On the nature of musical knowledge

Stuart Lock‏ @StuartLock  10h10 hours ago

Just returned home from the most amazing @CottenhamVC Dance show. Super proud of all the pupils. Such hard work from pupils and staff.

Here is a head teacher, may I say with acknowledgement to twitter, celebrating his pupil’s knowledge of dance, a remarkably rich form of knowledge.

But what kind of knowledge is this?

Clearly not propositional knowledge, the true statement of facts, but rather knowledge ‘of’ dance.

But what does ‘knowledge ‘’of’’ dance’ mean?

In last week’s blog (https://wordpress.com/stats/day/jfin107.wordpress.com) I drew upon the work of Louis Arnaud Reid in establishing the primacy of experience-knowledge in the arts. Yes, knowledge by acquaintance or as Reid puts it, the ‘occurrent experience of knowing and coming to know’. [1]

The dancers were of course both thinking and feeling, knowing in their bones and through intuition gaining knowledge unmediated by conceptual thought. [2] And to use another of Reid’s concepts, ‘meaning was embodied’. [3]

For Reid, this kind of knowing defies expression in the form of propositional statements. It is simply not reducible to such statements. Statements of fact about dance or music are another thing altogether, as is ‘knowing how’, or as some prefer, ‘procedural knowledge’. And the idea of musical skill doesn’t come close either.

The occurrent experience of knowing and coming to know are the reason for engagement in music and the arts. This is why they exist. To speak of musical knowledge in terms of the propositional statement of facts alone is a gross dissembling.

Thus, it is regrettable that the current calls for the bringing back of knowledge, for knowledge rich curricular, appear to insist on the one form of knowledge, that is, the propositional statement of facts. [4] Yet, there is a knowledge much more powerful.

We can only imagine head teacher Stuart Lock and the audience experiencing the CottenhamVC Dance show as a delight. They were the dance while the dance lasted. And that is something to celebrate.

Notes:

[1] Reid, L. A. (1986) Ways of Understanding and Education. Heinemann Educational Books.

In last week’s blog I asked who would read the book ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’? In chapter 3 Chris Philpott addresses the question, ‘what is musical knowledge’? In the chapter the question is answered in relation to ‘the what, how and where of musical learning and development.’

[2] Reid uses the term cognitive-feeling as a way of conceptualizing pre-conceptual thought. He points out the reliance of psychologists on the concept of ‘emotion’ and the disregarding of ‘feeling’. Feeling, of course, has a cognitive component.

[3] Much of the world’s music is made without recourse to the propositional statement of facts. In our national system of music education there is a dialogue between different ways of knowing and coming to know ‘about’ music and we think this conversation is valuable.

[4] In the making of the new GCSE examination a new category has been created – knowledge. There is performance, composition, appraising and knowledge (In syllabuses this is expressed as knowledge and understanding.). Disappointingly, the knowledge here is knowledge as the true propositional statement of facts (wonderful things in themselves), a set of abstract concepts. This failure to pluralize knowledge is reflected in what is valued in the exam.

 

But will anybody read it?

‘It is commonly agreed that a main aim of education is the attainment and development of knowledge and understanding. The ‘knowledge’ which is sought is generally assumed to be what can be expressed clearly in true propositional statements of fact, of ‘discursive knowledge’ about history, geography, science, economics , technology …

The assumption is valid, as far as it goes, and these are important fields of knowledge. But is ‘knowledge’, ‘knowing’, the ‘cognitive’ to be identified with this, and confined to what can be said in ordinary or other symbolic language? Surely not. We speak of knowing through sense perception, of knowing people, works of art, the morally good and bad. We speak of knowing how. Yet we can not say adequately in clear propositional language what it is we know and understand in the various fields. Generally speaking our knowing and understanding of such things must, at least at the outset, be based on direct, personal, intuitive experience.’ [1]

Thus wrote Louis Arnaud Reid at the beginning of the preface to ‘Ways of Understanding and Education’.

Reid was responding to the proposal that all areas of knowledge, including music and the arts, could be understood as being rooted in a body of clearly stated facts. Musical knowledge meant knowledge about music.

Reid goes on to show how this reductive approach to the arts separates thinking from feeling, how music as embodied experience is lost to abstractions.

In our symposium ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’ held at this week’s RIME conference in Bath Chris Philpott, Gary Spruce, Carolyn Cooke, Keith Evans and myself presented the problematic nature of learning to teach music in the secondary school at this time in the face of so much reductive thinking that is abroad, and not least in relation to how musical knowledge is conceptualised. Official documents assume a unitary concept of knowledge. There is nothing of the richness that Reid was concerned with, that which is intuitive, felt, experienced deeply and the source of meaning.

