The tacit dimension and pedagogy

In the past ten years England has adopted the term pedagogy. It has become part of the contemporary way of speaking about what teachers do. Robin Alexander (2004) encourages us to think of pedagogy as:

“The core acts of teaching (task, activity, interaction and assessment) [are] framed by space, pupil organisation, time and curriculum, and by routines, rules and rituals. [They are] given form, and [are] bounded temporally and conceptually, by the lesson or teaching session” [1]

In Alexander’s view a pedagogy embraces explicit social values, the kind of relationships desired within a democracy, for example. Pedagogy is not simply a matter of teaching and learning strategies to be employed in the name of musical engagement, but rather a matter of finding ways of teaching and learning that have their source in beliefs and values about the kind of society we envision, the kind of pupils and the kind of schools we want. A pedagogy simply for musical engagement tells very little and is entirely without meaning or ethical purpose.

A pedagogy for musical understanding likewise will tell very little unless it arises from some serious consideration of values. If we stay with the contention expressed in last week’s blog that tacit knowing is

  • a critical aspect of our personhood;
  • that it forms the basis for finding significance and meaning through musical participation;
  • that it is rooted in our existence in the world;
  • that it gives integrity to other ways of musical knowing and understanding;
  • that it enables interpretation and critique by allowing for multiple perceptions of reality and the formation of flexible and fluid conceptions of musical reality, then there is a case for developing associated pedagogic principles. So what might they be?
  1. All musical educational events would promote feelingful bodily involvement which would be recognised as a foundational form of understanding;
  2. We would be teaching for intuitive insight, helping students to know what feels right, what makes sense and achieves coherence;
  3. We would avoid excessive focalisation (hostile to personal meaning-making);
  4. We would be open to meaning unfolding through the perceptions of our students as well as our own;
  5. These kinds of musical events would connect with personal concerns and human interest;
  6. We would reject objectivist approaches, taxonomies of objectives and the declaration of predetermined outcomes, all of which are likely to negate 1-5 above;
  7. We would allow for, look for, earnestly seek out and nurture the arising and construction of propositional knowledge, knowledge that could be declared and contested;
  8. The gathering of propositional knowledge would be valued highly in the forming of fluid and flexible conceptualisations that could be applied to ongoing music making;
  9. Music made would in the first instance be viewed as sui generis rather than being the servant of existing forms and conventions;
  10. We would, in putting expressive problems and worthwhile materials in the way of our students, expect them to ask questions, become curious and find their own expressive problems to solve.

Thus a value position is established.

Next week: questions arising.


[1] Alexander, R. (2004) Still no pedagogy? Principle, pragmatism and compliance in primary education. Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 34, No. 1, 7-33.



Understanding music and the tacit dimension

It’s a story of inept and corrupt local politicians, the enchanting and beguiling power of music, the possibility of perpetual childhood happiness, child abduction and the pain of separation creating a Billy-no-mates and a community bereft of its future.

Tell the story of the Pied Piper to young children and they will be engrossed: their feeling and thinking will have been engaged. Like all folk tales there is something that is ‘close to home’, something of great personal significance. Such stories have the power to provoke wonderment, ill- ease, puzzled questioning and a good many whys? Now, tell the story and at the same time embed it in the music of Peter Warlock played by musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra and there will be a worthwhile music educational event in progress. LSO animateur Hannah tells us that:

“Two hundred 5-7 year children sat entranced by the sound of a string quartet from the London Symphony Orchestra performing a movement from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive because such things had been given a context that provides for meaning and significance in their own lives. The young audience had been listening intently to the grief of hundreds of people from the town of Hamelin. They had experienced at first hand the pain the mothers felt as they witnessed the Pied Piper lead their children away into the mountain. There was no need to explain Warlock’s music.” [1]

‘They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive because such things had been given a context that provides for meaning and significance in their own lives.’ [1]

In this instance the proposition made about the nature of musical understanding is worth holding on to and I hope it will help us to understand a little more about the nature of ‘musical understanding’, an idea of great complexity, a many-sided concept and one worth dwelling upon.

‘They understood the subtle harmonic dissonances and slow rhythmic drive…’

So in what sense was there understanding?

In some part we can think in terms of a ‘tacit’ way of knowing and understanding, a way that can never be made explicit. Yet, a way upon which all other ways of knowing and understanding are reliant. That is the proposition to be explored here.

If this is the case then there will be implications for ways in which musical understanding is thought about and the kind of pedagogy that would need to be adopted if it were recognised and nurtured.

According to our speculation above, young children were getting Warlock’s music, not only getting it but in a way that was deeply meaningful and significant. Tacit knowing was at work. It is Michael Polanyi’s [2] claim that ‘tacit knowing’ both underpins and forms the bedrock of all other ways of knowing and understanding.

