9 important questions every music teacher should ask

While I was browsing my bookshelf yesterday, I found my old copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1969). Before becoming professors in New York City, both men had been elementary and secondary schoolteachers for many years.

I’d read the book about 15 years ago. As soon as I saw the big red apple on the cover, I was reminded of the book’s impact on me in 2000, and the many reasons why it was so influential in the 1970s, 1980s, and thereafter.

When I mentioned Subversive Activity to David, he told me he’d read it in 1975, just after he started teaching in the music education department at the University of Toronto. He said:

It made me question all the ways I was teaching my music education students way back  then. Some things I remember clearly are how it emphasizes democratic teaching and learning, the reasons why teachers and students need to develop critical thinking, good “crap detectors,” and a healthy skepticism about assumptions. It was especially important because it explains “ecological classrooms,” and “mind-ing.” Am I right? I remember thinking at the time that, even though these ideas go back to Plato, Aristotle, and all the way up to Dewey and others, the way they [Postman and Weingartner] explained these “new” ideas so clearly meant a lot to many teachers, including me and my students, in the ‘70s.

As I revisited Teaching as a Subversive Activity, I arrived at Chapter 5: “What’s Worth Knowing?” Even though I’d asked myself the same question many times in the past—and even though David and I ask this question on page 1 of MM2, and many other times in our book—I knew immediately that I had to redouble my efforts to help my music education majors think carefully about and practice “minding” two questions: “What’s worth knowing?” and “What’s worth knowing musically?” These questions go right to the heart of the nature(s) and values of music education, community music, and lifelong musical participation.

Postman and Weingartner suggest that to decide whether any question should be asked and answered—by ourselves and/or our students—we should begin by asking questions of the question itself, and continue doing this before and after we teach.

For example, teachers in every subject area would be wise to ask themselves:

1. Will my questions increase learners’ passion for learning?

2. Will they increase their capacity to learn?

3. Will they boost their confidence in their ability to learn?

4. Will they motivate them to ask deeper follow-up questions that require alternative modes of inquiry?

5. Will they inspire learners to search for alternative interpretations of the material they’re learning?

6. Are my questions likely to increase students’ feelings of self-worth, persistence, and resilience?

7. Are they likely to produce different answers if/when learners ask them again at different stages of their educational development? Are they likely to develop students’ critical thinking, “crap detection” abilities, and a healthy skepticism about common sense assumptions?

8. Will students’ participation in “minding” empower them to develop thoughtful answers, and become more collaborative and creative?

These questions are extremely important to ask and think about, because to ask them is to take major steps toward achieving a central aim of all forms of education: developing students’ abilities to find meaning in the world:

There is no learning without a learner. And there is no meaning without a meaning maker. In order to survive in a world of rapid change there is nothing more worth knowing, for any of us, than the continuing process of how to make viable meanings. (Postman and Weingartner, 1969)

How can we connect these questions to music teaching and learning? If we tweak these eight questions in relation to some (but certainly not all) issues involved in teaching music in some localities, regions, and/or nations, we might ask:

1. Will this style of music and/or this type of musicing (e.g., singing, playing instruments, composing with new music technologies) increase learners’ joy in and passion for learning?

2. Will this style of music and/or musicing increase their capacity to learn how to make music and listen to music and find personal and musical meaning in the world now and in the future?

3. Will this form of musicing boost their confidence in their ability to learn how to perform, improvise, compose (etc.) more expressively?

4. Will this kind of musicing motivate them to ask important questions about how to make music more effectively and creatively, which will require alternative modes of thinking and feeling?

5. Will this type of music and musicing inspire learners to develop alternative interpretations of the music they’re performing, improvising, composing, etc?

6. Is it likely that my music teaching strategies will increase learners’ sense of self-worth?

7. Will my ways of teaching music motivate learners to continue making music after their elementary or secondary school years are over?

8. Will my ways of teaching music and musicing enable students to become more thoughtful, sensitive, collaborative, and creative music makers now and in the future?

And there’s one more very important question:

9. Will my ways of teaching music motivate my students to pursue the lifelong goal of full human flourishing, which includes happiness for themselves and others, fellowship, health and well-being, a sense of personal significance, and other “arts of personhood, which include individual and shared capacities and dispositions to act justly toward others” (MM2, p. 52).

What is music? Why ask? Who cares?

