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).

How old is music? Why ask?

Raymond MacDonald, an eminent music psychologist, asserts a widespread belief: “We are all musical. Every human being has a biological, social, and cultural guarantee of musicianship.” Music “is a universal behavior,” writes ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking agrees: “Every known human society has what trained musicologists would recognize as music.” Is there any evidence that supports these views? If so, is it reasonable to say that music teaching and learning—in the most fundamental, non-formal and informal senses—has existed for an extremely long period of time?

Some archeologists believe that the oldest musical artifacts are stone percussion instruments found in Sweden, southern Africa, Kenya, Vietnam, China, and the Bolivian Andes, all of which are at least 40,000 years old. Others scholars say: “the earliest unambiguously musical artifacts identified to date are bone and mammoth-tusk ivory pipes dated to around 40,000 BP [40,000 calendar years ago, during the interval of the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition] found at Hohle Fels in southern Germany.” But Ian Cross, a distinguished Professor of Music at Cambridge University, draws on more recent research, which indicates that the German ivory pipes predate “almost all known visual art, and in any case a capacity for musicality (most likely vocal) would predate the construction of a sophisticated musical artifact such as a pipe, probably by a considerable period.

The Divje Babe flute, made from the femur bone of an extinct European bear, was uncovered in a Neanderthal burial site in Slovenia. Although some archeologists question whether the Divje Babe is really a flute, others believe it is and cite evidence that it’s somewhere around 45,000 and 82,000 years old. If it’s authentic, this Neanderthal instrument would be remarkable because it strongly suggests that music making is not only a universal characteristic of Homo sapiens sapiens (the technical term for modern human beings), but “music making may be a characteristic of the entire genus Homo.”

In early American, African, and Polynesian cultures, researchers document that rattles, drums, and other percussive instruments were part of the fabric of every day life (see MM2, Chapter 3). This strongly suggests that music-like activities were already part of the social-cultural practices of our ancient human ancestors before they moved out of their original African habitats. And even before any instruments were made and played, it’s reasonable to argue (as David Huron, Ian Cross, and other scholars do) that some kind of music-like vocalizing or “singing” existed 150,000 to 250,000 years ago. All this evidence (see MM2, Chapter 3) supports a major conclusion: “the great antiquity of music satisfies the most basic requirement for any evolutionary argument. Evolu­tion proceeds at a very slow pace, so nearly all adaptations must be extremely old. Music making satisfies this condition.

What does this say about the values of music making and listening, and, therefore, the values of music teaching and learning in the most fundamental senses? It seems fair to say that human beings haven’t been making and listening to music for thousands of years to raise math and reading scores.

Many scholars, including Laurel Trainor, Susan Hallam, and Robert Zatorre, use a massive amount of research from a wide range of fields to argue that music making and listening are immediate, embodied, and visceral experiences. These experiences provided our ancestors with the means to negotiate change together, as communities, and maintain essential group bonds and social practices. So music acted then, and acts today, as “an affiliative and non-conflictual means of interaction.” As ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl says, one of music’s functions across cultures is “to support the integrity of individual social groups.” Implicit in the latter is the fact that music is a communicative medium and has a significant role in “minimizing within-group conflict [and] … in collaboratively establishing a degree of social equilibrium.” Put another way, music qualifies as an adaptive human trait because musical actions are “optimal for the management of situations of social uncertainty [and] … collaboratively establishing a degree of social equilibrium.”

But also, as we know from contemporary research in music psychology and neuroscience, all kinds of music can arouse and express a wide-range of positive emotions, including joy, contentment, and a sense of personal meaningfulness. If anyone doubts that these experiences were not possible for early humans to feel, then a very recent field of research called bioarcheology provides considerable evidence to the contrary.

One take away message is this: Today, music making in small and large groups, in styles of all kinds, can—if taught and learned effectively and ethically—provide the same essential values that sustained and motivated our ancestors: social bonding, social wellness, positive emotional experiences, and human flourishing of many kinds (see MM2, Chapters 1 and 2).

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.

