PBL and the use of Auto-Tune in popular music

One of the key tenets of Project Based Learning is “authenticity.” Authenticity is described by John Larmer of the Buck Institute as a sliding scale “which goes from ‘Not Authentic’ to ‘Somewhat Authentic’ to ‘Fully Authentic.’” Finding authentic project topics in the realm of music for 7th grade students may seem challenging, but is actually easier than you might think. It’s something I have have been striving to improve in my own Project Based Learning implementation. In past years, I developed a unit around the use of auto-tune in popular music and students have responded positively. After all, it’s a new technology that almost every recording artist is using and it is affecting the landscape of popular music in myriad ways. As I am learning more about Project Based Learning (PBL) myself, I decided to give this year’s unit an slight update and format it accordingly.

We began by holding a discussion about auto-tune and what they already knew about it. T-Pain and Jay-Z were both popular figures that came up.  Specifically, their feud in public news regarding auto-tune, it’s legitimacy, and appropriate usage. The app that T-Pain released to allow iPhone users to use auto-tune, as well as subsequent apps that came along afterwards were discussed. Artists who are suspected to use auto-tune in their music were brought up and discussed with varying and opposing degrees of support and artistic respect.  Ethics in popular music with regards to auto-tune were compared to the ethics of professional athletes who use steroids.  Freedom of expression and censorship were brought up and artists having “artistic license” to create music however they see fit. What makes music “good” was discussed and related to what makes music “popular” or an artist “successful.” Financial success as opposed to artistic integrity was brought up. Artists who dupe their fans into thinking they have singing talent, but then have an inability to provide good live concert performances to audiences were brought up. As a facilitator who did not participate in the discussions, other than to ask a guiding or clarifying question on occasion, I was pretty impressed that they hit such a variety of topics and connections. Students knew much more about this than I anticipated and felt pretty passionately about one side or the other. After all, this was “their” music they were talking about and not music that I was introducing them to.

I then set them on their path with a Driving Question: “How should Recording Companies address the usage of Auto-Tune in recorded popular music?”  I asked students to individually write down their personal stance on this issue in three sentences or less and to include a “why or why not” sentence or two to support it. When they were finished, they read them allowed and asked to group themselves into “camps” based on the alignment of their positions.  We had seven groups to start. These self-selected groups ranged in size from 2-5 boys. The boys were then asked to take on the roles of different special interest groups that could be aligned with their position (legal, businesses, artists, fans, etc). We then began researching stances and solutions for support.

This preparation would be for a culminating event in which we would hold a debate. Each group would present their stance and findings to a panel of Recording Company Executives who were looking at this issue the way the RIAA did when they instituted the Parental Advisory labels in the late 1980s after public outcry over rap lyrics. They would have a time limit to present their findings and each boy has to participate in the presentation. The fictitious Recording Company Executives would be comprised of adults from around the school community (parents and teachers). A winner would be selected, not by alignment with the particular stance, but by which group best supports their case.

Since we are still “in process,” I can’t tell you the exact learning outcomes or even who would win in our debate yet, but what I can tell you is that kids are excitedly engaged in research to find support for their arguments.

In regards to authenticity in PBL, some groups are already attempting to create an all auto-tuned song to present their thoughts as part of their debate (using the “I am T-Pain” app, of course).   Some are looking into how a special interest group would go about holding a hearing to get government intervention and regulation. Others are creating a tiered labeling system to propose for albums that would communicate to audiences how much auto-tune is used and where. Some are taking on the role of lawyers building a legal case; citing the First Amendment and supporting it with how many other technologies are used in altering the sounds and talents of musicians that have been around for years (drum machines, etc.). Others are also taking a legal stance and want auto-tuned music rendered ineligible for awards and a separate music charts system created. In addition to being very cross-curricular, arts and technology integrated, and a topic that is related to their world and that they are passionate about, it feels pretty authentic to us. I wonder what T-Pain would say?

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