Pedagogy and Content: A balancing act

Classical versus popular. Do we really need to try and place different musical styles in some kind of opposition? I think the polarisation of ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ music is the most useless thing we can do, and completely unnecessary for the teaching of music. It is fantastic to see breadth explored in GCSE and A-level music but do we get the same level of breadth in key stage 3 and earlier? I have been contributing to a forum post on http://www.teachingmusic.org.uk titled ‘Have we “allowed music to be dumbed down in the classroom?” – which seems to have taken elements of my post ‘Musical Pathways’ to suggest that Richard McNicholl is proposing the supremacy of ‘classical’ music. I think what Richard is proposing is breadth and variety – and not so much exclusion. I have posted below my contributions below. It is interesting that any suggestion of content throws those that perceive music’s value in the ‘enjoyment’ of it as a priority seem to negate the value of content. Teaching needs content as well as sound pedagogical understanding.

Music does belong as a compulsory part of the curriculum; I think there should be less opposition of musical styles and more a sense of a rich and diverse history that should be explores in a balanced way. Seeing a curriculum map recently where only (non-classical and only western) music post 1960 was covered seemed a real shame; there is over 400 years of music to investigate and discover and to concentrate on a recent fragment of this devalues the significance of music throughout history. If we can strive for balance and breadth we can instil the kind of rigour other subjects can demonstrate and truly justify the inclusion of music in the national curriculum. Some people must underestimate the capacity for young people to access the classics. Everything can be ‘accessible’ with good teaching, after all that is the job of the teacher to make the ‘difficult’ achievable. I was shocked when giving a careers talk to undergraduates and postgraduates at a university music department how few, if any, considered classroom teaching of real worth. We must get to teach our own passions within music more than science teachers get to dictate the content of their lessons, for example.

David Price makes fantastic guidance on pedagogy and I thing it is a potentially successful model for class music lessons. For me, content will be at the top of my list of priorities in planning; of course my impact can only be within my own school but I am convinced that the appreciation of classical music need not be resigned to maturity. I thrive on drawing content from a broad range of sources – and particularly enjoy sharing with classes recent music such as by Imogen Heap when discussing song writing for example. I just wonder whether content choices are making the experience better for the pupils, or are they making life easier for the teachers. For me, accessible is the opposite of challenge and I want all pupils to be challenged so real learning can take place.

I think Richard McNicholl’s statement about Heavy Metal is not to devalue or it, but to say we should be offering more than what pupils already get outside of the classroom; there is no attempt here to belittle a musical style and certainly no class issues. It would be unthinkable in English Literature to only study texts from 1950s onwards, so why should this be the case in music? The danger is if teachers only select music that their pupils ‘like’ then what is the purpose of music education? We have a duty to preserve a tradition and heritage – otherwise we are futhering dislocating our music classrooms from the musical world of today. Music is not just X Factor – there are vibrant concert halls, opera companies and new music venues too. There does indeed need to respect for pupil musical preferences but it is not the purpose of a teacher to sit back and watch pupils revel in the musical worlds they inhabit at home all the time. Teaching needs to involve some teaching and this is where content is valuable.

Complexity is irrelevant; I think it is a shame that new music is still considered complex. Complex is something we can’t understand – so once we understand it, it can lose this heading of ‘complex’. Good teaching makes the complex understandable. Music does need to be intellectually challenging! School isn’t about coming in and having a good time; education should be about intellectual stimulation and rigour. We inspire this in pupils by modelling it ourselves and through our teaching. Selecting content from classical, popular, jazz, non-western is a priority for me – I want to get rid of any sense of stylistic heirarchy right from year 4. Music education should indeed involve actually making music – but this should come from content choices that stimulate and broaden experience. The problem with so much ‘teaching’ is that content is dropped in favour of pedagogical approach.  It is the skilful combition of pedagogy and content that lead to successful learning and subsequent enthusiasm for a subject.

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