 

 

Destroying Public Education

Thank you to Diane Ravitch who quotes Ira Shor on the Senate Revision of NCLB:

“The private war on public education is not about education, not about good teaching or deep learning, or about what kids need to become strong students, or what families need from their local schools to nurture them and their communities. It’s about theft, period, the private commercial seizure of the vast budgets and assets of public schools, transferring them to private hands, enriching private entrepreneurs and religious schools with the tax monies once set aside for public units. Hollowing out the public sector so that public schools lose capacity, morale, and appeal is absolutely essential to the success of this theft. We are the targets of crime initiated by the private sector and enabled by their cronies in government.”

Empathy and Music Education

The emotional significance of music has been a topic of scholarship for centuries. For example, Plato and Aristotle believed that happy-sounding music has the power to make people feel happy; sad-sounding music tends to make people sad.

But is this plausible? Yes. Research in the last 15 to 20 years by today’s top music psychologists—including David Huron, Patrik Juslin, and many others—affirm that musical sounds can arouse and express a wide range of emotions. Indeed, today’s top neuroscientists, sociologists, and music philosophers make the same arguments—but with broader and deeper explanations—about many kinds of musical emotions and relationships (see MM2, Chapters 5 and 9).

Skeptics (who tend to ignore current research) usually argue that when people listen to the sounds of instrumental music, there’s nothing to be happy or sad about, because nothing of human consequence has happened in the musical sounds that would cause listeners to feel happy or sad, or any emotion. But skeptics are wrong, because old, simplistic stimulus-response theories and abstract cognitive notions of the nature of emotions and emotional arousal have been replaced by more sophisticated understandings of the relationships between music, emotion, and personhood (see MM2, Chapter 5).

Part of what’s going on is related to the importance of empathy. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, pity, or feeling sorry for another person, or agreeing with someone to make them feel good. Empathy implies that we adopt (consciously or non-consciously) the perspectives or emotional dispositions of another person in an effort to understand and respond compassionately, responsibly, and ethically. Without empathy, people would be strongly inclined to act selfishly, and group cohesion and collaborations would be unlikely, if not impossible; and, at worst, psychopathologies would be common. Thus, many neuroscientists argue that human beings are hard-wired for empathy.

Experts in developmental affective neuroscience tell us that there’s increasing evidence that human infants are born with unified body-brain-mind systems that underpin our ability to develop naturally, informally, and formally the dispositions and abilities to respond empathetically to and for the benefit of others. So, empathy seems to be an innate human propensity. Why else would most parents automatically love and care for their babies, or bond together in families and groups?

In MM2, we discuss the importance of empathy in music teaching and learning. Why? Because in the big picture, music can make huge positive transformations in people’s lives and communities. “Senseless” violence (e.g., the recent mass murder of nine people in a South Carolina church), racism, and other inhuman acts are not “causeless.” These acts can be prevented partly, if not largely, through education. So, we should pause and consider whether we’re “doing fully and rightly by/for” our students and their worlds. Is it enough for kids to learn how to perform accurately, play iPad music, or improvise jazz? We suggest that all of us can and should being doing more.

Education(s) of all kinds, rightly understood, is the constant consideration of the persons in our care. If we truly care about our students and their worlds, if we educate our students towards respect and understanding, then we’d be better situated to help them develop and sustain a socially just commitment to others (see MM2, Chapter 4 and, for example, pp. 268-270).

What does this mean for music education? Being an educative and ethical music teacher includes engaging our students—though all forms of musical engagement—in situations where they can learn and feel reciprocal processes of self-other growth, and the ways their emotions are affected positively and negatively by specific performers, composers, (etc).

Sometimes musical emotions and memories ignite students’ energy, and/or make them feel sad, embarrassed, alienated, or disrespected. In the processes of music making and listening, students and teachers should discuss—from time to time, but never moving music from the center of music education—their musical emotions and the possible causes. The point—which is absolutely NOT about reaching a consensus about what emotions a specific piece of music may arouse or express—is partly about learning how and why musicing environments should be conceived as musical-ethical communities where everyone receives and enjoys respect, acceptance, and personal fulfillment in and through music making.

To build and maintain sustainable and resilient learning environments—to support and enhance students’ confidence, intrinsic motivation, and persistence—an understanding of holistic personhood (MM2, Chapter 5) is an essential part of knowing how, when, where, and how much to teach at any given time. And the key to unlocking these sustainable and resilient learning environments is compassion and empathy through musicing and listening (MM2, Chapter 9).