Why do music teachers need to think carefully about what music is? Can’t we stop “thinking” and just teach music?

Music is conceptually, culturally, emotionally, and politically complex, ambiguous, and ever-changing. This is why philosophers call terms like music “essentially contested concepts.” Contested concepts are culturally situated and value-laden ideas that resist conclusive definitions and consensus. So, if something is ever-changing, we need to keep up with the times and recognize how “it” has morphed, adapted, hybridized, evolved, and so forth. Especially, if we’re going to teach “it.”

And when we think internally or make public statements that speak about a contested concept such as “music,” it will always be open to a wide range of individual and group interpretations.

Complicating matters further, thoughts and actions are intimately and inextricably linked; our assumptions, beliefs, mindsets, and interpretations inform and drive our actions, and our actions feed back to and have an impact on our assumptions and beliefs. Every teaching-learning decision and action we carry out before, during, and after we interact with students is guided by what we assume, believe, or think about why, what, how, where, and when we do what we do, and the people we are doing it with and for.

Here’s one take-away message: If we want to teach as well-prepared, effective, educative, and ethical school or community music educators, we must think about the who, why, what, how, where, whether, and when of music teaching and learning, as well as how to implement these concepts in action.

So, back to the question, what is music? Here is one very popular answer we hear from our music education students: “Music is what I think it is!” This bold declaration substitutes an opinion for a critically reasoned and justified answer. Some people think that music is an extremely personal “thing,” and say, “If it’s music to you, great. If not, that’s your problem.” So, what’s wrong with conceptualizing music this way?

“In my opinion” statements pop up every day: “I don’t care what you think; I have a right to my own opinion!” Is this true? Yes and no. In a democratic society, everyone has a legal right to state his or her opinion(s). But this doesn’t mean everyone has an “epistemic right” to an opinion. An epistemic right is the right to believe (or not) a certain position or set of beliefs.  To have this right, we need to earn it by justifying our beliefs with a logical argument and supporting evidence. If we can’t defend our beliefs with solid reasons, we should give them up, or admit that we don’t have a sufficient defense. If we refuse, then we’ve abandoned the realm of logical thinking. As educators and community music facilitators, we have a professional and ethical duty to develop informed beliefs, scrutinize opinions, and challenge people—like a principal who says, “Music education is only for the talented”—who make claims based on nothing more than “I have a right to my opinion.”

This brings us to a difference between opinion-based thinking and critical reflection. An opinion is often nothing more than a “gut feeling.” People who say, “My opinion is just as good as anyone’s opinion” make a serious mistake. They fail to understand that some answers to important questions are more reasonable and logical than others, because statements can be evaluated as logically defensible or not according to the quality of the reasoning and evidence supplied. Opinion-based thinking assumes wrongly that there are no criteria for assessing a debate, dialogue, or argument as reasonable and valid or not. Philosopher John Shand calls opinion-based thinking “intellectual nihilism,” because trusting opinions overlooks our ability to reason our way to good decisions about what it is best to think and do.

As we say in MM2, opinions aren’t too helpful due to their subjective nature and the fact that they don’t establish the solid intellectual and ethical starting points we need to construct a reasonable concept of and curricula for music. When people claim the natures of music are a completely personal or subjective matter, then they’ve left planet Earth for a fairyland where nobody thinks carefully and everything is smoke and mirrors. Good luck with that, especially if you want to be an educative and effective music educator or community music facilitator.

But before moving on, let’s think again about “music is what I think it is,” because to dismiss this as mere opinion may belittle the holder of that view. Philosopher John Corvino points out that making such a statement may be an act of humility. On the other hand, says Corvino, saying this “can have pernicious effects: it leads to a kind of wishy-washiness, wherein one refrains from standing up for one’s convictions.” Conceptualizing music is an ethical process, which is also practical because careful, critical thinking helps us decide what we do and what we don’t do within music teaching-and-learning.

Now, imagine overhearing this dialogue between a student and teacher.

Student: “Adele is my favorite. Can we sing ‘Someone like you’ in choir? Here is the music video. Isn’t it awesome?”

Teacher: “Well, Adele’s singing may be music to you, but in my opinion it’s not. So, we won’t be singing it.”

