Review Of Student Directed Content Application

by Justin Miera

Students Directed Content Application

This course was designed as a method of instruction that gives students the opportunity to take charge of their own education. The reason students should be given this chance is so that they can find relevance in learning, develop intrinsic motivation, and become lifelong learners. Through this methodology, students are exposed to all relevant content for any given subject; this is not a process for its own sake. At the same time, it gives students the skills to apply the content of any subject using their own experiences and contexts. As Fosnot said, "Learning is not discovering more, but interpreting through a different scheme or structure (Brooks, 1993, p. 5)."

The methodology of SDCA (Students Directed Content Application) is focused on the three premises of student initiation, small group work, and students as teachers. The premises are molded into a seven step process: (1) purpose, (2) approach, (3) responsibility, (4) contributions, (5) consensus, (6) teams, and (7) teaching. The process is developed to be open ended so as to accommodate any subject or grade.

William Glasser is the primary reference for the premise of student initiation. His book, Choice Theory, explores how students become intrinsically motivated. Glasser gives ideas on how to help develop a classroom that satisfies the needs of students, thereby inspiring them to study. One of Glasser's main application ideas involves teaming. The premise of small group work starts with this notion of teaming, and explores several other cooperative learning methods. Small group work allows students to combine the aspects of social/peer motivation, synergistic inspiration, and interpersonal communication. Many of the researched teaming methods provide students with excellent opportunities to teach. By developing teaching skills students complete the circle, and self direct the application of any content material.

The methodology of SDCA was applied to general music classes of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade students. There were three classes in each of the three grades.The lessons were taught and observed at Graland Country Day School, Denver, Colorado, between January 4th, 1999, and April 9th, 1999. The process was cleared with the Lower School division head, Carrie Davis, and the Visual and Performing Arts Department head, Tony Catonese. To help determine effectiveness, notes were taken during the student's teaching process to give a point of reference. There were several observations made by fellow visual and performing arts teachers. Finally, students were surveyed to honor their perspective.

The first five steps, purpose, approach, responsibility, contributions, consensus, were applied at the beginning of the school year. Parts of these initial steps were developed in Miera's theory, Peer Directed Behavior Modification, and are now adapted into the larger SDCA model.

Ongoing Application Of Steps 1-5

There are some universal points of application between all three grades. Purpose is the first point of consistency. All classes are introduced to the seven musical concepts at the beginning of the year. The concepts are melody, dynamics, timbre, harmony, tempo, rhythm, and form. Every lesson is related in some way to one or more of these ideas. Each grade is introduced to a spiraling progression of the concepts, building annually. This method of pedagogy is closely related to the Manhatanville Music Curriculum Program of 1965. The yearly goals for each grade are posted on an accessible bulletin board.

The second is approach. All students were initiated, from the previous school year, to the classroom management style of waiting. Waiting involves the teacher sitting quietly, and patiently for the class to quiet down, readied for a lesson. The teacher models the expected behavior, and picks up on student requests for calm and quiet, "I agree with Jill. It is very noisy and I would like to start making some music." Students also observed, and then incorporated, cues from other teachers and circumstances. One well known cue came from the Lower School head during assemblies. She would clap a four beat pattern and the students would all echo it as an acknowledgment to be quiet. Some cues only applied to a specific classes. There was one class where students would raise two fingers in the air to signify quiet. Other cues came from personal experiences such as the three finger Girl Scout salute.

All classes used a similar system of responsibility. The first five minutes of every class is dedicated to warm-ups. There are three warm-up activities: stretches, claps, and do, re, mis. The daily leader would wait for the class to be quiet and then call for volunteers to direct the warm-ups; a different student for each warm-up. Over the year, individual classes experimented with how to order leadership responsibilities. By the time of this paper, all classes had autonomously moved to a last name alphabetical order. The leader is also responsible for choosing people to hand out books, and dividing the class for performances. There are usually two or three accompaniment parts for every song. The leader divides the class into parts and assigns instruments.

Students are asked to contribute for every example used. When ever an a instrument is added for accompaniment, students get to choose what it is. When a rhythm needs to be written, students choose the beats. Some general parameters are set for each request based on the specifics of the lesson. If a song is in a 4/4 meter then only a permutation of rhythms equaling four beats may be used. On the other hand, subjective parameters are not enforced. If the song is a lullaby and students choose to use drums for the accompaniment, then they are free to make their own judgment on its effectiveness.