How? Listeners can, and often do, empathize (consciously and/or nonconsciously) with musical sounds. This occurs because individual listeners mirror, respond to, and simulate internally what they feel a composer and/or performer(s) might be attempting to express emotionally, visually, and so on (MM2, Chapter 9). Through empathizing, listeners may/can feel “as if” they are experiencing the same feelings as the composer/performer(s) themselves. Feeling “as if” may be bodily: for example, synchronizing to/with musical rhythms/feels propels this phenomenon. Sometimes, listeners imagine via empathy what the performer feels when performing and moving with the music (e.g., audiences at a jazz, hip hop, or Taylor Swift concert); sometimes a listener imagines via empathy what a composer in Western classical music or jazz seems to have felt when composing. Performers often experience the same musical emotions for the same reasons. These emotions may be real or imagined; such connections may be felt while we listen or after. In short, affective connections between self and music (whether as a listener or performer) are relational and are imbued with empathy.

In line with contemporary care ethics, empathy is receptive; it’s a non-cognitive assessment of another’s feelings, a state of being and feeling what another may be feeling.

Understanding empathy as an integrated response process of body-brain-mind, cognition, and emotion (and more) is important for education generally and music education specifically. Helping students reflect on why and how they empathize, or not, with various examples of music is a way of helping them to understand their emotional selves. Musically, self-other reflection helps students learn to “read” each other’s expressive musical actions (phrasing, slight deviations in tempi, etc.) in order to collaboratively interpret a piece of music. In jazz, for example, this would be called feeling and creating the “groove” together. When students are alert to each other’s musical contributions through empathy, this often leads to expressive and joyful music making.

Our concept of empathy in music education is a transactional concept of musical emotions, and music teaching-learning, that socially situates students’ efforts to “construct” their awareness (emotional, intuitive, bodily, reflective), as well as numerous musical skills, understandings, dispositions of compassion and empathy, habits of mind and heart, and ethical behavior in and through ecological relationships with their environmental circumstances—personal, familial, historical, social, cultural, technological, racial, gendered, economic, political, spiritual, and many other dimensions of life, whether inside or outside schools.

Because music has enormous powers and potencies for “capturing” us physically, psychologically, socially, cooperatively, and more, shouldn’t music educators teach-for these potentials by teaching empathy in and through musicing and listening?

Educational “Reform” Measures the Wrong Things

Steven Nelson (via Diane Ravitch), Head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, makes extremely important points when he says that so-called Educational “Reform” (e.g., Common Core “Standards”) is not intended to make deep and lasting improvements in education, but to “measure” students and accumulate “data” for the purposes of deciding the amount of funding schools will get and to make it easy for huge Corporations (e.g., Pearson) and Wall Street investors to reap huge profits:

“It is not coincidental that the education policy and reform business is highly profitable. Public education is estimated to be a $600-700 billion market. Those who drive the measuring and testing industry are first in line at the trough. Pearson Publishing, for example, has its greedy tentacles in nearly every school district in America. All the iterations of reform—No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and, more recently, the Common Core— are driven by (and driving) the collection and interpretation of data.”

So it’s not only that “what gets tested [using high-stakes tests] is what gets taught,” it’s “what makes money for corporations and investors is what gets taught.”

Because music education has no immediate, short-term, hard-currency profits or products that narrowly educated business people and policymakers can measure—music is often eliminated to make room in the curriculum for math and literacy test prep that’s not “educational,” because standardized test scores are neither valid nor reliable indicators of deep mathematical and literary understanding. Or anything else.

Well-educated, experienced, and ethical teachers, says Diane Ravitch, “seek development, not accountability. What matters most cannot be measured.”

Nelson puts it this way: “Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors. This simple statement succinctly characterizes why the American education system continues beating its head against the wall.”

The same goes for music education. It’s exceedingly important for music teachers—and NAfME advocates—to keep in mind that “reform” policies were not developed by expert educational researchers. They were initially developed by economists and corporate employees who conceive education as a business; instruction as input, output; students as widgets. These business-based (e.g., Pearson) “educationalists” are not well-educated assessment experts—not even close.