In the symposium we were reflecting on the book that we had contributed to and which is written for beginning music teachers and indeed those more experienced. [2] We wondered who would read it, how it would be used and if ignored what would be in its place. Would the new music teacher simply feed from twitter chat, promotional blogs, official policy documents?

The level of critical debate amongst music teachers rarely rises above the mundane, the self validating and the self protective, and there remains the cry of what shall I do first period on Monday morning. And of course there are some marvellous exceptions.

Yet there surely is a thirst to examine matters such as ‘the nature of musical knowledge’; ‘the nature of musical pedagogy’ and the ‘nature of music teacher education’ and the relationship between these, a thirst to stand back and give serious thought to the why, how and what of music education. There is indeed much evidence of a thirst for knowing about musical pedagogy, but is this in the context of considering the nature of musical knowledge? I think not.

The book ‘Learning to teach music in the secondary school’ provides an opportunity to do this without losing contact with classroom practice.

The book is full of powerful pedagogic knowledge, buzzing with propositions about music education that call for thinking and intelligent responses.

But will anybody read it?

Well the book is in its third edition, so somebody must be reading it somewhere, or is it sitting on a shelf. I wonder.

Notes:

[1] Reid, L. A., (1986) Ways of understanding and Education. Heinemann Educational Books.

[2] Philpott, C., Spruce, G., Cooke, C. and Evans, K. (2016) Learning to teach music in the secondary school (3rd. Edition). Routledge.

Iris and the country choir singing for meanings

Iris is one month old and it is my turn to cradle her in my arms. Iris sleeps a lot and she is sleeping now. My movements sometimes cause a stirring from Iris and now she sounds out the quietest of cooes. I reckon it’s a high E and with my gentlest falsetto I respond matching Iris’s E. It’s an example of ‘motherese’, the word we use to describe these kinds of early childhood musical relationships. I told this little story at my recent time with teachers on the Trinity Laban Teaching Musician programme. [1]

I was very pleased to have been invited to share with the group a significant influence on my thought and practice. The invitation provided a challenge. Regrettably I would need to leave aside my first and formative teachers, my first piano teacher Mrs McNally and my first lessons aged 14, and my choirmaster Henry George who encouraged me to sing and play the organ, and my school music teacher who asked, ‘had I thought of opting for A level music’? (I hadn’t, but the question was sufficient encouragement for me to follow that path and on to becoming a secondary school music teacher). But then came to mind the transforming experience (and I don’t use the phrase lightly) of higher degree study and being introduced to a vast music education literature. It was news to me that there was a psychology of music, a sociology of music and music education, and I had been only dimly aware that music education had a history. I was to meet the thought of John Blacking, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Theodore Adorno, John Curwen, Emile-Jacques Dalcroze, for example.

I eventually fixed on Christopher Small and my reading his Music-Society-Education. [2] The encounter was not a Damascus Road experience but rather a slow burning fuse and only now am I realising the fuller implication of Small’s thought on the way I understand what music is and the implications for music education and of course on reflection its limitation.

In his seminal Music-Society-Education Small addressed the symbiotic relationships between music, society and education. Without understand how music is in the world, how it has functioned in societies past and how it functions here and now throughout the world, there can be no understanding of the role of music education in society.

The work provided the ground for Small’s subsequent thinking. In his next book, now little known, he coined the term ‘musicking’ and provided a framework of thought about the nature of music as a social practice.

Music of the Common Tongue published in 1987 has a sub-title: ‘Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music’. [3] Here Small examined the search for identity and community of millions of Africans in the Americas through their encounter with a European tradition, taking from it what was needed to explore, celebrate and affirm who they were and who they might become.

[I told the group how depressing it was to continually meet with the woefully inadequate idea that there were two musics –classical and pop. What a relief to speak of Afro-American music and to imagine the richness and complexity of its infinite diversity, for example.]

It was in Small’s 1987 book that he makes clear:

‘My first assumption is that music is not primarily a thing or a collection of things, but an activity in which we engage … the act of musicking is central to the whole art of music the world over. In most of the world’s musical cultures this is taken for granted without even having to think about it; it is only the dominance of the classical tradition that obliges us to state it so bluntly.’ [4]

What a talking point.

Ok, yes, music is a thing. When I cooed to Iris my cooing was a sound, a physical thing, an object of consciousness, a thing. But Small rejects the objectification of music in favour of activity. In doing this musical meaning is detached from the musical work and its fixed intra-sonic properties and moved to the here and now of musicking. New relationships are created, new meanings experienced.