Consensus is used when ever a decision must be made which affects the whole class at the same time. If a lesson has gone particularly smoothly, and there is time left for a game, students are allowed to contribute ideas for the game. They are then free to develop a method for choosing the game. Most often, the students have a vote, majority rule. When there are several choices to be made, students are directed through a consensus process. For instance, if dates for team presentations are being decided there is usually a conflict. An easy way to resolve the conflict is to pass over the disputed date and fill in the other possibilities. Often, one of the conflicted groups takes an another date. If not, a simple question like, "Is one team willing to take date B instead of date A?" often achieves a resolution.

The initial steps, 1-5, laid the ground work for true student directed content application. In 2nd and 3rd grade, students taught their own lessons as the next step. 4th grade developed a musical production and used the process for creating songs. 4th grade also used the process for analyzing each movement of Gustav Holts' symphony, The Planets. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, a review of the 4th grade activities was not possible for this paper.

Steps 6-7: Teaching A Lesson

The 2nd and 3rd grade lessons were to be taught by the entire team. Each member of the team was to take on a specific role in the lesson. The objective of the lesson was to teach about the next progressive component of a particular musical concept. Each team would choose either melody, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, form, timbre, or harmony. The choice of songs and materials was left to student discretion. However, there were very specific components to the lesson which helped establish quantitative rubric evaluations. The team presenters were called teachers, and the observant class, students. All future presentations were referred to as teaching.

An initial lesson my the music teacher reviewed all seven concepts. Students were asked to describe what they already knew about each. That information was written on the chalk board. The music teacher then elaborated on this base knowledge. For instance, 2nd graders had previously written melodies with two notes on a one line staff; one high and the other low. Now, they were shown how to write three notes on a one line staff; high, middle, and low. The challenge of the teams was to teach this progressive concept, with songs and musical activities, to the rest of the class.

Students had to divide themselves into teams of 3 or 4. They were asked to self construct their groups with several points in mind. They were to avoid groups that contained friends who were distracting, or antagonistic. If they ended up in such a group they would not be moved; they would have to either maintain focus or develop a polite repour in order be successful. Another caveat was to be inclusive to anyone without a group, "This is not about friendships, but about creating a lesson." If groups had difficulty forming then the music teacher was available to help.

As it turned out, from the 9 total classes, and 50 potential teams, only four instances needed teacher intervention. Each time, it was a group of six or more students who could not subdivide because of friendships. A simple question was asked, "How can we divide this group?" Twice, members of the larger group easily pulled apart with a statement like, "Oh, I guess we'll be a team." In the other two instances, students decided to do a game. One game was to pick a number between 1 and 20. The other was "Ink-a-bink, a bottle of ink, the cork fell out and you stink." In all cases, students were ultimately happy with their choices.

Once formed, teams were asked to choose a "secretary" to be in charge of the paperwork. They wrote general information like the names of teams mates, the concept they were to teach, and the roles of each member. The secretary was also in charge of document retrieval and storage. This was the only chore, or duty the team was asked to develop. Instead, emphasis was placed on members choosing various roles for teaching. These roles related directly to the prerequisite of their lessons.

The next step was to choose concepts. Teams were asked to pick two concepts they would like to teach. All seven concepts were listed on the board. One at a time the concepts were offered, and teams raised their hands when it came to one they liked. Occasionally, there were several teams vying for the same concept. If so, that concept was skipped and the others claimed. Most concepts were claimed by the end of the list. If there was still a disputed concept then students were asked to resolve it. Again, like with splitting teams, most often one group acquiesced and freely gave up the concept. In a couple of instances, students decided on a game to reach an outcome. Guess a number between 1-20, and picking out of the hat, were the most widely used. This process was repeated to decide on teaching days. The conflicts and resolutions were similar.

The lessons had to contain 5 steps: a) introduction, b) exercise, c) song, d) performance, and e) review. These steps were prominently displayed on the board. The introduction had to describe the concept they were teaching, and the new component (e.g. 3 notes on a one line staff). The exercise was to be an activity that demonstrated the new component. It could be a game, warm-up, or song. Using melody, one group drew a line on the board and placed ten or so notes at high, medium and low points. Highs were assigned mi, middles re, and lows do. The class then sang the exercise. For the third step, song, most groups used their music books to find a piece that referenced their concept. Several groups wrote their own piece. Once the song was taught, the team provided and arrangement that illustrated their concept. The class then performed the arrangement. A sub activity to performance was to rotate parts in the arrangement so that everyone could try each. The last 3-5 minutes of every lesson was dedicated to review. This mostly took the form of a question and answer session (e.g. What was the highest of the three notes on the one line staff?).