Not surprisingly, then, reform policies have done irreparable harm to students, parents, and school systems across the U.S., and to public school music teaching and learning at all levels.

As music educators know, the irreparable harm of “reform” includes a national assault on arts education that’s resulted in the elimination of countless excellent school music programs and expert and dedicated music educators.

Therefore, as well as advocating for the intrinsic values of music making and listening of all kinds, it’s equally important that music educators join the ranks of thoughtful scholars, teachers, and parents who are resisting reform efforts, boycotting testing, and fighting for holistic curricula.

Music will become a central component in every child’s education if and only if public stakeholders push back hard against undemocratic corporations, politicians, and policies. Music educators must help other educators break free from narrow, ill-conceived concepts of education such as Common Core.

Let’s join and support perceptive, courageous, and well-informed parents, teachers, testing experts, and scholars, and the Badass Teachers Association who have valid reasons for being anti-testing and anti-Common Core Standards; people like Fred Smith, a veteran testing expert who worked for the New York City Board of Education. Smith warns parents that Pearson will be administering field tests in the schools in June. He provides a list of schools where the field tests will be given. He urges parents to opt their children out of the field tests.

The opt out movement is proving to be the most powerful tool that parents have against the whole agenda of test-and-punish “reform” that is being foisted on children and schools, benefiting no one but the testing industry.

As Diane Ravitch reports: “Long Island is the national hotbed for opt outs. It is a model for the nation. Parents are organized and active; they have the support of many principals and superintendents.” Their message is: “We are taking back our schools.”

Sadly, the music education profession has a long and destructive history of jumping into bed with every new state and federal “educational” policy that comes down the road (e.g., NCLB, Common Core)—without first analyzing and anticipating the potentially harmful consequences these policies will have for music education. Too many music education advocates are obedient followers, not reflective and wise leaders. NCLB didn’t result in the addition of more and better school music programs, and neither will Common Core. So, why is NAfME supporting Common Core? It might make some sense in the immediate political environment, but not in any truly educational sense.

Nelson’s last points are equally applicable to music education:

“After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced of this simple statement: ‘Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors’ is at the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave.

“Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

“Measuring the right things is more complicated and less profitable. But if we measured, even if only in our hearts, the things that we should truly value (creativity, joy, physical and emotional health, self-confidence, humor, compassion, integrity, originality, skepticism, critical capacities), we would engage in a very different set of behaviors” among which he includes music—“reading for pleasure, boisterous discussions, group projects, painting, discovery . . .music, cooperation rather than competition.”

 

A must-see for all music educators. Sir Ken Robinson gets it!

The great enemy of schooling today is standardization and all its offshoots—narrow curricula, high stakes testing, and a move to explain the value of the arts in terms of math, literacy, and other so-called “academic” subjects. Robinson explains why this kind of “reform” does not and will not improve the quality of education. He argues that education should be personalized and humanized, not standardized and measured. As we also say in Music Matters, the arts, and specifically creativity as developed through active making in the arts, should be at the center of education. It’s not enough to simply celebrate the fact that music is officially part of the Common Core, because this policy has no teeth. There is nothing in the Common Core policy that obliges administrators to offer the arts in schools. Robinson explains why society ignores the arts at the expense of our future in his new book, Creative Schools.

 

Music education, accountability, and responsibility? Words matter

If we don’t think about it much, there’s nothing wrong with being held “accountable” for what we do as music educators. But what happens when we think carefully about the meanings and implications of the word “accountable”?

When music educators have a moment to think about it—while being pressured by Common Core Standards to spend less time teaching music and more time prepping their music students for math and reading tests—they understand clearly that being accountable means being “answerable” for what their students achieve musically, but more and more importantly today, what their students achieve on high-stakes tests. Like all other teachers, they understand that “account-able” is related to “computare,” meaning “calculate.”……. Which brings us to the obvious but frequently overlooked fact that accountability entered the educational lexicon largely by way of business.

