University of Vermont

Patti Riley

Professor of music

Patti Riley

When her plans fell through to pursue research for a book project in a primary school in China, music professor Patti Riley scrambled to find a new research setting in the country. A friend connected her with Ben Frankel, director of a Hong Kong-based educational reform NGO called China Schools Foundation.

The reform effort was launched by the ministry more than a decade ago to ensure China's strong economic growth is sustained by a workforce equipped with 21st century skills. But overturning two millennia of Chinese educational practice based on memorization and rote learning is not an easy task — the new concepts are so alien to China's corps of tradition-bound teachers, especially those in the rural areas, that training sessions fall flat. "They have never experienced anything remotely like this," says Frankel.

Frankel, an attorney who has lived in Hong Kong since 1993 thought he had an answer — to create a library of scripted model lessons in a variety of disciplines, written by master teachers anywhere in the world and delivered by rural teachers in rural schools, who would be videotaped teaching in their own classrooms. Scripts and DVDs would then be distributed throughout rural China.

Riley's "soul of an educator"

Frankel planned to start the video library with science instruction, but when he met Riley in 2008, he immediately added music to the equation. "It was like a dream come true," he says. "She has the soul of an educator" and just the drive, enthusiasm and experience the project needed. A faculty member in UVM's Department of Music, Riley directs the music education program in the College of Education and Social Services, so has spent her career thinking about how to teach music effectively to children and young adults.

Riley was amazed the moment she set eyes on a kindergarten music class in a rural school in Shaanxi Province, a remote area in central China. "The children were all sitting there with their books open in rows silently while the teacher was talking," she says, "and I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh, they should be on the floor and they should be engaged and they should be singing, moving and playing instruments.' That's what really made me decide, this is something I need to be part of."

Last spring, Riley went to work for six full days in the Shannxi Province sharing her lesson scripts and coaching the teachers who would deliver them. In the afternoons the teachers were videotaped doing so in a room full of students who would then perform on a collection of rhythm instruments, dance to music, answer questions about pieces they listened to, and compose music that exemplified the principles she was teaching.

The project was a towering success. The teachers "were amazed by the whole thing, to see the level of engagement in the students" who are normally bored in music class, Riley says.

Riley will likely return to China to demonstrate more models and again work with teachers. She couldn't be happier. "There are tens of millions of children and millions of teachers in these rural schools," she says. "If our library of DVDs project can help reach out to these young people and enrich their lives, how satisfying is that?"