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Music Educators Brad Fuller & Peter Orenstein: Collaborative Teaching

Posted by Colin Klupiec on April 28, 2016 at 3:45 PM

School_girl_music.jpgBrad Fuller and Peter Orenstein are music educators at Northern Beaches Christian School on the North Shore of Sydney. 

They run a unique music program that seeks to provide a rich environment for music students. Their program is built on a collaborative model of teaching and leadership. 

Brad & Peter use their experiences as musicians to experiment with new ideas for teaching. Whilst there is a curriculum to deliver, the spirit of improvisation is strong in the way they teach it.

They emphasise what they describe as a bi-directional model of leadership. This allows for the free flow of ideas between them and their students.

I spoke to them on the Learning Capacity podcast on site, where all the magic happens. In this episode, Brad and Peter give us an insight into their creative and collaborative space. 

Listen to the podcast:

Topics covered

  1. Collaborative teaching models
  2. Bi-directional leadership
  3. Music improvisation as a transferrable skill
  4. Modelling and collaboration

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 53 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Music Educators Brad Fuller and Peter Orenstein on a Collaborative Model of Teaching

Colin Klupiec: Listeners, I am joined today by Brad Fuller and Peter Orenstein, who are music educators at Northern Beach's Christian School. We're going to talk about collaborative teaching models today. And Brad, if I could just start you off. You have an interesting hierarchy or structure as you like to describe it. Can you walk us through that?

Brad Fuller: Yes, our school specialises in making up special names, because we believe in the power of words to shape young minds. So, my official title at the school is "Learning Leader." And I think in other schools I would be known as a head of a department or head of faculty, or maybe even "leading teacher," or something like that.

But here, I am just a "Learning Leader." And then I am joined in my faculty, which we don't call faculty, but I'll let him describe that to you, by my young colleague Peter Orenstein. So, we are a faculty, except we don't call it a faculty.

Colin: So, you said that well you're "just" a learning leader. I suspect you're probably just being overly modest. So, if I'll just bring Peter into the conversation here. If Brad is just a learning leader, what does that make you?

Peter Orenstein: Just a music teacher.

Colin: Very simple answer to very simple question. So, you've got a specific relationship that you have here in the way that you work, which you reckon is pretty special. Do you have to work a lot with the organisation in the way that other faculties work, or do you have some sort of autonomy and independence? Peter, can I ask you that question?

Peter: Yeah, I would say definitely we are given autonomy, although there are strategies or focuses that are driven above us from the strategic apex. But I think to a certain degree, day to day, we have autonomy over our space, over the way we interact, and the way we go about our day.

Colin: So, the hierarchy above you doesn't determine how you guys need to function as a team? You've got some freedom there?

Brad: Indeed. The organisation has asked for teachers to explore a collaborative model of teaching within faculties and across faculties. And so, it's up to each learning leader to take that overarching concept of collaboration and to apply it to their particular context.

Colin: So, why collaboration? We hear that word a lot, but why that one?

Brad: I guess it's been...the easy answer is it's been mandated from above.

Colin: So, someone's told you to be collaborative, therefore you shall be?

Brad: Correct. Ironic, huh. I'm not sure if there was much collaboration that went into that.

Colin: Let's work as a team and do it my way.

Brad: So, the good news is that that suits us perfectly, because I've been teaching in classrooms for 20 years, I've been a musician for 30 years and Peter hasn't. How long have you been?

Peter: This is my fourth year, yeah.

Colin: So, coming in, in your fourth year, now you're being told that you need to work collaboratively. Is this something new to you? Is this something that was talked about a lot in your pre-service training?

Peter: No. In fact, you were taught to be the central figure of authority in the space, and that was largely what classroom management, so to speak, was all about.

Colin: Well, I find that unusual, because Brad and I have worked together before. I'll just disclose that to our listeners. I think we've disclosed that before on the show, haven't we. 

Brad: We have, which we should also disclose. 

