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date: 23 January 2020

Commentary: Music Learning and Teaching During Adolescence: Ages 12–18

Abstract and Keywords

This article focuses on music teaching and learning during the adolescent years by identifying and exploring key issues, concepts, and debates that particularly impact on, or are significant for, the musical experiences and development of young people during this period of their lives. A number of key themes emerge from the discussions that cause us to question assumptions about the role of music in the lives of adolescents, including how young people use and relate to music, and the way music educators can best meet the challenges of addressing young people's musical and wider needs in the range of contexts in which their musical learning and experiences take place.

Keywords: music education, music learning, music teaching adolescents, music educators

This part of the handbook focuses on music teaching and learning during the adolescent years by identifying and exploring key issues, concepts, and debates that particularly impact on, or are significant for, the musical experiences and development of young people during this period of their lives. A number of key themes emerge from the chapters that transcend the organizational framework of this part of the handbook. These cause us to question assumptions about the role of music in the lives of adolescents, including how young people use and relate to music and the way we as music educators can best meet the challenges of addressing young peoples’ musical and wider needs in the range of contexts in which their musical learning and experiences take place. The chapters also encourage us to think deeply about the nature of musical knowledge and musical roles, how these are constructed, and the extent to which such constructions empower or disempower young people.

Since the earlier versions of these papers appeared in The Oxford Hand-book of Music Education, Volume 1. The context for this part of the handbook is set by the next two chapters. Philpott and Wright focus on the nature of music teaching and learning in schools in the adolescent phase, while Allsup, Westerlund and Shieh explore the interface between school music and youth cultures: the place of music in school in adolescents lived lives. Both these chapters, in their different ways, explore the power relationships (p. 438) between the adolescent and the adult world and the way particular views of music content knowledge and pedagogies are promoted and contested. From these two chapters emerge many of the themes that are explored from different perspectives in other chapters in this part of the handbook.

Drawing on the work of Basil Bernstein, Philpott and Wright develop a framework that allows for the analysis of different curriculum models, particularly in terms of the power relationships that underpin their development and implementation. They demonstrate how music curriculum content (what counts as valid musical knowledge in schools), pedagogy (what counts as valid transmission of that knowledge), and evaluation (what counts as valid realization of musical knowledge) are determined through the exercise of power and control by dominant ideologies and groups of which the preeminent one is the State. They describe how (musical) knowledge is “recontextualized” at a number of hierarchical levels before it is engaged with by the learner. These levels begin most typically with state-defined promotion of knowledge that is deemed to be appropriate for a particular subject and then filtered through “official recontextualizing fields” such as curriculum and inspection bodies to ensure compliance. As a balance to the officially promoted knowledge, there is what the authors describe as “pedagogical recontextualizing fields” where agencies independent of the state, mediate knowledge in particular ways in order for it be used by teachers. Furthermore “discursive gaps” that occur between various points of the recontextualizing process provide opportunities for teachers to influence the “what” and “how” of music teaching and learning.

Parallel with the hierarchical structures that underpin the construction and dissemination of appropriate knowledge are teacher-pupil power relationships as they are manifested within the music classroom through strong and weak classifications of knowledge (what the knowledge is) and framing (the pedagogical approaches). Where classification and framing are strong, pupil empowerment is weak, and students are unable to play any part in deciding what for them is important musical knowledge and practice. This then creates the context within which young people may become alienated from music in school.

Philpott and Wright make the critical point that innovative approaches to curriculum content and pedagogy do not of themselves guarantee inclusion of all children in the educational process. As they say, Bernstein has shown that schools may well act to reproduce existing patterns of power and symbolic control while ostensibly being ideologically committed to opposite or contrasting goals, and that is only where teachers act intentionally to counter inequality and bias and make connections between patterns of social privilege and music education that formal music-making will begin to address the inequalities and the promotion of privilege that are inherent in its power structures . They suggest that only a fundamental change in the “underlying conceptual framework,” so that it focuses on “the establishment of democracy in education,” can address fundamental inequalities and that the conditions for a democratic framework for music education are:

  • Inclusion-the right to be included

  • Enhancement-the right to have the tools for critical reflection

  • Participation-the right to be engaged in the processes of change

(p. 439) Philpott and Wright's vision of music education is rooted in democratic ideals that support young people in determining their own futures developing student agency: “education, if it is useful to adolescents, must help them become critical authors of their present and future lives.” They suggest that the focus of music education should be on the empowerment of young people achieved through supporting the promotion of youth agency, criticality, and self-discovery.