Tacit knowledge and understanding

To know how to ride a bicycle is not the same as to know that the Beatles’ first chart number 1 was …, that trumpets play fanfares. We tend to assume that all knowledge has the potential to be mediated through language, that it can be identified, named, taught, accumulated. To imagine that there exists a form of knowledge and understanding that is impossible to gain access to by means of the spoken word, or in written form, or even by silently showing, we call ‘tacit’ and it is this kind of musical knowledge and understanding, so the argument runs here, (and following Polanyi and Bowman [3]), that is foundational in all musical experience and all forms of musical knowing and understanding.

It is a form of knowing that is deeply felt and known and intensely personal. It can not be spoken of. It can not be verbally mediated. It is destined to remain hidden and without articulation. It is untranslatable. It is not convertible into any other form. It can not be captured or codified. It can not be made explicit. It is not waiting to be discovered, uncovered or revealed. Any attempt to do this is doomed to failure.

Some readers may wish to make a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’. For Polanyi, in setting out the ‘tacit dimension’, understanding is knowing, is knowledge. It embraces our pre-conceptual powers and our ‘indwelling’ of the world and where our passions for all ways of knowing come from. It is where meaning emanates from, a profoundly personal form of meaning.

The case of musical performance

The example of riding a bicycle is frequently given but let’s present the case of musical performance.

We can not possibly speak of all that we are knowing in the act of performance. Our knowledge of what Polanyi calls ‘particulars’, all the elements experienced and ‘known’, can never be grasped in their particularity and their totality despite the fact that we can endlessly propose explanations, devise rules, codes and produce manuals that tell us about good musical performance, how the body and its posture is and so on.  There is always more within our knowing than we can say, more than we can tell.

Polanyi gives the example of hitting a nail with a hammer. Our focal awareness is on the nail but subsidiary to this is awareness of the hammer, how it feels in the hand and so on.

To recognise the tacit dimension acknowledges multiple perceptions of reality and multiple interpretations of reality. However, to acknowledge what is tacit as foundational in our current educational climate is problematic; for it flies in the face of so much of the rhetoric suroounding the idea of knowledge justified by the power of codification, concept forming, the naming of rules and conventions and all that can be thought of as explicit knowledge. That knowledge is made explicit is a fundamental expectation of a curriculum that provides evidence that a discipline is being mastered and that shows the acquisition of propositional knowledge. We know ‘that’…. It is to know this and to know that and of course this kind of knowledge is important.

However, tacit knowing manifest in the act of understanding is not to know this or to know that but something that is bodily felt and known. [4]


In the act of musical performance the knowing lies in the doing. It is embodied in two senses. First, it is literally of the body and secondly, it exists metaphorically embodied, that is, inside the experience of performing, composing and listening. The act of performing music may be one of the most outstanding examples of tacit knowing at work. In musical performance as in all other forms of musical ‘thinking and making’ we can experience multiple perceptions of reality. Polanyi speaks of ‘pouring ourselves into the subsidiary awareness of particulars’, to ‘indwell’. [4]

Would we be able to take a step towards setting out a pedagogy that takes account of the tacit dimension?

Is there a pedagogy that presupposes the significance of the tacit dimension?

More next week.


[1] Conway, H. and Finney, J. (2003) Musical Enchantment in the Early Years. Teacher Development, Vol. 7, No. 1, 121-129.

[2] Polanyi, M. (1973) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[3] I am indebted to Bowman, W. D. (1982) Polanyi and Instructional Method in Music. Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 16, No. 2, 75-86.

[4] Polanyi, M. (1958) Understanding ourselves. London: The University of Chicago Press.



Breadth and balance post 14

I recall, somewhen about 1985 in my Basingstoke comprehensive school, the question being asked by a parent at a year 9 options evening: why don’t pupils continue their study of all subjects in years 10 and 11?

This question was asked in the public forum and alongside other parents who questioned the compulsory ‘aesthetic option’ requiring all pupils to study an arts subject post age 14. The next day teachers of art, ceramics, music, film and drama were called to a meeting with the head and deputy. We sensed that our highly prized aesthetics option was under threat. We went to the meeting armed with chapter and verse on the value of the arts. At the time there was no shortage of philosophical enquiry into aesthetic and artistic knowing and the uniqueness of this way of understanding the world. We presented the head and deputy with reasoned arguments supporting our place in the curriculum. We deployed the weight of intellectual authority with confidence and conviction.

The aesthetic option lived on and in end of course evaluations pupils expressed great satisfaction with the ways in which the uniqueness of the arts had enriched their lives and how the experience had been sharply different to other subjects. It was part of a comprehensive comprehensive school education, a result of progressive 1970s thinking reviving a liberal education and saving education from a lazy form of traditionalism.

Now, some thirty years later there is the EBacc and the arts are excluded and only a few enlightened headteachers feel confident enough to sustain an argument for a post 14 arts education.

Some point to the compulsory nature of English and English Literature and all that is offered there in the cause of an arts education. But many will have noticed a general shift in discourse towards a certain view of rigour, competence and functionality. The idea of an aesthetic dimension to education is now unheard of and long silenced to be replaced by reductionist notions of knowledge.