Colin: Yes, there are other episodes that you can check out. We've been talking about for collaboration for a number of years now. Gosh, it's got to be going back at least five, six, or maybe even, or how many years could have been? At least five. Right? You're telling me that you're coming to your fourth year, but this is new for you.

Peter: It was new for me until four years ago.

Colin: Right. That is unusual, isn't it?

Brad: I think teaching traditionally has been about go to your room, close the door, and draw the blinds, particularly if you are showing a film.

Colin: Or having a lock down drill.

Brad: Yeah, indeed. So, I don't think teachers are the most suited to this, nor do they have a history of working collaboratively. It's tense. I think teaching as a profession has been quite an isolated, run your own small business sort of affair.

Colin: So are you suggesting institutionalisation there?

Peter: Yes, I am.

Colin: That's fairly controversial. Are you fairly confident of that view yourself?

Brad: I think I've worked in enough systems and schools to say that that historically that has been the norm. But I think in the 2000s we've seen the wider world has embraced collaboration. Industry, or particularly in industry. And so, I think you'd be burying your head in the sand if school teachers weren't thinking, "Gee, I wonder if there's something in this collaborative model for us."

And so we had the perfect storm here at the school, where Pete and I were both new to the school. And as we've talked about on previous shows, we've designed a collaborative space and within having designed collaborative space, we needed to design new curriculum.

So, essentially it was a fresh start. So once we'd designed the space, we had to design curriculum. So, we thought let's design it together. And so, we had to do all sorts of re-engineering of the school environment to enable us to collaborate, which I guess will unfold as we go along.

Colin: So, Peter, coming into to this as a, I guess we can still call you a recent graduate, only four years in. Being presented with the task of designing a space, and then thinking about how you're going to work as you design the space as you go, did that freak you out a little bit?

Peter: Yes and no. I think if you have experiences in improvisation, then you're used to having that feeling of chucked in the deep end, but continuing to be focused and be on the flare. So, I wouldn't say I was scared, but I just was directionless. I didn't have any person, so to speak, to give me an idea of what that looked like in pragmatic terms.

Colin: But you feel confident? Let's not use the word confident. Let's say more comfortable because of your improvisational experimentation I guess in the music field. So, the whole idea of stepping into the unknown wasn't that scary. Until of course, you turned up and there are students outside, all expecting you to do something fairly predictable?

Peter: Yes. 

Colin: Do you, in your conversations with other teachers find that you are better positioned in that space because of your improvisational skills? Do you think that would go as well if you were a history teacher, for example?

Peter: I'm not sure about the history teacher argument.

Colin: Well, you could pick another subject if you like. I just didn't want to pick maths, because everybody picks maths and English. So I'm thinking there's got to be another subject to talk about.

Peter: I'm sure in other domains there's different skillsets which are valuable, but I think musicians who improvise have definitely a different view on situations that are presented to them. I really think it's a transferable skill, that's very valuable for teaching, and for other things in life as well.

Colin: And do you feel like you've grown into this now?

Peter: Yeah, I think over the last few years, each year I feel like I know more about pedagogy, how to work with professionals. And also, Brad's exposed me to different ideas which are controversial. I'm sure you've been talking about them. Which you weren't exposed to at university, but as you go into professional sphere, you now are allowed to go for it.

Colin: Controversial ideas that you don't hear about at university, over to you, Brad Fuller. I believe that's your idea.

Brad: It is, indeed. So, I think once the school realised that collaboration was the way forward, we had to implement mechanisms that would allow that. So, from a physical perspective, in order for...so, I think lots of schools, in lots of schools, teachers collaborate outside of the classroom on curriculum.

You might work together with a colleague on a program for year seven, for example. But then you would go away and teach that individually, and you would mark it in your register, so you could make sure that everyone was keeping up, and all of that sort of thing.

So, we thought what if we taught the same thing at the same time in the same space. So that meant that we had to remodel our music space, and instead of two traditional classrooms, we took the wall out, and took the desks out, and made one open plan large space to accommodate 60 students.

