacher to facilitate the activity. Duker also provides

his students with additional questions to encourage their thinking and help them reach the

learning goals.

PBL scenarios, like the examples mentioned, have been shown to improve

comprehension, retention, social skills, and motivation while inspiring lifelong learning.6 Yet this

research supported method has been largely ignored in ensemble music. The potential of

problem-based learning needs to be further explored by ensemble educators. First, a clear

understanding of how to develop a PBL experience is necessary before applying it to an

ensemble classroom.

Developing a Problem-based Learning Scenario

Developing a problem-based learning scenario is the first step to creating a successful

learning experience for your students. Find a place in your current curriculum that would benefit

from students working together to investigate and solve a problem. Since we are applying the

PBL method to music education, the literature being studied should be connected to, if not the

focus of, the PBL scenario. As you develop a PBL scenario, you should be able to answer at least

these 5 questions:

1. What are the learning goals?

2. What role will students play as stakeholders?

3. How will students meet the problem?

4. How will students find the essential issues?

5. How will you know the students have learned?7

Similar to a backward design approach, begin developing your PBL scenario by

determining the learning goals you want your students to reach. Use the 2014 Music Standards

and your current curriculum to help focus your goals for this step. Next, determine how your

students will become stakeholders in the problem. Successful PBL scenarios often give students

a role that is different from being a student, that appeals to their emotions, and that is relevant to

their lives.8 Like the example from Duker, look for inspiration in current events within the school

community and pop culture to help develop a relevant context for the problem. Furthermore,

different roles within the same problem can dramatically change how students approach the

experience. Imagine how differently students would handle Dukers problem scenario if they

were placed in the opposite role of arguing for Marvin Gayes estate. Ultimately, decide what

role will best lead your students to the learning goals. Also consider how your students will meet

the problem. A creative prompt, video, or dramatization can help bring interest and excitement to

the PBL activity. The information given to the students should be general enough to allow for

multiple solutions but still offer boundaries for the issue including a timeline or due date for the

final product. A well-crafted but unclear problem scenario encourages students to generate

multiple ways to identify and solve the problem(s) resulting in the use of higher-order thinking

skills like analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

As the facilitator of the PBL experience, you should also understand how students will

find the essential issues or reach their learning goals. Visualize how the experience will unfold

based on the knowledge and skills your students currently have. This way, if students do not

naturally progress toward the issues you can quickly guide them in the correct direction. Finally,

you should consider how you will assess your students. PBL scenarios almost always have a

final product, but assessment should also occur throughout the entire process by using

reflections, journal prompts, and/or peer-assessment. More suggestions for assessment will


What Does Developing a Problem Scenario Look Like in an Ensemble Class?

Developing a problem-based learning experience for an ensemble requires thinking

outside of the traditional rehearsal model where the teacher might conduct and rehearse the

ensemble for the entire class period. This may cause some teachers to be hesitant, but it is

important to remember that PBL experiences do not have to be used for every piece or during

every rehearsal period. I have, however, found through personal experience that students perform

a composition with more success and have a better understanding of the music after participating

in a PBL experience focused on that piece. In this example, a successful PBL experience is

developed around Belle Qui Tiens Ma Vie arranged by Bob Margolis and published by

Manhattan Beach Music.9


Belle Qui Tiens Ma Vie (Belle Qui) is a grade 2 piece for concert band based on a

Renaissance pavane originally composed by Thoinot Arbeau with original text similar to a love

song. Although relatively simple in regards to physical technique, the music offers challenges

even for advanced ensembles. When comparing this piece to the National Standards, a variety of

learning goals can be reached through the context of a PBL scenario.10 For example, common

anchor #3 under evaluate and refine can be reached as students use their knowledge and skills

to work on a composition while evaluating their work using group created criteria. Additionally,

interpret under common anchor #8 can be met when students answer reflective questions and

peer-evaluate other performances to determine how interpretation can affect expressive intent.

In this example, students have the role of being Thoinot Arbeaus good friend. They meet

the problem though a short, but engaging video where they learn that Thoinot Arbeau (TA) is

about to ask the love of his life out on a date. TA planned to have his friends play their

instruments while he sang the lyrics to his crush. However, TA forgot the instrument parts and

lyrics at home and only has the four-part harmonization of the piece in concert pitch (depending

on the learning goals and the knowledge and ability of the students, the music can be

transposed). The video creates more drama as the students learn that someone else is also about

to ask TAs crush out.

From this relevant problem scenario, the students must create their own arrangements of

the pavane for the instruments in their group with the potential of writing new lyrics. Any

additional creativity, like creating a dance or artwork, should be encouraged. The students will

reach the essential issues and learning goals through guidance from the teacher, collaborating

with peers, experimenting, researching, and reflecting on their work. A final performance for

their peers will show the product of their work. Ideally, students learn and contribute in the ways

that work best for each of them while making meaningful connections with music.

