Dr Alexander Hew Dale Crooke, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, argues why quality music education is critical to classroom engagement and enhanced wellbeing.
Support for the place of music in schools has grown in recent times.
Not only have researchers produced an ever-increasing list of studies exploring the benefits of musical participation for students, but policymakers have – for the first time in decades – offered support through advocacy statements and curriculum integration (Stevens & Stefanakis, 2014).
Yet, for all of this encouragement, schools are ultimately left to decide for themselves if and how music provision will take place in their schools. While this autonomy offers freedom, leadership must balance this notional encouragement for fitting another activity into their busy timetables with continued pressures to perform in standardised testing.
In this article, I outline some of the main reasons that music education can be beneficial for a school community.
WHAT IS A QUALITY MUSIC EDUCATION?
To begin this discussion, we must first establish what is meant by quality music education.
The Department of Education, Science and Training’s (DEST) comprehensive national report offers some markers (Australian Government, 2005). These include the competency and confidence of teachers, and the subsequent standard of technical proficiency and depth of knowledge gained by students. Simply put, this can be understood as providing programs that enable students to both appreciate and play (or sing) music at a high standard. In practical terms, this means having programs delivered by teachers that are themselves sufficiently trained in music instruction, and who have access to quality resources, for example instruments and spaces, as well as ongoing support and professional development.
Alongside this conceptualisation, the DEST also uses terms such as equity and accessibility to state the necessity for provision and teaching which respect the needs of students and the nature of music in the 21st Century. This less technical view aligns more closely with increasing calls for music provision which promotes equality and social justice (Butler, Lind, & McKoy, 2007). At the most basic level, this can be understood as equal access to music education which integrates contemporary musical styles, music technology, and internet-based marketing and dissemination inherent to the global music industry of today. What links both these positions is the idea that quality music education must, first
and foremost, engage students. Research has repeatedly shown that this engagement is key to affording the benefits of musical participation: whether this is developing musical skill or promoting development in other areas, studies suggest that if students are not engaged in a music program then the benefits remain elusive (Hallam, 2010; Rickard, Bambrick, & Gill, 2012).
WHY IS A QUALITY MUSIC EDUCATION IMPORTANT?
The reasons for which quality music education is important in our schools are numerous. Most commonly, these reasons are articulated as benefits in three categories. These include the intrinsic, or musical benefits linked to the joy, expression and satisfaction of musical participation; extrinsic, or non-musical, benefits in areas such as cognitive and academic development; and the extrinsic, or non-musical, benefits for social and emotional development (Gill & Rickard, 2012).
Yet, for several reasons which are beyond the scope of this article, these groupings have been labelled problematic (Bowman, 2007; Stewart, 2007). Subsequently, some scholars suggest moving beyond these categories, and looking more broadly at how quality music education can play a positive role in the lives of our students, and our society more generally (Crooke, 2016). In this way, the reasons for quality music education can be easily recognisable, while remaining deeply profound.
SUPPORTING SCHOOL ENGAGEMENT
Connected to these topics is the ability for musical participation to promote school engagement. Having a quality music program can help musical students, who otherwise feel unable to connect to a school’s academic or sporting culture, feel like they too are able to make a positive contribution to, and feel a part of, their community. Here, quality is important,
as tokenistic programs can potentially make these students feel like their interests or skills are not valued by the community.
However, potential for engagement extends beyond those who are already musically inclined. In our own research, we have found musical participation can promote engagement across entire class groups, or even whole-school populations, in at least four distinct areas: “Engagement in learning”, “Peer Engagement”, “Increased connection between different members of the school community”, and “Community Engagement” (McFerran et al., 2017).
ENGAGEMENT IN FOUR KEY AREAS:
Engagement in learning: Allowing students to experience positive experiences in a classroom setting, and engage in the act of learning.
Peer engagement: Facilitating connection between different students by providing opportunities to get to know and trust each other through group musical experiences.
Increased connection between different members of the school community: Allowing members of the school community to interact and form connections outside of traditional authority- based hierarchies.
Community engagement: Opportunities to connect with local community through performances or musical collaborations.
Unpacking any one of these provides strong justification for quality music education, yet the one that has received the most attention in media, policy and research spheres, is engagement in learning (Schellenberg & Winner, 2011). Yet, I would argue that the emphasis in this area is often misplaced. Most have heard of the Mozart Effect, or the idea that “music makes you smarter” (Vitale, 2011). More specifically, many claim learning or listening music can increase cognitive function or improve academic performance
in other areas; claims that remain highly contested by the leaders in this field (Mehr, Schachner, Katz, & Spelke, 2013; Schellenberg, 2011). What researchers and educators are much more sure of, however, is the ability for musical participation to engage students in the act of learning. This is achieved either by providing positive educational experiences which can promote willingness or confidence to engage in other classes, or by making content culturally relevant or meaningful by contextualising it in musical terms.
Linked to the above point is arguably the most compelling form of engagement: the mere act of attendance. Many studies report music programs as responsible for keeping students at school, particularly those at risk (McAnally, 2016). This is sometimes because music programs provide an alternative to more traditional forms of school participation, other times it’s because the students feel music is more relevant to their everyday lives than other subjects (Karkou & Glasman, 2004). In these case, access to music education can be the difference between a student completing school or not.
Again, quality is crucial here. Each of the four types of engagement identified in our research are linked to different program delivery approaches (McFerran et al., 2017). This means both students and facilitators are required to take on certain roles and responsibilities for engagement to occur.
IN A NUTSHELL
There are many benefits which lend credence to the place of music education in our schools. This article has aimed to show that these can be conceptualised in a way that goes beyond the well-worn categories of “music for music’s sake”, promoting wellbeing, and improved performance in other subjects. Indeed, these are all possibilities, but the argument is made here that underpinning each of these are the fundamental imperatives of building engagement, respect, and understanding. If each of these are addressed, then the others are likely to follow. Music provides a unique way to address all of the above.
Yet, like any subject or area of school life, without taking the time and effort to ensure that it is taken seriously, music education is at risk of being nothing more than a subject which provides other teachers release time. We must invest in quality programs to ensure that our students, and our society as a whole, can benefit from what this important and valuable subject has to offer.
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