How might music teachers come to know what and how to think about music education?

Below is a transcript of my introductory comments to the Music Mark Conference Symposium celebrating the publication of Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School in its third edition, edited by Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans, Chris Philpott and Gary Spruce. It is published by Routledge.

How might music teachers come to know what and how to think about music education?

Is it from official sources addressing music education, from government documents, from the perspective of Ofsted? Is it from those with sectarian or commercial interests in the advancement of particular forms of music education?

We take the view that this would be shamefully inadequate. Rather, our starting point is that new secondary school music teachers and indeed those currently serving should have ongoing opportunities to give thought to what a music education is, how it might be conceptualized and what it is for, and to be continually stimulated by fresh ways of thinking about music and music education in a way that seeks to bring theory and practice together. Thus, public policy, contemporary trends, off the shelf recipes and the fads of the moment are placed in perspective.

Learning to teach music in the secondary school involves hard work and careful preparation. To become an effective secondary school music teacher requires pedagogical and subject knowledge, an understanding of your pupils and how they learn, and the confidence to respond to dynamic classroom situations. Learning to teach music in the secondary school involves hard work and careful preparation. Learning to teach music in the secondary school requires careful preparation.

In the United States music teachers typically are provided with a three or four-year period of preparation in what is known as ‘pre-service education’. In England we do things differently. Recent government policy means that it is not uncommon for a beginning music teacher to have little or no specific preparation in coming to understand the structure of music as a discipline or a critical and historical understanding of the philosophy, sociology, politics and psychology of music.

The book Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School expresses a commitment to the making of well-educated, articulate secondary school music teachers able to ask difficult questions about how music education is, how it has been, how it might be, and able to critique and respond intelligently to whatever they are confronted with in their music teaching careers.

The book insists that the reader continually thinks, questions, reflects as they are led through fourteen chapters exposing ideas about the fundamentals that comprise a music education: how is a music education justified; what is a social-cultural perspective on contemporary music education; what is there to learn; what is the nature of musical knowledge; what do we mean by learning behaviours; what does progression in the performance of music look like; what is a music curriculum; what is involved in the process of planning; how is language used about music; what if we thought of music education as music criticism; what is assessment for learning in music; what are individual needs and what does this mean for music; how do we categorise Special Education Needs; what is the scope of music technology and what are the implications for pedagogy; what is creativity; how do we learn how to notate music; what is music education now?

You may note that in skimming the contents there is the ‘what is’ question, potentially the most demanding way in which a question can be framed. Gary, for example, asks: what is a social-cultural perspective on a contemporary music education and brings together recent musicological and ethno-musicological scholarship that causes us to own up to some of our longstanding unquestioned assumptions about music. Or what is a music curriculum? But there are ‘how’ questions too: how do we learn how to notate music; how is language about music acquired, and running throughout there is the ‘why’ question: why music education?

The chapters call for both thought and action with 123 tasks to complete. There are numerous examples of classroom practice thickly described. There is a vast array of academic references and ideas for further reading.

It has fallen to me to write the first chapter, and I feel a sense of pride in doing this. What do we expect from a first chapter in a book like this? It is titled ‘The place of music in the secondary school – Ideology – history – justification’.

As with each chapter I start by setting out its purpose.

By the end of the chapter you will be able to:

Discuss with other beginner teachers, with music teachers and school administrators the value placed on music education in the secondary school;

Examine critically the validity of arguments supporting the place of music in the secondary school;

Distinguish between justifications made for music education and music education advocacy;

Read with insight official documents defining the place of music in school and its contribution to the whole curriculum;

Create in outline the case you would want to present in support of musical study, whether in a job application letter, at interview or at a meeting of parents and governors.

In summary I write:

‘We have seen that the justification for music education:

Has a long and winding history tied to social systems and political arrangements;

Has been influenced by the power of ideas often serving particular interests, both individual and group, that have shaped ways of thinking about music and music education;

Has been conceived of as a civilizing influence, a shaper of character, a marker of the educated citizen, a great symbolic form, a language or indeed something that is good for you.

Whatever the justification, there remains a call to each new secondary school music teacher to ask: ‘Why music?’ Our responses can quickly resort to enthudiastic rhetoric and vague advocacy or draw on too many diffuse claims and arguments. We should take time to rehearse our case and be able to defend it in theory and practice.’

We (gesturing) the old timers make bold to pass on the Promethean flame of music education, if that is not too romantic an idea, in a way that the reader is able to identify the principles, musical and pedagogical, that underpin good music teaching. This would seem to be a worthy enterprise.

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