How might the student react or feel? It’s very possible that the teacher’s own thinking (or value-system, and, therefore, her curricular decisions) might cause her student to feel badly, which is not what thoughtful and caring teachers do. So, aside from the fact that “music is what I think it is” is not a logical and evidence-based—i.e., professional—way to construct a concept of music, it’s not a kind, respectful, or “care-full” thing to teach.

Please do not misunderstand us. We’re not saying that music teachers should necessarily teach Adele or Beyonce anymore than they should be teaching Bach, Mozart, West African drumming, taiko drumming, and so forth. What we’re suggesting is that the consequences of our answers to “what is music?” matter. Answers to this question not only mirror a teacher’s value system, they also impact whether or not teachers teach effectively and comprehensively, and affect their students’ sense of self and joy in learning and doing music.

To train or educate, that is the question

Why should we care about distinctions between “education” and “training”? Philosopher Peter Rickman gives important reasons: “A father is supposed to have said: ‘If my daughter told me she was getting sex education in school I’d be pleased. If she told me she got sex training I’d go straight to the police.’” Rickman continues by explaining the difference inherent in these concepts: “Training is about practice, about skill, about learning how to do things. Education is about fostering the mind, by encouraging it to think independently and introducing it to knowledge of the physical and cultural world. It’s about theory, understanding, and a sense of values. There is, of course, some overlap. Practice may require some theory and education may require some skills.” Consider all the fields where training is important: medicine, law, library sciences, all fields of research, biochemical engineering, the fine and performing arts, and teaching. Without skill-development, where would the do-ers of these fields be? But, consider the opposite: Can these fields move forward, advance in creative ways, or be ethical endeavors without education?

Rickman gives us a practical example: the study of history should be understood “not just as a listing of dates but of how things happen in time and why things turned out as they did and produced our present. One of the questions underlying a historical approach is whether there is any pattern in history, any meaning to be discerned, or just one damned thing after another, a tale told by an idiot … What is significant; what is causally effective in the passage of events. The answers divide idealists and materialists, religious believers and skeptics. We further need to sharpen our critical tools. What constitutes good evidence and how can it be tested? Can value judgments be avoided and if not how are they to be used?” So, yes, the skills of doing historical analysis are crucial, but critical reflection, thoughtfulness, understanding the past from multiple perspectives or, better stated, having an education in/with/through history, is equally if not more important that the skills needed for historical inquiry.

So, how might we understand the difference between music education and music training?

In MM2, we make the distinction this way. When a music teacher overemphasizes musical skill development at the expense of educational matters, then music “learning” is reduced to training students’ technical, notational, and aural skills, or stuffing learners’ heads with abstract concepts about music. In such cases, music training becomes purely subject-centered, rather than a continuous and harmonious process of integrating learner-and -subject experiences, which is what education includes, and much, much more besides. Training, says Peter Abbs, “invariably involves a narrowing down of consciousness to master certain techniques or skills.” Such skills, according to Abbs, “are known in advance and can be unambiguously imparted by the trainer and assimilated by the learner. What is transmitted is functional and predetermined, a set of skills matching a set of operations.”

Training, says Wayne Bowman, transmits skills related tightly to perpetuating the status quo: “it seeks to shape behaviors to pre-specified ends. Education, on the other hand, involves ‘an opening out of the mind that transcends detail and skill and whose movement cannot be predicted.’” What education should do is take the student “beyond the status quo into what is not fully known, fully comprehended, fully formalized.”

Returning to Rickman, “educational establishments are rightly and necessarily engaged in training, but it is not enough to pour information into receptive minds to meet the ideals of education. Of course we need skills and information but we also need – and this is of paramount importance – human beings who have learned to think, make judgments, appreciate the beautiful and the good. We need not only experts in choosing means, but people educated to decide on their goals. So to replace education by training is to threaten the human future.”

How do we balance the distinction between education and training within music teaching-and-learning? We might begin by developing and advocating a concept of music education that bridges the gap between pure idealism and pure functionalism. Although “music education” has come to mean many things (see MM2), the essence of it suggests that our efforts ought to focus on the full development of people in/with/through musics. Music education seeks to develop students as persons rather than music “producers,” as we explain more fully in our article, “Music, personhood, and eudaimonia: Implications for educative and ethical music education.”  As we described in detail in MM2, and as Clive Beck reiterates, education is for life: education ought to be conceived for life as a whole, not just for one aspect of life such as work, or schooling. These thoughts point us toward more realistic perspectives on and the potentially transformative purposes of music education.

