University of Vermont

University Communications

Key Change: Professor Helps Reform Music Education in China

Release Date: 10-06-2010

Author: Jeffrey R. Wakefield
Phone: 802/656-2005 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Patti Riley

Music professor Patti Riley is playing a starring role in an ambitious plan to help China's Ministry of Education overhaul primary and secondary education in the country. Lessons she scripted and modeled are showing rural teachers in the country that there’s more to music than singing songs.

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 NGO called China Schools Foundation, who met with her and found her a new school.

"He said, kind of offhandedly, 'Oh, you'll probably get all involved in my project now,'" Riley says with a laugh. "And I thought, 'Yeah, we'll see. I've got my own project going.'"

Two-and-a-half years later, Riley is not only involved, she's playing a seminal role in the foundation's mission, which Frankel calls an "audacious plan" to help China's Ministry of Education overhaul primary and secondary school teaching in the country.

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. It aims to overturn two millennia of Chinese educational practice based on a Confucian model of memorization and rote learning.

The old ways are to be replaced by a pedagogy, already reflected in a new generation of Chinese textbooks, the rest of the world has adopted -- one that is student-centered and inquiry-based, where students work in teams, do hands-on projects and learn to solve problems.

The plans sound good, says Frankel, but there's a problem.

The new concepts are so alien to China's corps of tradition-bound teachers, especially those with limited training common in the rural areas that are his foundation's focus, they fly far over their heads.

"When trainers talk with teachers about hands-on learning" in ministry-sponsored professional development sessions, "they don't understand what the trainers are talking about," Frankel says. "They have never experienced anything remotely like this." Training sessions, to say the least, frequently fall flat.

What to do?

Seeing is believing

Frankel, an attorney who has lived in Hong Kong since 1993, where he led an effort to create a much praised international school, thought he had an answer. Before professional development had a chance of taking, teachers needed a sturdy foundation to build on -- an opportunity to see tangibly and personally experience what the new teaching ideas actually looked like in the classroom.

The way to provide that foundation, Frankel and his team determined, was to create a library of scripted model lessons in a variety of disciplines, employing the new pedagogy. The scripts would be 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.

The key, Frankel says, was to have rural teachers see people like themselves, not urban teachers in affluent urban school they could discount, embodying the new approach. "It has to look, taste and smell exactly like what they're familiar with," he says.

Funders saw great merit in the strategy and especially appreciated its scalability, always a challenge in this vast country. China Schools Foundation was born.

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's initial skepticism vanished the moment she set eyes on a kindergarten music class during a tour of rural schools in Shaanxi Province, a remote area in central China, that Frankel had arranged.

"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."

No gaokao

Music class in China is the very epitome in rote learning. Children sing in unison from a songbook, led by the teacher, memorizing one song after another. Bringing more progressive approaches to the subject presented unique challenges, Riley says -- teachers who didn't read music or have any special training would likely feel unqualified – but also offered great possibility. Since there's no music methodology to speak of, the subject is a tabula rasa, says Frankel.

It's also not one of the subjects tested on the gaokao, the high stakes test all Chinese student take that will determine the arc of their lives and which puts teachers under enormous pressure to stick to conventional approaches.

In her first stint with the foundation, in the summer of 2009, Riley worked in four schools in Shaanxi Province. She returned to the province in May, this time to one school. Over six crammed full days, Riley taught 14 lessons, two for each grade. Riley gave the demonstration lessons in the morning following the scripts she had written, then coached teachers in the midday. In the afternoon the teachers were videotaped delivering Riley's scripts to a room full of students.

Riley with students

Following best practices, Riley, assisted by a translator, had students perform on a collection of rhythm instruments Frankel's foundation had donated, dance to music, answer questions about pieces they listened to, and compose music that exemplified the principles she was teaching. She also divided students into small groups to solve musical problems.

Opening eyes

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. "It was really quite eye-opening for them."

Frankel and school officials also invited teachers and school officials from outside the school to observe Riley and her apprentice teachers.

The senior official in the delegation, Long Xiafan, director of the Fuping Teaching and Research Section in Shaanxi Province, delivered a long and glowing tribute to Riley's teaching at a roundtable discussion organized by the school principal, citing six exemplary practices she had observed, from hands-on exercises that engaged students to the student creativity her in-class assignments spurred.

She was also quick to grasp the implications of Riley's teaching for other subjects, and urged all the teachers observing to take the approach back to their schools and spread it.

Frankel's long term plans couldn't be more ambitious. When the library has developed sufficiently, he expects scripts and DVDs in music, science, English, Chinese literature and other subjects to be distributed widely by provincial education bureaus or the Ministry of Education. He also envisions a crucial second phase of the project, where a small army of coaches would "ride the circuit," mentoring teachers on how to get the most out of the new pedagogical strategies. 

Riley departs from the foundation's model in one important way. She's not only developing scripts for model lessons, but is also developing from scratch, essentially, a new music curriculum in a way other subjects, which have textbooks to guide teachers, aren't. Her involvement is by necessity more intensive. But her influence on student learning in China, Frankel says, has the potentially to be uniquely deep and far reaching.

Riley will likely return to China next summer 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?"