Pupils between the age of 14 and 16 will be wanting to give meaning to their lives through artistic expression and aesthetic experience and there should be a broad range of options available across a school’s offering.

Did you know that a first DfE proposal in respect to the formation of the new GCSE examination in music was that 80% of the marks should be allocated to a written paper and that the ABRSM graded theory exams were considered as a model?

Interestingly, in the final reckoning there is a component of the exam referred to as ‘knowledge’, not aesthetic knowledge, not the wonder of occurrent knowledge. personal knowledge or embodied knowledge but, you’ve got it, propositional knowledge.

Alas, our current political masters have a poor grasp of the order of things.








The struggle for the music curriculum

If music is to be a part of general education then any consideration of music education’s purposes needs to engage with wider educational debate.  And this will involve considering what conceptions of education we hold alongside our conceptions of music education.

Of course, conceptions of education and music education have never been fixed or agreed upon, rather continually contested. There have always been, as we might say, ‘interested parties’, groups promoting this or that as the desired purposes.

Raymond Williams proposed that the 19thcentury debate about the purpose of education could be best understood in relation to three such groups:

  1. The public educators (who saw education as a natural right).
  2. The industrial trainers (who saw education as a means of economic efficiency).
  3. The old humanists (who saw education as a liberal or humane way but not as vocational training).

Williams maintained that the school curriculum which emerged was a compromise between all three with the industrial trainers holding the upper hand. [1]

Gordon Cox, in his distinguished account of music education in England 1924 -1999, suggests that ‘the struggles between groups representing different conceptions of what musical experiences should be embodied in the curriculum, and to what ends the curriculum in music might be directed’ [2] can be understood with reference to analysis by Kliebard. [3]

In characterizing the groups who have competed in promoting what conception of education should prevail Kliebard proposes that there are:

1. The humanists, the keepers of tradition, tied to the finest developments of the Western canon, and committed to the traditional skills that were associated with it.

We might note the current interest in establishing a knowledge-based/knowledge-rich curriculum.

2. The developmentalists, committed to a curriculum in harmony with children’s real interests.

We might note the ongoing advocacy for a learner-centred curriculum.

3. The social meliorists, who maintain that schools act as major forces for social change and social justice.

We might note claims made by both 1 and 2 above in the cause of social justice.

1. Being the birthright of all and providing all with a particular form of high cultural capital derived from 1 above where social change would take a cultural restorative form, and

2. In liberating children and young people from the structures that prevent equity and the hegemonic power of 1 above.

4. The advocates of social efficiency, who believe that social utility was the supreme criterion against which the value of school subjects was measured.

We might note the 21stcentury skills movement and the linking of music education with the creative industries.

Of course, such typologies are not intended to be exclusive and I have barely used them to analyse the case of music education. Therein lies a task for the reader that I hope will  cause reflection on the purposes we each promote and the kind of curriculum we each desire.

Gordon Cox points out that while all this changes to some extent over time, it is the humanist tradition, (1) above, that has always been pre-eminent. Its relationship to academic status works powerfully in its favour in the case of music. (The new model music curriculum will demonstrate this presumably.)

One response to all this contestation is to seek out the dissolving of the types into one unified conception.

Alas, music education, like education itself remains, and is likely to remain a contested concept.

There are struggles to pursue and compromises to be made across what are for the most part irreducible tensions. [4]


[1] Raymond Williams (1961) The Long Revolution. Penguin Books.

[2] Gordon Cox (2002) Living Music in Schools 1923-1999: Studies in the History of Music Education in England. Ash gate. Page 129.

[3] Kliebard, H. M. (1995) The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958. Second Edition. Routledge.

[4] The process of reforming the GCSE (2013-14) examination makes for an exemplary case of such struggle.

The creative impulse is strong

Hail, bounteous May, that doth inspire

Mirth, and youth, and warm desire!

John Milton


Sunshine overhead and a chilled breeze coming across the Fens from the East on this May morning. No dewy idyll but two hundred children aged 7 to 9 assembled and forming a rectangle, lining the school’s netball court. They are expectant of visiting Morris Dancers who will perform their May Day dance.

The dancers along with their two accordionists take their place.

The dance begins.

The children clap along.

Some move partnering their neighbour in response.

The dancers introduce their stick-slapping into the musical texture.

The children maintain their lively attention.

Now time for the children to come into the performance arena to dance the two-step patterns in lines at first, before moving into circles.

The circles work best.

The event comes to a close.

The children file back to their classrooms.

At break time impromptu dances erupt around the playground.

Gestures awaiting refinement.

Is not gesture at the root of all art making, all artistic creativity? Do not what we understand as discrete artistic formulations arise through the refinement and extension of gesture? Do not dance, drama, vocal/instrumental performance, mark making, drawing, painting and the shaping of materials arise from the life of the undifferentiated gesture so readily available?

On this May morning the creative impulse is strong.