 

 

“Teaching”: What Does it Mean?

When people use the word “teaching” in everyday talk, or when they attempt to define what teaching means, they often overlook some basic facts about the verb “to teach.”

In Chapter 1 of Music Matters, 2nd ed., we explain that “to teach” is a transitive verb. A transitive verb is an action verb; the action “transfers” something from one or more objects, or people, to another, as in “I love you.” In the latter, “I am not just ‘loving’ per se, but I am loving you” (David Blacker, 1978, Dying to Teach, p. 48).

In contexts of formal schooling and informal teaching and learning, where a “teacher,” taken in the broadest sense (e.g., a school teacher, professor, coach, mentor, facilitator, parent, etc.) advances and empowers a person’s understanding of something, or his or her abilities to do something, “teaching” is always transitive.

According to the praxial philosophy of music education we propose, teaching of any kind—e.g., in school or community music settings—always involves at least five inter-dependent dimensions: (1) one or more teachers. . . who engage in (2) acts of teaching, including informal, formal, or any other act of ethical teaching or mentoring . . . (3) something (skills, abilities, concepts, dispositions, critical thinking, creativity, respect for others, etc.) to (4) another person or persons with (5) the conscious intention of developing a person or persons’ abilities, concepts, dispositions (etc.), and empowering learner(s) personal abilities to construct their own thinking-doing abilities from teaching-learning encounters.

As David Blacker (1978) states, “From this perspective, teaching literally makes no sense without the ‘Other’ who is to be taught” (p. 49).

If teachers understand this, says philosopher David Carr (2000), they’ll see why it’s nonsense to say, as slogans often do, that “one teaches children, not subjects (or vice-versa)—for there could hardly be any coherent notion of teaching which did not implicate both learners and something to be learned” (Professionalism and Ethics in Education, p. 5). Carr continues: “In this respect, it is arguable that at least some of the vaunted differences between so-called traditional or ‘subject-centered’ and progressive or ‘child-centered’ educationalists have their source in a simple grammatical error [i.e., the failure to understand that ‘to teach’ is a transitive verb]” (p. 5).

Because this is a very brief note about the verb “to teach,” it’s absolutely necessary to add more inter-dependent dimensions. Obvious conclusion: teaching, which should be educative and ethical, is an extremely complex process. This isn’t news. But with the above in mind, perhaps the complexity of teaching is a little clearer.

Takeaway point #1:

Simplistic dualisms in education (i.e., teaching children and/or subjects) and music education are identifiable by the word “and.” For example, mind and body, thinking and feeling, philosophy and practice, perception and response, performing and listening, skills and understandings. Properly understood, all of these should be conceived as unified processes: mind-body; perceiving-responding; performing-listening; skills-understandings—all of which involve many additional considerations. Unifying “binary oppositions” will go a long way to improving music educators’ conceptual-practical work. So, Down with dualisms; Up with unified thinking-doing, etc.

Takeaway point #2:

It’s obvious to any teacher reading this very brief discussion that we’ve omitted a huge number of the most difficult, real-world, everyday challenges of what “to teach” actually means and involves, which we could summarize, for now, as “contextual” factors.” More about the incredible importance of “contexts” in future blogs.

For now, it’s worth reading one everyday, pop media source. Yep, it’s simplistic, especially because it omits the unique challenges surrounding music teaching. Nevertheless, it serves to make a point that the general public usually doesn’t understand, let alone value: that teaching is among THE most difficult and stressful of all professions.

“Most teachers deal with lots of job stress. They have to be well prepared every day, and they get very little down time—none, really, while students are present. Many people think that teachers have good working schedules, but teachers take a lot more of their work home with them than other professionals. There are always lessons to plan, papers to grade and records to keep. In addition, the pay isn’t much, compared to professions with similar educational requirements. Increasingly, public school teachers face additional problems of lack of respect from students, and even from students’ parents and the general public. Because they’re paid with tax dollars, public school teachers are always under scrutiny. Few professionals are judged as closely as teachers are. Emphasis on test scores finds teachers held accountable if their students don’t improve each year—even if the students may be hampered by factors outside the classroom.”—Linda C. Brinson (2006). 10 Most Stressful Jobs in America. Retrieved from: HowStuffWorks.com: http://money.howstuffworks.com/10-most-stressful-jobs-in-america.htm/printable