In his 1998 book Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening he writes:

‘Musicking creates a web of relationships between, and among, musical sounds and people situated in the physical and cultural space of musicking. Observing these relationships makes it possible to gain an understanding of the society that gives birth to musicking’. [5]

Thus, we are freed to ask the question wherever there is musicking: what is going on here?

All this has proved helpful to me and I have grown to love what is a kind of anthropological perspective on music and music education and to understand music education as being fundamentally relational in character.

A conundrum for myself and others is Small’s insistence that musicking has no moral dimension. It is not a matter of good or bad musicking. There is just musicking. The idea is ethically neutral. It exists as a conceptual tool.

Randall Everett takes up the problem in his argument for an open philosophy of music education. [6]

‘Small longs, like many of us do, for an open conception of music that is free of predetermination and prejudice and in which ‘’the value of the [experience] is tied to the consequences of the actual ‘event’ of musicking, and these consequences can not be determined beforehand, as they change according to the actual conditions of the ‘event’.’’ [7] But for teachers and learners who wish to work and play outside of prevailing norms, or for musician-artists who want to call attention to injustices and indecencies, Small’s vision is insufficiently venturesome, leaving critics struggling to articulate an open and inclusive concept of music education in which a multitude of values and perspectives intersect.’ [8]

Small’s insistence that musicking is to be seen as being beyond ethical consideration is out of tune with much contemporary philosophy of music education which sees music education as being essentially ethical in nature. Wayne Bowman, arguing for thinking of music education as induction into a set of musical practices points out that:

‘… musical practices like human practices are places where we learn and rehearse right action: where we learn to formulate and address the fundamental human question, what kind of person it is good to be, what kind of people we wish to become. Practices, musical and others, are where we learn our most important lessons about who we are and who we aspire to become. On this account, human practices [including musical practices] are profoundly important ethical resources.’ [9]

On Maunday Thursday I joined a rural Norfolk church choir to sing the plainsong/Vittoria St. Matthew Passion. My part was that of Jesus set in a low bass register which suited me well. Here was a case of musicking and for Small all who were present were part of this seeking to affirm a common identity. Most of the choir had never been in a choir or thought of themselves as singers until the recent formation of the group. In Small’s terms our musicking created ‘a web of relationships between, and among, musical sounds and people situated in the physical and cultural space of musicking.’ [10]

Thinking about these relationships makes it possible to gain an understanding of the micro society that gave birth to this musicking, and its relationship with a much larger society and how the coming together of people from three small village communities created meanings there and then. I think there was an ethical dimension to the event as there was to my recent cooing with Iris as we learnt about who we are and who we aspire to become.

Notes:

[1] See http://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/about-us/overview/the-teaching-musician

[2] Small, C. (1977/1996) Music-Society-Education. John Calder.

[3] Small, C. (1987) Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music. John Calder.

[4] Ibid, 50-51.

[5] Small, C. (1998) Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press. p. 9.

[6] Everett, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom: Towards an Open Philosophy of Music Education. Indiana University Press. p. 133.

[7]Odendaal, A., Kankkunen, O., Nikkanen, H. and Vakeva, L.. (2014) What’s with the K? Exploring the implications of Small’s ‘Musicking’ for General Education. Music Education Research 16, (2) 163.

[8] Everett, R. (2016) Remixing the Classroom: Towards an Open Philosophy of Music Education. Indiana University Press. p. 133.

[9] See jfin107.wordpress.com ‘scholarly work’, The ethical significance of music making. Wayne Bowman.

[10] Small, C. (1998) Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Wesleyan University Press. p.9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why music in not a core subject

Given the research evidence, why isn’t Music central to education policy? What should we be doing better to get that message out?

Why are we not a “Core” subject?

These are the cries of the beleaguered music teacher seeing time for their subject reduced, examination classes cut and staffing reduced.

The research evidence on the power of music is growing by the day. Active music making, assuming that it is regular and of high quality, can contribute to the enhancement of a range of non-musical capabilities and lead to other beneficial outcomes. This is broadly what the research says and what I think music teachers refer to when they invoke research evidence.

In this view Music in the curriculum is able to go beyond itself and serve aspects of general development.

Policy makers, by which I mean the current government, while acknowledging this, move quickly to the value of the subject itself, to its place in the order of things. They don’t dwell on how it is a servant to other subjects or some notion of general human development and well being, but as a subject of the curriculum that never has been ‘core’ and which is destined to remain marginal while at the same time recognised as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

This is very much how it has been since the advent of compulsory education in 1870. In some exceptional cases headteachers and some former Local Education Authorities have given core status to music and the arts. David Hargreaves attempted this in ILEA in the late 1980s, for example. Today, some headteachers are committed to all pupils having an arts option at Key Stage 4 in spite of the Ebacc. Where there is this kind of commitment it most likely comes from an enlightened view about the nature of a liberal education.

