Building Continual Improvement into Our Teaching

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Building Continual Improvement into Our Teaching

José Ángel Salazar Marín, conductor; Artistic Director, El Sistema Greece; AIM FAR Lab Leader, and Eric Booth, Cofounder, The Ensemble; leadership team, AIM (Academy for Impact through Music)


Firebird Fellow Bryce Tempest working with colleagues on Action Research projects during AIM’s August 2022 residency in Lisbon. Photo: Ivan Gonzalez.

If you’re an active teacher in a music for social change program, it’s a pretty safe bet that you are good at it. But how do you keep getting better? That’s a question every teacher and every program leader asks, or should be asking, every day.

Our field has various “professional development” answers to that question. We have stand-alone “PD workshops.” We attend conferences or professional gatherings. We read and watch instructional materials. Perhaps most of all, we talk to colleagues inside and outside our programs, occasionally in focused retreats.

These approaches can help, but each has its limitations. Research shows that, despite their benefits, stand-alone workshops and conferences are generally ineffective ways to change practice and inspire ongoing improvement. As for reading and watching instructional materials too, but you know their limitations from your own experience. We have to admit that as a field-wide faculty, we haven’t demonstrated continual improvement in our teaching and learning. It’s a problem.

Having studied all forms of professional development, The Academy for Impact through Music (AIM) chose a different approach: action research, meaning research done by practitioners who are actively inside the work, instead of by non-engaged observers.

Action research is widely used in professional research, but unlike most academic research methodology, action research doesn’t stand back and wait for non-practitioners to deliver findings. Action research is led by the people inside the work, with ongoing hypotheses, experiments, and discoveries leading to improved practice along the way.

In AIM, we think of continual improvement as a habit of mind in teachers and programs; as with any habit, it needs sustained, intentional application to become a natural way of thinking about daily teaching practices. Therefore, AIM invests in building action research habits in its committed, communicating cohort of “Firebird” Fellows. The Firebird Fellowship is AIM’s investment in teachers as the vital change agents for tackling inequality through music education.

AIM’s action research format is simplified to make it user-friendly for busy teachers. Practitioner experimentation targets one or more of AIM’s Five Pillars—building intrinsic motivation, holistic learning, agency, artistry, and community in young musicians. Research among the Firebird Fellows can thus be easily aligned and shared. For example, five Fellows in a program’s FAR Lab (Firebird Action Research Lab) might experiment in five different ways with how to increase student agency. As Firebirds share their discoveries and refine their teaching, students in their programs develop greater agency.

Experiments run in roughly six-week cycles, during which AIM’s Firebird Fellows regularly engage with colleagues both in and outside their programs to share their learning in a lab environment and receive coaching. AIM’s Action Research format follows six steps:

  1. Form hypotheses/theories/hunches about better ways of achieving Pillar-outcomes with students: “I bet I can have greater impact on students’ agency if I …”
  2. Design the experiment: “This is what I am going to do over the next X weeks, to test my hunch.”
  3. Document the experiment and collect data: “These documents/data will give evidence regarding the experiment’s impact.”
  4. Analyze the data: “The data tells me this about the impact of my experiment.”
  5. Come to a conclusion regarding impact: “What I expected didn’t entirely work. But one part of it did.”
  6. Bounce forward: “For the next X weeks, I have a hunch it will work even better if I try this…”
José Ángel Salazar Marín works with Firebird Fellow and cellist Sebastian Ostertag during the in-person, two-week Residency 2022 in Lisbon. Photo: Ivan Gonzalez.

Evidence is a key part of action research, maybe the trickiest part. Assessment of impact is based on analysis of collected documentation, not on impressions or feelings. Learning how to develop eloquent evidence as a part of an experiment is a skill AIM aims to cultivate. It’s the art of action research.

Looking at the data, especially alongside colleagues, allows us to draw conclusions about impact that lead to new tweaks, new theories, and new experiments. That bounce of energy into the next experiment is what develops the “continual improvement” habit of mind. Sharpening a hunch about how you can improve your teaching, documenting an experiment, learning—this becomes a way of working, hopefully for the rest of your career.

An Example

Here’s an example from a Firebird Fellow at El Sistema Greece. She developed a hypothesis that increasing students’ time for social interaction within their orchestra community would enhance their musical performance. Through the lens of AIM’s Five Pillars, here’s the hypothesis: increasing activities to enhance students’ sense of Community will advance their Artistry.

She designed her experiment: in every orchestra session, students would spend a few minutes getting to know each other through organized interpersonal engagement. Documenting the experiment through video, audio, and notes written after each session, she then analyzed the data alongside her colleagues and her coach. They discussed the findings to determine successes and areas needing improvement.

After six weeks, the experiment provided a clear conclusion: when students are given the space to know each other better, they can make music together more comfortably. Their awareness of each student’s unique role within the piece improved, increasing their level of musical performance and thus their artistry. Her hypothesis validated, she made this practice a regular part of her orchestra’s rehearsal routine. It led her to a new hunch: if students are comfortable enough, they themselves will be able to assess their collective musical work better and to give each other more useful feedback. Thus began a new cycle of action research.

An Action Research Working Group

AIM partnered with ITAC (International Teaching Artist Collaborative) to present a “Think Tank” workshop on action research for teaching artists of all disciplines from around the world. The workshop inspired a volunteer working group to join with José Angel on a project to build the global field. Together, in early 2023, they will create an Action Research Handbook for Teaching Artists. If you’d like to learn more by joining this working group, you can sign on here.

In 2023, The Ensemble will publish occasional articles by AIM Firebirds that describe their action research experiments—how they worked and what was learned—so that the wider field can benefit from their discoveries. Stay tuned.


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