The Teachers Role

Before implementing a problem-based learning activity it is important to understand the

teachers role as a facilitator, guide, and mentor. Typically, a teachers involvement decreases as

students progress through the experience, but more guidance may be needed for students who are

unfamiliar with problem-based learning. However, as they become more experienced with PBL,

the ownership that the students develop is empowering as they start to become self-directed

learners. This is best accomplished by guiding and facilitating students learning through

questioning and mentoring which encourages critical and creative thinking. Observe students as

they collaborate with their groups and find opportunities to engage their thinking. For example,

when students in a group were playing the chorale-like texture from the Belle Qui scenario, a

euphonium player continued playing a few notes after the rest of the group had stopped. The

author was observing and said Oh, you stopped? I thought that was part of your arrangement!

Just these two sentences inspired the group to change their previously homophonic arrangement

to explore different textures for their solution to make a unique product. As students become

independent and active learners through researching and solving problems with multiple

solutions, their ability and motivation to continue learning music throughout life is increased.11

Implementing a Problem-based Learning Scenario


When implementing a PBL experience, you should guide your students through the 6

steps shown in Figure 1.12 Explain each step to your students so they understand the relative path

they should be using to reach the learning goals. A packet of resources and a notebook or journal

can also be used to help organize and track students progress.


The first step, meeting the problem, involves presenting the students with the scenario

you created during the developing stage. Bring attention to any prior knowledge they may

already have on the topic and make them aware of any additional materials and resources, like

instruments and technology, to be used during this experience. Be sure that you have established

groups that are balanced in terms of abilities, strengths, and personalities. Students should then

begin gathering and sharing facts. Each learner initially understands the problem scenario

differently and brings unique experiences, which can affect how the group approaches the

problem. A Know, Need to Know, and Need to Do (KND) chart is a great tool for students to

use during this step (see Figure 2).13


The Need to Know column is especially powerful as it makes the students learning highly

relevant and personal. At this point, students will also determine what they believe the problem

is that they are trying to solve. This will lead them to the next step, hypothesizing. These

predictions give students the opportunity to mentally consider possible solutionsor parts of a

solutionand what may result from them. Having students create an If... Then... Because

statement for each hypothesis will help them focus their thinking and allow you to see the

direction each group is heading. Teachers should give students ample time and monitor these

stages closely to ensure students are directing their investigation towards the desired essential

issues and learning goals.

Once students have completed the first three steps, they are now ready to begin

researching, experimenting, and creating. This part of the process is dedicated to students

completing their need to do column from their KND charts. This is typically when students

discover many of the essential issues and reach learning goals. As the facilitator, you should

allow students to experiment and learn from their mistakes but be ready to guide students if they

are off-target or become distracted. Collaboration is paramount at this point. Students contribute

and communicate in the ways they know best while discovering how other learners approach the

same issues. As students produce potentially successful solutions they should record them in a

possible solutions log which includes the pros and cons of each solution and the expected

outcome. These logs provide the teacher with some insight into how students are thinking about

their problem and can be used to make sure students are progressing towards the learning goals.

Once groups agree on a solution, they should use their communication skills to create an

effective presentation and/or performance of their solution. Finally, students should share their

solutions with the entire class.


Further Considerations for Using PBL in an Ensemble Class

As mentioned, students will need more guidance if they have never participated in a PBL

experience. Explaining the process of each step thoroughly will help students feel more confident

in their task. Consider putting a time limit on each of the six steps to help with pacing and to help

students organize their time. They will likely have many questions which the teacher should

answer in a way that does not limit the students potential creativity. Some students will be

resistant to the initial lack of structure but will often enjoy the experience more as they progress

through the activity. You should also consider the physical space you can use. Several groups

working in the same area may become too loud and distracting for students to perform at their

highest level of productivity.

Ensemble classes are unique. Often students are of various ages and abilities with class

sizes that are larger than most other classes. The perspectives that arise from a diverse ensemble

can make a PBL experience even more enriching for the students learning. For example, one

student participating in the Belle Qui PBL scenario was the only guitar player in the class. He

added a different dimension to his groups solution when he pointed out that he could play

chords instead of just a single line of music. Encourage students to use the unique resources

within their groups and the strengths each student possesses. You may see the benefits of a PBL

experience immediately; in my experience, students have said they performed the piece

differently, felt more connected to the music, and had a better understanding of the music after

having participated in an ensemble PBL experience.