Each member of a team had to take on the role of teaching one of these 5 steps. A successful team grade was based on adequate fulfillment of the 5 step rubric. Individual grading was done subjectively based on cooperation skills, task focusing, and material comprehension.


These are observations and insights to elaborate on the implementation of this SDCA lesson. Each class and lesson had dozens of notable findings, but too many to cover in this paper. Those listed below are some strong representations of the steps leading up to student presentations.

There was a problem with having one duty, that of the secretary. Some students felt left out. Either more duties were needed to give a stronger sense of ownership, or the team should have been left to sort out the writing on their own. In the 4th grade analysis lesson, students were each required to take on one of four roles: cassette tape manager, headphones manager, secretary, or director of studies. This was a great way to focus their energy and give them responsibility.

During the team splitting process there were some hard feelings. This was related to friendship issues. Most were resolved by asking those involved to deal with it outside the room, using kind words. The teacher avoided the role of arbiter in favor of student resolution. In every instance, students decided it was not a terribly big issue and preferred to get on with their music work. This sometimes took ten minutes, but once resolved all the parties were incredibly focused.

There were some conflicts with in teams. Two main problems arose. First, one person would dominate the process alienating her team mates. Asking the question, "Do you want to present this lesson by yourself?" usually prompted the initiative to allow other points of view. Other questions were used based on the circumstance, and all led to the conclusion that without team mates this is a difficult and lonely process. To include team mates means to include their ideas. In a sense, it was a mini lesson on teaching students to teach relevance. The second problem had to do with listening. There was a particularly funny encounter when two students were arguing about how to implement their exercise. The talking stick was introduced. The first student said his piece. When the second student received the stick he said, "Oh, that was my idea too."

In several groups there were students who did not participate. Their team mates complained to the teacher. The teacher reminded the groups that when the teams were to teach, each person had to take on a role, or step. The distracted students were asked if they were ready to teach their part. This question usually prompted a look of terror, and thereby, immediate interest in the creative process.

The first few teams that taught had to struggle through unknown territory. At first they were left to initiate each step of the lesson without teacher guidance. It quickly became apparent that the transitions between steps were the weakest link. The music teacher began asking questions at each transition such as, "Are you ready to start the exercise," or "Can we sing the song through once to learn it?" This helped to keep the student teachers on track. During the last few lessons students began initiating the transitional questions: "Is this the exercise, or the song? Why didn't you do an exercise?"

The greatest observable frustration for student teachers was in the area of classroom management. Many were able to initiate cues quickly, drawing upon techniques used by their regular classroom teachers. Others struggled with the conflict of disciplining their peers. Early on, classroom students were less respectful to the plight of the teachers. As the lessons progressed, and the teachers became students, the level of empathy and conscientiousness grew. Some students foresaw the difficulties with noise and set up loud instruments as their cues. They warned the class ahead of time that the cymbal, or drum would mark a noisy class.

The music teacher used the end of the review time to have students reflect on the teachers. Again, students quickly took over this activity without the help of the music teacher. There were many great observations, all issued with sincerity and kindness. Insights dealt with the quality of the music chosen, the implementation of the lesson, the behavior of the class, and clarification of the content.

One great measure of this process came from a 2nd grade girl. At the beginning of the process she wrote a note to the music teacher asking to be excused from teaching, it scared her. After her group taught their lesson she came up to the teacher and said, "Throw away my note. This was the greatest experience. I want to teach more classes."


The above observations are a good subjective measure to fine tune particular aspects of the SDCA process. It is important to have outside critique of the process, and its outcomes, in order to avoid inbred, convoluted ideas. Fellow VAPA teachers were invited to sit in on these lessons. One teacher offered an observation of the SDCA process.Cindy Souser is a Graland music teacher who had frequent access to the students. She substituted for two classes of 2nd grade, and observed pieces of several classes. In an April 13th note, she wrote:

"Kids were very focused and self directed, both as participants and leaders. They took ownership and pride in their work and took it very seriously. They had tons of confidence. In the process, the groups showed compassion for the leader, or teacher, because they all had the opportunity to be the teacher at some point. As they prepared for their presentations it was cool to watch the leaders rise to the occasion and how each group dynamic developed. Some with no struggle. You could see the kids experimenting with different roles in the process."

This project was began so students could find power and relevance in their studies. Without getting their feedback, this is simply an adult's pedagogical theory. Each class was given a verbal survey of the process. There were nine questions. Numbers 1 through 5 were multiple choice questions. These were easily quantifiable and are presented in a statistical analysis. Questions 6 through 9 were open ended questions designed to let students freely explore their insights. Many of their observations matched from class to class, but can only be presented in a paraphrased form.

