What was your take away?

A couple of weeks ago some three hundred music educators gathered for the annual Musicmark conference.

Matt Griffith tweeted:

Main observation was a collective will to innovate & change. Informed by & with young people, their lives in music, and acting on the school challenges we face. We can stand still, observe & moan or step up & transform. I’m totally for the latter

I responded:

I took away from the conference the continuing need to debate and determine the purposes of music education; the extent to which those [purposes] relating to music in school as part of a general education differ from those beyond the school, for example.

Let me explain.

My perspective as a former secondary school music teacher comes from within the school, the traditions of music as a school subject, its debates and vigorous contestations over the last century and a half and the enduring commitment to musically educate all children and young people as part of a general education. Yes, a general education, not a specialist one.

In this view a music education is not something apart. It is called upon to have allegiances with the aims of education as a whole, that is, a general education for all children and young people sponsored by the state and which is compulsory. In this view it has a responsibility to the whole educational endeavour to which all children and young people are entitled. Otherwise, why include music in the curriculum?

Have you heard these kinds of sentiments?

Put the child at the centre of music education;

Release the musical potential of all children;

Ensure all children develop a strong musical identity;

Become and be musicians;

Ensure musical health and wellbeing for all.

These are the kinds of beliefs that come to be expressed as the purposes of music education. They frequently become translated into advocacy statements and at that point too easily becoming promises that can’t be kept.

But while all being admirable and desirable, are the sentiments above sufficient if music is to be a subject of the school curriculum, a dynamic part of the whole that is a general education?

What if we started from a general educational aim.

John Beck offers one such worthy aim.

‘Equipping young people to understand themselves, both as individuals and as members of complex, rapidly changing societies …’ [1]

It wouldn’t require much tweeking to create a worthy music educational aim.

But we might note that here the individual child is held in relationship to society. Education is more than for the benefit of the child.

Beck goes on to point out that such an aim is grounded in a concern for children as future citizens in a democratic society. So straight away there seems to be rather more depth to the project that is educate than heard in music education advocacy statements.

And further still, that to do this effectively ‘would involve empowering students to see through the various forms of distorted communication that shape everyday consciousness …’ [2]

Well, this is stronger stuff and might well inform the kinds of aims we set forth in respect to a music education as part of a general education?

I am not sure. What do yo think?

Well, at least we have travelled beyond the popularist sentiments relating to ‘placing the child at the centre of music education’ and its tendency towards rhetorical advocacy; and perhaps opened up some space in which the aims of a music education for all children and young people as part of a general education (represented by the school) might be debated and determined, and distinguished from, compared with and perhaps harmonised with the purposes of music education from beyond the school.

Oh, and did anybody else think that much of what was being described as research at the conference was oddly research that was built upon the sand of not knowing what was already known? Is this really a good basis for innovation and change?

And to end three questions for debate.

1.What does it mean to be musically educated as part of a general education for all children and young people to age 16?

2.To what extent should the purposes of music education address the nature of music as a human practice historically and contemporaneously manifest in the world? (Ontology)

3.What kind of knowledge and ways of knowing should a music education be most concerned with? (Epistemology)


[1] Beck, J. (2013) Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge. Cambridge Journal of Education Vol.43, No. 2, page 187.

[2] Op cit.

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