While research on the power of music is heartening (and a life blood to organisations seeking funding) it may ironically serve to undermine the case for music as a subject discipline, acting as a kind of distraction from music’s core purpose of providing a unique way of understanding the world into which young people are growing. (Late edit: This is nothing to do with claiming music’s intrinsic value. See Wayne Bowman above.) From there many good things are likely to be accrue, many of those benefits claimed by the research. Getting this the right way round, I think is important.

Chris Philpott makes the distinction between hard and soft justifications for music in the book ‘Debates in Music Teaching’ and shows what a powerful thing music is, and not in the way that the research referred to above does. Its power lies in the way it is in culture and society as a significant form of meaning making.

Following James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in the late 1970s and the steady moves during the 1980s to form a National Curriculum, the concept of Core and Foundation subjects was established. Despite some making a case for a curriculum that was not hierarchical the Core-Foundation division easily won the day. Nothing much has changed since then except the coming of the EBacc, a throwback to the School Certificate subject grouping of the mid twentieth century. So, all the research in the world showing ‘the power of music’ and its contribution to human well-being and the making of smarter pupils is insignificant in the face of an ideology that champions the core, defines ‘academic’ in a narrow way and that sees STEM subjects as giving citizens economic advantage.

There has been talk of giving school leavers an app that will provide government with information about the amount of income tax paid by the individual and correlated with the subjects studied. In this way the value of a subject can then be directly liked to its value – its economic value that is. (By the way, it remains unclear whether there is a relationship between the study of the arts and the success of the creative industries, another common claim for treating music and the arts as significant.)
So music is not a Core subject. This is not to say that it has been and will continue to be valued as being worthwhile and in some places giving the appearance of being central to the school’s work – ‘core’ in a metaphorical sense.
I am a governor of a primary school which has three music graduates on the staff, a subject leader for music, a year 4, 5, 6 choir of over 100 (a third of the cohort), all year 3 engaged in First Access Strings, all pupils experience Steel Band etc. . At governor meetings there is no mention of Music, just improvement plans, targets and data, ways of presenting data, FSM success ratios etc. And in this discussion it is the childrens’ reading, writing and maths that is, well THE CORE.
However, since the debates surrounding the making of a national curriculum for music in the early 1990s, where there were interventions by high-profile celebrity figures such as Sir Simon Rattle and Pierre Boulez, successive governments have been wary of neglecting music. Hence Michael Gove’s swift and politically astute action in moving towards the making of a Music Plan in 2010.
If not officially a core subject it can only be enlightened headteachers, belligerent parents and talented music teachers that can create the illusion that music is core in their schools.

Research and music’s status in the curriculum

‘Given the research evidence, why isn’t Music central to education policy? What should we be doing better to get that message out?

Why are we not a “Core” subject?’

Questions asked by Matt Allen. (See https://teachtalkmusic.wordpress.com/)

The research evidence on the power of music is growing by the day. Active music making, assuming that it is regular and of high quality, can contribute to the enhancement of a range of non-musical capabilities and lead to other beneficial outcomes. This is broadly what the research says that I think Matt is referring to.

In this view Music in the curriculum is able to go beyond itself and serve aspects of general development and well-being.

Policy makers, by which I mean the current government, while acknowledging this, move quickly to the value of the subject itself, to its place in the order of things. They don’t dwell on how it is a servant to other subjects or other things, but as a subject of the curriculum that has never been ‘core’ and which is destined to remain non-core while at the same time being accorded value.

This is very much how it has been since the advent of compulsory education in 1870. In some exceptional cases headteachers and some former Local Education Authorities have given core status to music and the arts and where they have seen this as a central tenet of a liberal education. David Hargreaves attempted this in ILEA in the late 1980s, for example and today, some headteachers are committed to all pupils having an arts option at Key Stage 4 in spite of the Ebacc. This kind of enlightened view of an education in which the arts are considered as a significant aspect of human being continues to exist.

While research on the power of music is heartening (and a life blood to organisations seeking funding) it may ironically serve to undermine the case for music as a subject discipline, acting as a kind of distraction from music’s core purpose of providing a unique way of understanding the world into which young people are growing. From there many good things are likely to be accrue, many of those benefits claimed by the research. Getting this the right way round, in my view, is important.