Allsup, Westerlund and Shieh arrive at very similar conclusions (although by different means), arguing that the starting point for music education pedagogy should be “educational ideals,” not musical preferences or examinations of youth subcultures, as “neither inculcation into a dominant ideology nor subcultural revolution offers a reasonable guide for adolescent development.”

Like Philpott and Wright, Allsup, Westerlund and Shieh challenge the notion that a focus on pedagogy or curriculum content can of itself address young people's alienation from music in school. They challenge a range of assumptions and beliefs about “youth culture” and “musical identity”; especially that either can be conceived of as a singular or fixed entity. They argue for “cultures of youths” in which “exchange and communication empower participants to create and reshape the very culture that is creating and reshaping them.” Most especially important, however, and fundamental to creating a context for young people's agency, is a rejection of the idea of youth culture(s) simply as a stepping stone on the way to adulthood and an affirmation of it rather as a state that “carries sensibilities and practices meaningful in and of themselves.”

The authors examine the notion that a “culture of agency” can be developed simply through bringing into the classroom music associated (by adults) with “youth-subcultures.” They suggest that such a view is oversimplistic and fails to take into account both the plurality of youth cultures and the diversity of musical styles and practices with which young people engage. Drawing on research by both Ståhlhammar and Green they argue that what is more important than musical style or content is “authenticity of musical learning practices” so that the focus is not what is taught but the way it is taught, and advocate for a “judicious” use of unknown music by the students.

Higgins and Bartleet examine the potential for collaborations between schools and community music facilitators to provide for the needs of disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups and to foster “intersocietal and intercultural acceptance and understanding” and development of “critical consciousness.” Through the use of case studies they explore the impact community musicians can have on young people's music in school and the potential professional benefits of collaborative working for both teachers and the community music facilitators.

Fautley and Colwell provide a comprehensive overview of the debates, ideas, and concepts that underpin contemporary assessment in the music classroom. They begin by exploring the different contexts and types of assessment and the ways assessment data and information can be derived and the purposes to which it is put. They particularly focus on how assessment processes and data can be both valid and reliable. Central to their chapter, however, is a vision of how assessment can be used as a means of empowering children in their musical learning.

(p. 440) Odena presents an overview of the key research into, and examines different understandings and practices of, creativity in music education in the adolescent years. Inter alia, he describes how “creativity” has typically been promoted by progressive movements in education, “where there is an emphasis on the interests of the students, democratic ways of behaving, and problem-centered enquiry.” He points out how a belief in the potential of all to be creative and act creatively provides a paradigm within which student agency can be promoted. In a passage that resonates with the ideas and arguments outlined in the first two chapters concerning valued knowledge and the relationship between musical practice across youth and adult cultures, Odena observes, drawing on Csikszentmihalyi's concepts of “fields” and “domains,” that “what may be a creative achievement for a particular student may not be assessed as ‘creative’ in the adult world, not just because of different level of skill but because of different norms,” for instance where the activity involves musical practices relevant for the students that may prove problematic within the classroom.

The potential alienation of students from music in schools is identified again in the final chapter, by Ruthmann and Dillon, where they explore ways technology can address the disjuncture between music in schools and music in young people's lives through exploring the disparity between how students use technology outside school and how they can use technology in schools. Primarily, however, Ruthmann and Dillon consider how technology can be used to develop a “relational pedagogy” that honors the agency of students. Picking up themes of democracy and empowerment from previous chapters, they explore the way technology has the “potential to provide a democratized environment for learning.” Key to this is recognizing how technology allows for visual and aural music representations in ways that challenge the dominance of the representational modes of Western art music.

The key themes that emerge from this chapter concern the potential of music and music education to act transformatively on the lives of adolescents. Nevertheless, for this to happen educators need to adopt a heightened consciousness of the potential for dominant ideologies and unquestioned assumptions about youth culture to disempower young people and to perpetuate inequalities and alienation from music education, particularly in schools. The authors in this part of the handbook argue that a critical role for music educators is to construct contexts, frameworks, and relationships for learning and musical experience that support young people as individuals and within which young people can “give shape to their emerging selves” and develop critical consciousness and autonomy. The chapters in this part of the handbook present us with a vision of music education that is rooted in democratic values and that celebrates the rich diversity of young peoples’ relationships with music and the roles that it plays in their lives. The chapters also present us with a challenge, which is to revisit our ideas about what music education is and what it is for, such that “schools, community music programs, and research agendas [become] laboratories of experiment and imagination, spaces where students and teachers work together toward negotiated and personally meaningful ends” (Allsup, Westerlund and Shieh).