There were a total of 106 students surveyed. The 3rd grade students numbered 55, and the 2nd grade numbered 51. Some students answered more than once on the multiple choice questions, so percentages were based on the total number of hands raised per question, not the total number of students. Still, the basic sample number stayed the same. Statistics will be given for each individual grade, and then the combined sample group.

Question 1 asked, "Did you learn something new about your concept, as a teacher?" 75% of the 2nd and 3rd grade answered yes, 25% no.

Question 2 asked, "Did you learn something new about other concepts, as a student?" 84% of the 2nd grade and 3rd grade answered yes, 16% no.

Question 3 read, "When students taught, did you learn a) more, b) less, or c) same, as with the adult teacher?" In the 2nd grade 11% responded to "a," more, 40% to "b," less, and 49% to "c," the same. In 3rd grade 25% responded to more, 38% less, and 36% the same. The two grades combined averaged 18% more, 39% less, and 43% the same.

Question 4 read, "When students taught, did your behavior a) improve, b) lessen, or c) stay the same, as with an adult teacher. In the 2nd grade 16% said "a," they improved, 29% said "b," they lessened, and 55% said "c," they were the same. The 3rd grade said 7% improved, 18% lessened, and 75% stayed the same.

The final multiple choice question, number 5, read, "Are you a better learner after this teaching exercise?" In both 2nd and 3rd grade, 65% believed they were better learners, 35% did not.

There are many consistencies in these statistics. 75% of both grades felt they learned the content material as teachers. 85% of both grades felt they learned new content as students of the peer teachers. 65% of both grades said they had become better learners through the SDCA process. All of these are powerful indicators that the students found success in this process. Success in the sense of learning. Some measure success through quantifying knowledge, or information. A statistical analysis of a standardized music comprehension test would give that quantification. SDCA, as a Regis University course, did not give the author enough time or resources to produce that kind of study. Ideally, the use of control groups could compare student perceptions to testing performance.

There were some contrasting statistics as well. 11% of 2nd grade said they learned more from peers than they did from a music teach. In contrast, twice the number, 25%, of 3rd graders learned more from their peers. The opposite effect took place with regards to behavior. 16% of 2nd grade thought their behavior had improved with peer teachers, compared to half that of 3rd grade, 7%. The behavior component, by its nature, is more subjective. Again, question 3 could be quantifiable checked with a control group and testing.

The open ended questions, 6-9, yielded some interesting insights. As many as twelve students would answer each question. During their discussion others would chime in with contradictions or confirmations. It was therefore difficult to report all responses thoroughly. This next section paraphrases and condenses frequently stated thoughts.

Question 6 asked, "What was your favorite part of this exercise?" In 2nd grade, a great number of students liked the opportunity to "switch sides" with the teacher. Many students actually used Glasser's term "power" to describe what they liked about teaching. Another popular notion was that SDCA offered identification with a cooperative group. Some liked the new songs and games that peers offered. Others thought the process improved class behavior.

In 3rd grade, the word "power" was used frequently as students liked to have control of the class. They also like control over the content; what songs to sing and instruments to play. Like the 2nd grade, 3rd grade enjoyed taking the teacher's place and having cooperative activities. They also said it was fun.

Question 7 read, "What was the most difficult part of the exercise?" 2nd grade students mostly found the noise and chaos to be difficult. Several had difficulty with their team mates being distracted. Some cited the organizational process as confusing.

3rd grade students also had the most difficulty with those "out of control" and noisy. Many also felt conflicted about disciplining their peers. More 3rd graders had difficulty with the organizational process, especially related to documenting their thoughts and progressions. Like the 2nd grade, team members were sometimes distracted.

Question 8 was, "What would you change if we did it again?" Very few people from either grade commented. In both cases, students asked for clearer cues and discipline plans. 3rd graders wanted assigned, distinct roles for team members. 2nd grade asked for more turns to teach.

Question 9 queried, "What would you like to keep as part of the regular class?" Both grades asked for more students as teachers, and a greater variety of songs and activities. 2nd grade asked for more group work.

Without more objective information it would be difficult to proclaim complete success of SDCA. Yet, simply listening to the clarity and insight of student observations and suggestions, demonstrates an in depth understanding of musical content and application. This is only an anecdotal evaluation, but it holds powerful questions and possibilities for other student directed activities.

SDCA And Related Ideas

A great number of references have been made to William Glasser in this paper, and throughout the class work. These references were made to his theories from the book Choice Theory. These were inspirations and rationales for creating student centered and directed activities. Similar philosophies come from constructivist theory and the book by Brooks and Brooks.