Chris Philpott makes the distinction between hard and soft justifications for music in the book ‘Debates in Music Teaching’ and shows what a powerful thing music is, and not in the way that the research referred to above does. Its power lies in the way it is in culture and society as a significant form of meaning making. (By the way the work in the book Debates in Music Teaching is also research. Philosophical enquiry is a form of research.)

Following James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in the late 1970s and the steady moves during the 1980s to form a National Curriculum the concept of Core and Foundation subjects was established. Despite some making a case for a curriculum that was not hierarchical, the Core-Foundation division easily won the day. Nothing much has changed since then except the coming of the EBacc, a throwback to the School Certificate subject grouping of the mid twentieth century. So all the research in the world showing ‘the power of music’ and its contribution to human well-being and the making of smarter pupils is insignificant in the face of an ideology that champions the core, defines ‘academic’ in a narrow way and that sees STEM subjects as giving citizens economic advantage.

There is talk of giving school leavers an app that will provide government with information about the amount of income tax paid by the individual correlated with the subjects studied. Thus the value of a subject can then be directly liked to its value – its economic value that is. (By the way, it remains unclear whether there is a relationship between the study of the arts and the success of the creative industries.)

So music is not a Core subject. This is not to say that it has been and will continue to be valued as being worthwhile and in some places giving the appearance of being central to the school’s work – ‘core’ in a metaphorical sense.

I am a governor of a primary school which has three music graduates on the staff, a subject leader for music, a year 4, 5, 6 choir of over 100 (a third of the cohort), all year 3 engaged in First Access, all pupils experience Steel Band etc. and regular music lessons . At governor meetings there is no mention of Music, just improvement plans, targets and data, ways of presenting data, FSM success ratios etc. And in this discussion it is the childrens’ reading, writing and maths that is, well THE CORE.

Music is not central to education policy because Maths, English and Science are, because there are international league tables based on these subjects. (The latest positions coming shortly.)

Perhaps this might change.

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.

Musical engagement for what?

There was a time, perhaps at the turn of the century, when classroom teachers were observed in their teaching with a focus on the moment by moment attention of their pupils. Full attention was even considered to be an indicator of maximum learning. It was as if by appearing to attend equated with learning. A pupil’s gaze out of the window meant that the pupil wasn’t learning.

In feed back on their teaching teachers would be informed about the degree of their pupils’ attentiveness, and often in precise quantitative terms. While this particular reign of terror may not have been common, it is an example of the way in which what has come to be labelled pupil engagement became a marker of successful teaching and viewed as being co-extential with learning. Musical engagement equals musical learning.

It would seem that engagement has become a quick and easy label through which all kinds classroom activity can be justified, and a good selling point for particular methods and materials – ‘This or that will engage your pupils.’ – presented as an end in itself.

The promise of engagement erases … well … disengagement, a lack of engagement, dispirited pupils, pupil alienation.

My purpose here is not to bury the idea of engagement but to clarify what it might mean. And I must confess the origins of my own interest in the idea.

Somewhen in the 1990s Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory attracted my attention. I engaged with it. Flow theory offered some understanding of how we are when deeply involved in an activity, and music seemed to be a good example, so involved in fact that we lose all sense of time, distractions are excluded and self-consciousness disappears. One attractive element here was that engagement could be linked to intrinsic motivation, often thought to be some ultimate goal of education. [1]

In the case of flow I was thinking of engagement on a micro here and now time scale, that state of being where we are … well … deeply engaged in the music. But then I came across the term engagement being used on a macro time scale referring to pupils musically engaged over the period of a year meaning that during that time they were learning to play an instrument. These pupils may or may not have experienced flow. The term engagement here meant a commitment over time.

Unfortunately, research into the idea of engagement has failed to yield much in the way of clarification, except that there are three kinds of engagement: behavioural, emotional and cognitive. [2] This doesn’t seem to take us very far and begs the question, what engagement is for?

‘Engagement for what’ would seem to be a reasonable question. Is it sufficient to view engagement simply as a matter of pupil motivation, as getting involved, committed? The implication is that once engaged, then you are off rather like a motorist engaging a gear and releasing the clutch.

This would make sense if your view of music education is that of a teacher stimulating their pupils to make music and being the facilitator of musical learning as a sufficient end in itself. However, if your view of the teacher is of somebody who places substantive matters before pupils, musically worthwhile ones, then engagement would be seen as emanating from the pupil themselves in the act of understanding something significant.

So, are your pupils musically engaged? What is it that is engaging them? What are they coming to know and understand?

Notes:

[1] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial.

[2] See Frederiks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C. and Parks, A. H. (2004) School Engagement: Potential of the Concept. State of the Evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74. 1, pp. 59-101.