Authentic Assessment in Problem-based Learning

Problem-based learning corresponds well with authentic assessments, which require

students to actively accomplish complex and significant tasks, while bringing to bear prior

knowledge, recent learning, and relevant skills to solve realistic or authentic problems.14

Assessment should be ongoing, occurring throughout the entire experience. Having students

keep a notebook or journal to record and organize their experiences can also serve as a strong

assessment tool while still encouraging higher-order thinking. Teachers and students can keep

track of their responses to essential questions like those in the 2014 Music Standards. Journals

can also be used to record peer-assessment, self-evaluations, and responses to reflective

questions like: what new ideas or knowledge did you produce? what questions do you still have?

or how can you apply what you did in this PBL experience to events outside of school? Students

KND charts, If...Then...Because statements, possible solution charts, and any additional

assignments can also be used as methods of assessment. Furthermore, journals allow teachers to

see the process of their students learning. Assessment can also occur through observation forms.

Figure 3 is an example of an observation form based on the National Standards that was used for

the Belle Qui PBL scenario.


With this observation form, teachers can track which students still need to meet certain standards

and encourage them throughout the experience to meet the expectations. Rubrics can be

particularly effective when assessing their final product. Furthermore, making students aware of

the expectations in advance or including students in developing criteria is recommended.15 PBL

scenarios developed around real-world experiences allow the teacher to use numerous methods

of authentic assessment to gather evidence of students learning while deepening their

understanding of the topic.

Why Problem-based Learning And Why Ensembles?

Problem-based learning has strong connections to the influential work of John Deweys

problem-solving method, Vygotskys social constructivism, Piagets cognitive disequilibrium,

Gardners Multiple Intelligence Theory, among the work of many other significant educational

psychologist and reformers.16 However, the strongest evidence to support PBL strategies may not

lie in its theoretical foundation but rather in the actual practice itself. Teachers have consistently

said that students who learn through PBL experiences can discuss topics in depth, beyond facts;

ask thoughtful, higher-order questions; and actively seek learning opportunities that help to

answer previous problems.17 Research also suggests that PBL, when compared to

teacher-centered strategies, is more effective at long-term retention, skill development, and both

teacher and student satisfaction.18

Music education has been criticized in the past for not accepting contemporary

education practices,19 but we have the awesome responsibility of providing our students with a

complete music education in the most effective way possible. Problem-based learning is one way

to successfully provide this kind of education. Try creating a simple problem-based learning

scenario that will take minimal class time and take note of how your students engage with music

in active and new ways. With music as the focus, students think critically, collaborate,

communicate, create and make music in authentic contexts. These experiences prepare students

to be engaged in music making, and musical problem-solving, for the rest of their lives.


1. Ann Lambros, Problem-Based Learning: in Middle and High School Classrooms: A

Teacher's Guide to Implementation. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2004): 1.

2. Linda Torp, and Sara Sage, Problems as Possibilities: Problem-Based Learning for K-12
Education. (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development,
1998): 14.

3. Robert J. Swartz, Bena Kallick, Rebecca Reagan, Barry K. Beyer, and Arthur L. Costa,
Thinking-Based Learning: Promoting Quality Student Achievement in the21St Century.
(New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2010): 210.

4. "The Motivation to Learn Begins with a Problem." Problem-Based Learning at University

of Delaware. Accessed March 01, 2017.

5. Philip Duker, "PBL Problem: Forensic Musicologist." Google Docs. Accessed March 01,

6. Lambros, ix.

7. Ibid, 45.

8. Ibid, 25.

9. Bob Margolis, Belle Qui Tiens Ma Vie. (Brooklyn, NY: Manhattan Beach Music, 1982).

10. "2014 Music Standards." National Association for Music Education (NAfME). Accessed
March 07, 2017.

11. Lambros, 7.

12. Robin Fogarty, Problem-based Learning and Other Curriculum Models for the Multiple
Intelligences Classroom. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2001): 3-8.

13. William J. Stepien, Shelagh A. Gallagher, and David Workman, "Problem-Based Learning
for Traditional and Interdisciplinary Classrooms." Journal for the Education of the Gifted
16, no. 4 (1993): 338-57. doi:10.1177/016235329301600402.

14. Joan L. Herman, Pamela M. Aschbacher, and Lynn Winters, A Practical Guide to
Alternative Assessment. (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum
Development, 1992): 2.

15. Kay Burke, How to Assess Authentic Learning. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2009):

16. Maggi Savin-Baden and Claire Major, Foundations of Problem-based Learning (Berkshire,
UK: McGraw-Hill Education, 2004): 24-34.

17. Torp and Sage, 88.

18. Johannes Strobel, and Angela Van Barneveld, "When is PBL More Effective? A
Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms."
Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning 3, no. 1 (2009). 54.

19. John Kratus, "Music Education at the Tipping Point." Music Educators Journal 94, no. 2
(2007): 42-48. doi:10.1177/002743210709400209. 46.

Figure 1. The Steps to a Problem-based Learning Experience


Figure 2. The KND Chart


Figure 3. Observation Form Example