Actual applications of theory were derived from intuitive reasoning, and bolstered by the cooperative learning methods. The original inspiration for SDCA came from anecdotal stories about Japanese schools and the role of teachers. Kristof mused how absent Japanese teachers do not need a substitute. Students self taught because they understood the direction of their studies. It was only after several weeks that an absent teacher would raise concerns. If Japanese students are able to direct themselves, this author then reasoned they must a) be motivated to the purpose of learning, b) have a repertoire of approaches to interpersonal interactions, c) be responsible for carrying out expectations, d) be confident in contributing ideas, e) have a selfless place in community consensus, f) understand group work process, and g) teach others about their insights. These became the seven steps to SDCA.

An initial title to this course was Anarchy In The Classroom. Anarchy in the sense of self governance without a ruler. As Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines it, "1...c: a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government." Not the popular notion of chaos or disorder. For if a society were to survive without governance, then each person would have to be completely self responsible. What better way to teach this responsibility than to give students a chance to work out their visions, and difficulties, without the authority of a teacher. The teacher will always bring subjective bias, and thereby artificial manipulation to the setting. Still, safety and content learning are the responsibility of the teacher. That is why the teacher in SDCA is more of a facilitator; providing direction, inspiration, and opportunities.

To that end, student teams should be allowed to self construct, self subjugate, and self demonstrate. All teams were able to clearly and thoroughly teach their information, so the students were able to learn; one of the teacher's responsibilities fulfilled. Likewise, students had to deal with the stickiness of interpersonal relationships. All the while, the teacher was available and observant to keep feelings and bodies safe; the other of the teacher's responsibilities fulfilled.

The cooperative team model that most closely resembled this particular SDCA lesson was that of Shlomo Sharan, Group Investigation."In Group Investigation, students form their own two- to six-member groups. The groups choose subtopics from a unit being studied by the entire class, further break their subtopics into individual tasks, and carry out the activities necessary to prepare a group report. The group then makes a presentation or display to communicate it findings to the entire class, and is evaluated based on the quality of this report (Slavin, 1983, p. 28)."

Slavin classified this approach as "Task Specialization," and touted its "higher-level" skills (p. 58). It is a process that was found very effective in social studies environments that required less fact gathering, and more abstract reasoning (pp. 48-49). This points to the need for teachers to find teaming methods suitable to their style, content, and outcome.


SDCA is a method designed to promote student power. Power in the sense of self determination and ownership. The degree to which students can claim this power is determined by the flexibility of teachers, administrators, and their curriculums. Once these professions are able to have confidence in the ability of students to learn, and their capability for intrinsic motivation, then SDCA has a place in their systems. That place may be as small as giving students leaders mundane tasks. It might also take the form of students studying, and then teaching, whole segments of an ongoing curriculum. There is no way to say which degree is more or less important. Every person finds their truth uniquely. Likewise, every teacher must find what works for them, comfortably and successfully. In our contemporary educational culture, SDCA may be too much of a shock for some. It requires the complete abandonment of the teacher ego; all knowing, all controlling. Instead, it creates a fluid relationship between teacher and student where each looks to the other for insights and direction. Truly, colleagues and co-creators.


Adams, D., Hamm, M. (1996). Cooperative learning. Illinois: Thomas Books.

Brooks, J. G., Brooks, M. G. (1993). In search of understanding: the case for constructivist classrooms. Virginia: ASCD.

Glasser M.D., William (1986). Choice theory in the classroom. New York: Harper & Row.

Kristof, Nicholas D. (1997, August 17). Where Children Rule. The New York Times Magazine, 40.

Miera, Justin H. (1998). Peer Directed Behavior Modification. In Justin's Regis Papers [Online]. Available: [1999, April 13].

Slavin, Robert E. (1983). Cooperative learning. New York: Longman Inc.

Slavin, Robert E. (1990). Cooperative learning: theory, research, and practice. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Slavin, Robert E. (1991). Student team learning: a practical guide to cooperative learning. Washington, D. C.: NEA.

Slavin, R., Sharan, S., Kagan, S., Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., Webb, C., Schmuck, R. (Eds.). (1985). Learning to cooperate, cooperating to learn. New York: Plenum Press.

A review in partial fulfillment of the course Student Directed Content Application, MLS 654 I, Course Consultant is Mona Gardner, Ph.D., REGIS UNIVERSITY, April 14, 1999. Student Directed Content Application

Justin's Regis Papers Page