A dialogic teaching companion to music

I’m working my way through Robin Alexander’s A Dialogic Teaching Companion (2020). I’ve reached the centre of the book where Alexander introduces his revised framework.  I won’t reproduce the framework here as I think the book is worthy of reading (and purchase) but I am interested in how a dialogic framework could help structure a framework of musical dialogue – the type of creativity we all aspire to in music(al) classrooms where music is the dominant language. Where Alexander is writing a framework for dialogue in words, I wondered what a framework for a dialogic approaches in music would be.

Alexander readily admits there are challenges in assuming a dialogic stance in the classroom, and he admits too that classroom teachers would welcome more precise, rather than ideological, justifications for the adoption of dialogic approaches. He provide a helpful list on p. 130 (including talk for thinking, learning, mastery, communicating, relating etc.). Alexander provides six types of talk. I wondered if these six types of talk could be six types of (creative) music-making:

  • Collective: ‘address learning tasks together’ – ensemble music-making is the immediate equivalent of this.
  • Supportive: free of risk expression of ‘hesitant or tentative, or that might be judged ‘wrong’ – I think we cultivate this well in music.
  • Reciprocal: Listening well, asking questions and ‘consider alternative viewpoints’ – do we provide sufficient opportunities to do this?
  • Deliberative: ‘Discuss and seek to resolve different points of view’ – creative collaborative composing enables this to take place.
  • Cumulative: ‘build on their own and each other’s contributions and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and understanding’ – wholeheartedly we do this.
  • Purposeful: ‘though sometimes open-ended, is neveretheless structured with specific learning goals in view’ – I *hope* we do this.

Alexander goes on to explain how these kinds of talk work in symphony to enable the best circumstances for productive talk: ‘Collectivity, supportiveness and reciprocity characterise the classroom culture within which dialogue [music?] is most likely to prosper’. I like how Alexander emphasises the purposefulness of classroom talk as distinct from the talk taking place in the rest of our lives: ‘classroom [musical?] discussion though valuable and even enjoyable in itself, differs from everyday social discussion in that it is a means to an educational end. It must therefore there square the circle of a Bakhtinian commitment to dialogue as theoretically unending with a time-limited commitment to the student’s understanding and mastery of specific ideas’ (p. 131). This type of talk Alexander describes ‘builds on what has gone before, advances understanding and is not merely circular’ (p. 132).

Where the secondary schools visited had made baseline assessments in music, these were most usually in the form of written tests and/or questionnaires of students’ factual knowledge about music, rather than assessments of their musical understanding through practical performance and creative tasks. Where there was an aural element, responses were gathered through written questions and answers. Again, these strategies provided an immediate barrier to musical participation for students with literacy difficulties. Very few schools used curriculum work from primary schools to assess levels of musical understanding’ (Music in Schools: Wider, and Wider still). 

Alexander’s mention of circular discussion reminded me of the ground zero approach to Year 7, mentioned in the Ofsted publication quoted from above. Baseline information about the incoming pupils took the form of written/aural tests with written responses. I wondered if I were to devise a baseline assessment that took the dialogic framework proposed by Alexander as its starting point:

  • what activities could I devise that would allow me to see how pupils can ‘address learning tasks together’, and
  • how brave were they to share ‘hesitant or tentative, or that might be judged ‘wrong’ musical ideas?
  • Were they ‘considering other viewpoints’ in work and showing well they listened, and through sharing their musical ideas were they able to ‘resolve different [musical] points of view’?
  • Was it clear they could ‘build on their own and each other’s [musical] contributions and chain them into coherent [musical] lines of thinking and understanding’?
  • And ultimately did I devise an activity that whilst rich with open-ended properties was ‘structured with specific learning goals in view’ that were known to the pupils?

The Ofsted publication quoted above mentions how ‘teachers’ confidence and ability to communicate through music is vital’. The dialogic principles extolled by Alexander give me an interesting lens to consider how I foster purposeful and structured musical dialogue in my classroom; and how these principles could enable pupils to get better at it, because the mystery of creative music-making can be made clear and progressive. 

Composing can remain a mystery to many teachers particularly if they have not composed themselves or been through a period of composition instruction. We’re so much more confident dealing with performance in the classroom as many of us will have had individual instrumental or vocal lessons and have been involved in ensemble music-making; to have composing weighted equally to performance when the workforce might never have composed is an interesting issue for me. I wondered if this is why there is so much challenge to the assessment of composition. But I do wonder if we can apply dialogic teaching principles to how we develop pupils’ composing, seeing the principles of a good academic conversation as a beginning of how we structure the composing dialogue; a dialogue we have with ourselves and the musical ideas, or a dialogue we have collectively with ideas that are shared by others. Like a good conversation we build to shared understanding, and I think composing is also about constructing ideas into longer line of argument that reach some sense of resolution and agreement.

It is a rather superficial and simplistic reading of Alexander’s new book in this post, but I’ll keep thinking of the connections between his dialogic principles and composing. I think there be some ideas we can fruitfully borrow in our music classrooms, without giving up on music as the dominant language of our work.





3 responses to “A dialogic teaching companion to music”

  1. Steve, really good stuff. I have tended to think that a dialogic approach turns current orthodoxy in music classroom on its head and perhaps evens transcends the vogue for cognitive science initiatives. So quite a challenge. You might consider writing a series of articles for the Ensemble magazine on the subject. It could move the world on a bit and reach towards a more ‘scholarly’ debate within music education, drawing in classroom practitioners, helping them to rise above the present and particular (Christine Counsell’s point I think). It would need some thick descriptions of classroom encounters and they are hard to come by. BTW Gary Spruce has written a powerful chapter on dialogic theory, creativity and music education in our upcoming book through which the projects could be interpreted.

    Best wishes,


    • Thanks for reading, and highlighting the forthcoming chapter from Gary. It would be interesting to capture some thick descriptions of classroom encounters and perhaps when we do return (when the time is right to do so safely) it would be something I’d be keen to capture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: