In search of good music education

I recently received an email from a quizzical secondary school music teacher. Katie had been observed by a senior member of staff and challenged on the size of the groups working in her class. The observer advised that the optimal size for group work was four.

In this instance the pupils were working as Samba Bands with eight or nine in a group. Katie thought that four in a group would miss the point.

The four in a group perspective is presumably based on some perceived general principle of learning, some generic wisdom derived from experience or there may even be research purporting to show that four is the optimal size of a group for effective learning.

Group work is orthodoxy in music education and it is possible that music teachers led the way in the use of group work in the 1950s and 60s as classroom instrumental work developed alongside singing. However, the efficacy of group work has more recently come under scrutiny, not so much in the case of music but certainly more generally.

In the fight back against the so called progressive educators the so called new traditionalists promote direct instruction in place of discovery learning, knowledge in place of skills, and, whole class teaching in place of group work.

The race to finally define the nature of good wholesome traditional teaching is on.

You may have noted the Music Teacher Magazine headline ‘Education Study Favours Traditional Teaching Styles’ in the December edition. And amongst these is ‘high-quality instruction techniques’. This is from a recent study published by the Sutton Trust and Durham University. [1]

Martin Fautley has written a compelling critique of the report highlighting the inadequacy of treating all subjects as if they were STEM subjects. [2]

We would like to think that the teaching of music does have distinctive, even idiosyncratic characteristics. Just imagine some of the subtleties of what might be thought of as high-quality instruction techniques in music. Many of these might be wordless and conducted through the medium of music itself (e.g. call-copy) and just who are the instructors in Katie’s Samba Bands? Would the Sutton Trust-Durham University researchers or Katie’s observer begin to understand, I wonder? [3]

Katie’s case neatly shows the pull between what is thought to be effective teaching as a generic concept and the music teacher’s musical judgment about what is effective in this situation for this specific purpose, and in view of the teacher’s beliefs about what is a good music education.

As Gert Biesta points out, prescribing what is effective teaching without considering ‘effective for what’, without consideration of value and values, is starting in the wrong place. [4]




[3] This week I had a long conversation with an art teacher who was in her first year of teaching. Like all newly qualified teachers  (NQTs) she has a mentor, an experienced teacher from the senior leadership team, a teacher of a non-arts subject. While the NQT values the relationship with her mentor, observations of lessons aren’t able to engage with matters pertaining to the teaching of art. While managment of the class can be discussed and other technical matters, none of which are unimportant, it is a frustration that artistic purposes, the teacher’s beliefs and values can not.

[4] Biesta, G. (2010) Good Education in an Age of Measurement: Ethics, Politics, Democracy. Paradigm Publishers: London.

Where is the right place to start? See Blogs of 2.1.15 and 9.1.15.

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