So that meant that we could then plan for the classes, collaboratively, but then be in the same room at the same time, and I think that's the revolutionary idea that some schools are beginning to embrace.

Colin: Yeah, now they are starting to do that, and I hear of that quite a bit. You've had a couple of years experience with that now. Some people do in fact find that very controversial. The classic arguments of, "How could you concentrate? How could you keep track of what's going on?" Couple of years in, what do you think?

Brad: I think once you've ripped out the wall, everything changes. And I think that's a wonderful thing. It means that the chalk and talk just doesn't work anymore. And when you have two people in a room, if one person is chalking and talking, then the other person is what we call, we have a number of names for that other person, but essentially they are a shusher, and I don't think any of us signed up to be shusher.

Colin: Well, that other person could only really be standing around somewhere, presumably at the back, because you can't have two people at the front. There only can be one. 

Brad: Yeah, and so that's a waste of resources. So, then I think you need a much more dynamic classroom. So we have a dynamic classroom where both of us engage with students all the time, and we have a range of mechanisms to allow that to happen. But the first thing that must go when the wall comes down is the chalk and talk.

And so, if you are trying to continue business as usual in a collaborative classroom, you'll hate it.

Colin: So, Peter, you're not a shusher?

Peter: No.

Colin: You're not a chalk and talker?

Peter: No.

Colin: So you don't fit the standard model of a teacher. What's wrong with you?

Peter: I think a bit of conditioning. That's what's wrong with me, because I came in for my first year, maybe had six months of chalk and talk, and then I met Brad. And from then, I've been honing in my skill to not do that.

Brad: Yeah. So Pete is essentially one of my research topics. He's a thesis, and I am as well. I'm a part of that thesis. So the thesis is, "What would happen if an older music teacher met up with a first year out music teacher, and did everything together?"

Colin: So, Pete, you're a bit like a lab rat. How do you feel about that?

Peter: I guess I feel comfortable.

Colin: Yeah, you're a comfortable. collaborative lab rat.

Peter: Yeah.

Colin: I'm okay with that. Sounds okay to me.

Brad: The secret there was that we're both improvising musicians. And so, getting back to that, one of the definitions of improvisation is spontaneous composition, or being able to create spontaneously in the moment. And so, that's why I thought Pete and I were going to work well together, because we were okay with being able to look at a situation, and respond with some sort of creative solution.

And so, I guess then the other thesis was, "What if I could teach Pete how to be a teacher, without ever having to teach him anything?"

Colin: So, modelling.

Brad: Yeah.

Colin: Modelling and collaboration. So modelling is obviously a very important part of what you're talking about. I can hear that in the description that you're giving.

Brad: Early on, I took the...I would take the lead, wherever possible, and I would do a demonstration of how I thought something should be done. And then, I wouldn't ever have to...I've never shown Pete how to do anything. And so, he'd be doing whatever it was that he was doing, but also watching what I was doing.

When it came time for me to move on to the next thing, I could feel confident that Pete had watched me, Pete had tried it.

We then chatted about it, and troubleshot it, and we'd template it, didn't we? And then we could go, "That's the way."

And then we knew that our students would have a consistent, the most consistent experience, because it didn't matter if it was Pete facilitating or me facilitating. They would get a standard experience. And that's really quite exciting I think.

Colin: So you were talking about working well together. Pete, if I could just ask you, is working well together something that can happen in a collaborative model just because it's collaborative? How much is personality involved in this?

Peter: It's a good question. I think it doesn't matter with your personality. I think that's a widely perceived thought, but in fact what we've done to move away from that thought is to structure everything about our collaboration. And so, we have mechanisms, routines and we've actually got checks and balances in place to help us be better workmates.

Colin: So, those systems that you have in place, do you think they would help to compliment any personality deficiencies?

