Curriculum writing in music education: who’s in control?
This blogpost was adapted from Regina Murphy and Martin Fautley’s Editorial of British Journal of Music Education 30/3.
We write curriculum documents that are full of good intentions – ambitious musical aims, the highest educational aspirations and holistic principles that place the learner at the centre. Yet, in many ways, curriculum writing is an exercise in asserting control of what and how we might teach.
In Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, Ralph Tyler (1949) formulated a deceptively simple structure that has guided curriculum developers and researchers for over fifty years. This entailed: (i) Defining appropriate learning objectives, (ii) Introducing useful learning experiences, (iii) Organising experiences to maximise their effect; and (iv) Evaluating the process and revising the areas that were not effective.
Were Tyler to drop into our schools today, would he still find evidence of his curriculum theory in action? In music education, he might find that students’ musical learning experiences outside of school were contributing in very powerful ways to their in-school learning. Where once there might have been an exclusive focus on a particular ‘canon’ of musical works, the curriculum is often disrupted when, unpredictably, a piece of music preoccupies the learners to such an extent that it begs inclusion in the formal course of study – consider how themes from the soundtrack of the Harry Potter films have appeared in grade examination syllabi, or how young ensembles determinedly overcome any perceived challenges of technique just to recreate the musical atmosphere of the Twilight series.
More insidious perhaps, is the increasing predictability of commercial moments where, at a designated time of year, far from the realm of music education, these become the superimposed curriculum in schools. Here I am referring to what is known in commercial terms as ‘the Christmas No. 1’, typically the X-Factor winner, where a previously unknown singer will invariably perform a new cover version of an existing pop song. The song assumes a life of its own as children are swept along by the commercial moment. School music is caught up in the whirl, and any planned curriculum may be relegated by the mighty commercial and cultural power of popular music.
One of the most interesting phenomena to observe in the past 12 months has been the emergence of the ‘Cup Song’ in a new lease of life through an American musical comedy film, Pitch Perfect. YouTube saw an explosion of variations, would-be instructors, and cute impressions. With so many views, could it possibly have educational relevance? The age-old cup game took on a new energy as youngsters endeavoured to build accuracy, speed and dexterity. From a music curriculum perspective, who could fault the tuneful singing of a pentatonic folk song, the creation of a strong sense of pulse, the fluency of rhythms, the variety of timbres created with a plastic container, and all sorts of attempts to duet, harmonise, and appreciate an a cappella sound?
Although a whole realm of music video is readily available to tech savvy youngsters on their own devices, Pitch Perfect itself is not considered suitable for under 13s by the film classification boards in Britain, Ireland, Australia and the USA – and this leaves something of an ethical dilemma for music educators as curriculum makers. McKenry (2011) argues that we need clear ethical frameworks to inform syllabi that include sexualised music content. To say the least, as music educators, curriculum planners and consumers of popular culture, we need to maintain dialogue on these issues – and stay on our toes.
Access the full Editorial and four article from the latest issue of BJME here.
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