Over the last several decades—especially in the US—education has been reconceived as a business, so much so that educational policymakers and administrators today focus on the educational “bottom line(s)” (i.e., Federal, State, and district spending), as determined almost exclusively by simplistic, high-pressure standardized tests. As the eminent education scholar Michael Apple says: “For all too many of the pundits, politicians, corporate leaders, and others, education is a business and should be treated no differently than any other business.” Framed more largely, the notion that education = business is a major element (victim) of the American neoliberal economic and political agenda. Not surprisingly, then, wealthy investors who own shares in (for example) Charter School companies are reaping huge returns, and education publishing corporations (e.g., Pearson Education North America) “earn” billions of dollars a year selling Common Core curriculum and testing hardware and software. Once consequence of education = business is that, just as Wall Street banks and fund managers committed fraud during the years leading up to the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, Charter School fraud has become more and more frequent and blatant, as (for example) the Ohio State Auditor recently declared…

So when today’s so-called reformers scream about the need to hold teachers accountable, they don’t mean that teachers are “responsible” for enabling students to achieve genuine intellectual, creative, ethical, and artistic growth over time. They mean students’ and teachers’ personal and educational “worth” are reducible to numerical data, to bottom-line test calculations. Today, American “children are tracked, analyzed and evaluated from birth—not only by corporations, but now, by the school system.”

Here’s one more way that words matter. Notice that calling a policy change a “reform” movement effectively hides “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing” and, thereby, dupes the public into thinking that so-called “Common” Core Standards are a good thing for children—”Hey folks, Common Core is just common sense!” As Launce Rake explains, “if you want to take apart the teachers unions and make it easier to fire teachers, don’t say ‘make it easier to fire teachers.'” Call it “education reform.” If you want to make music a serious school subject, “reform” music education—that is, force music teachers to spend more time on academic test prep and less time on music.

But what happens when we change the rhetoric of “market place education” by replacing accountability with “responsibility,” which Nel Noddings, a former Stanford University Dean of Education, urges us to do. When we’re responsible for others, we care about them, we care for them. When we’re being responsible music educators, we do so for our students, and for the numerous values that music and music education can provide—not for corporate concepts of education, and not under pressure to succumb to the Common Core Music Standards published by the National Association of Music Educators (NAfME). When we’re acting responsibly, it’s because we’re teaching our students in relation to thoughtful answers we’ve developed about questions such as “What kind of music educator is it good to be?” “What is best— musically, personally, and ethically—for music students in our democratic music classrooms?”

“Responsibility” has some things in common with “accountability.” Responsibility also asks people to be “answerable,” but in the very different sense of being “reliable and trustworthy.” “Response-ability” is a personal and ethical disposition, it’s a matter of personal and ethical integrity, it’s a quality of mind and heart. As opposed to account-ability—i.e., knowing how to test and calculate students and teachers according to top-down Standards and tests imposed by policymakers and education publishing corporations—responsibility goes to the heart of what teaching and learning are all about: human relationships in situ.

When we’re held accountable, we’re unable to empower our students to achieve the values at the heart of musical participation: communal joy, intersubjective fellowship, collaborative artistic expression, creative musical generation and selection, deep and transformative musical-emotional experiences, and all other dimensions of what Aristotle—who emphasized the necessity of music education—called eudaimonia, or a life well lived. When we’re responsible music teachers, we’re concerned with providing our students with the musical skills and understandings they desire and need for life-long musical particip-action. When we’re responsible music teachers, we aim to foster understanding and respect for others and others’ musics and, thus, mutual respect among the students in our care. When we’re responsible music teachers, we provide instruction that’s intimately tied to the formative assessments we make during, after, and beyond musical instruction.

Let’s end with the words of Wittgenstein—”The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”—and Einstein—”Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Your brain on music

Neurologist Oliver Sacks stated the following in 2009. It is worth repeating.
“… our exposure to different types of music, and hence our musical literacy, has certainly expanded, but perhaps at a cost. As Daniel Levitin has pointed out, passive listening has largely replaced active music-making. Now that we can listen to anything we like on our iPods, we have less motivation to go to concerts or churches or synagogues, less occasion to sing together. This is unfortunate, because music-making engages much more of our brains than simply listening. Partly for this reason, to celebrate my 75th birthday last year, I started taking piano lessons (after a gap of more than sixty years). I still have my iPod (it contains the complete works of Bach), but I also need to make music every day.”

Below, watch a talk with Oliver Sacks on music.