Peter: I think so. They'd increase communication, transparency, a whole bunch of factors which often don't get talked about in an open class space, because you get tucked in, and you want to teach the way you teach. And often you don't get time, or you don't think you have time to be on the same page as the other person.

Colin: We all know that anyone who's ever been in a relationship, and most people are in a relationship of sorts, it requires effort. It requires quite a lot of work to keep the relationship going well.

And I think the idea that just because you have a good relationship, doesn't mean it's going to stay forever. So what I'm hearing here is that you see the value of those systems contributing to this idea of collaboration to keep this whole thing going.

Brad: Yeah, I have a history of teacher training. I have been doing it for many years, and what I've come to know is that people have to be hungry. And the reason I took this job was that I could see that Pete was hungry, and wanted to be a great teacher.

And so do I. And so, I think that we want to come to work and do the best job for each other each day, because there's an underlying respect there from the beginning.

And I think also we want to do a great job for our kids, but that's not anything different about us than any other teacher, right?

Colin: True. I can hear listeners already thinking, I can hear them thinking.

Brad: That's one of your skillsets.

Colin: Well, I've got a very powerful microphone.

Brad: And great headphones.

Colin: I can already hear teachers thinking, "Well, hang on a second. This all sounds great guys, but at the end of the day, someone's got to have the final word, if a final word needs to be had." Pete, does that ever cause a problem for you?

Peter: Not so much. I think we're a great team. So rarely does that final word comes in in the sense of it's a negative thing. I think I look for feedback constantly from Brad, because he's the mentor teacher, yeah.

Colin: But Brad tells me that the relationship is very much a bi-directional one. So it cuts both ways. Do you get a true sense of that?

Peter: Yeah, I think what we've set up in those check and balances is the ability to offer feedback, but also receive. So, at whatever point of authority you are, you always have feedback coming to you and you're giving back feedback at the same time.

Colin: Brad, do you find that this works equally well for you, or do you sometimes feel the desire, or maybe the temptation, to say, "Oh, look, actually I'm in charge, so I'm just going to push through on this? 

Brad: I think we've both come into this. Sure, I've got a wealth of experience, but we're in unique situation. No one's ever built a room like this and tried to teach the way we're teaching, with the materials we're trying to teach with. So I think really, we're both novices. And so, I think this is as close to a clean slate for both of us as possible.

I made a conscious decision when I came, to bring as little with me as possible. So we really started with nothing and said, "All right. Let's re-think music education from the ground up." And at the end of every lesson, we always start with, "What went wrong, how can we fix it?"

Colin: Here's what we've learned.

Brad: Yep. And I think that's a question...it's never me going to Pete, saying, "Here's what I think you could improve." It's just about us coming to the table at the end of the lesson and going, "What are we going to fix for next time?" and making sure that it's fixed.

And the way we've set our program up, we have the option to iterate multiple times. So that's, I think that's what drives us both. We want to try something and we want to improve it until we think that is excellent, and that's what drives both of us.

And so that bi-directional, for both of us to just come at the end of the lesson and say, "What can we improve there," because we've got another group of kids that are about to come in and do that same lesson. So, how can we fix it on the fly, being improvisers again.

So that whatever we just learned from that class will improve in time for the next one, and then we'll learn something else. I think that's really...and there's no hierarchy in that. It's just, "I did my best, you did your best. What did we learn?"

Colin: Pete, looking forward, how do you find that? Does that excite you? Does that gives you motivation and inspiration to keep coming back to the classroom, to think about how you can approach the unknown with a fresh start every day? That's what it sounds like.

Peter: I think the fact that I've got autonomy, in the sense of Brad trusts me with what I'm in control of. What our systems have allowed me to specialise in, that gives me enough drive.

And I don't feel like Brad's a dictator over me. We both have control over different parts of the system. And so, because I feel like I'm contributing to the whole, I feel like I'm offering what I can offer, then I feel value.

Colin: Sounds like a great model, guys. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for your time.

Brad: Thank you.


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