Education (not just music, but all subjects) today is obsessed with data and research-based strategies. At first glance, this makes sense, as research can demonstrate which strategies, when applied, create greater learning outcomes. Yet the strategies we use daily in our classrooms cannot be truly extricated from our own training, past experience, and improvisatory reaction to the needs of the class.
Here is an example from reading/literacy. (Apologies in advance if I do a poor job explaining this, it’s not my field). Whole Language reading proponents emphasize exposing students at a young age to written language in a natural, connected way to verbal language, such as reading aloud to the students while pointing out words. The idea is that students can attach the written and spoken language together without needing words broken down. On the flip side, Phonics proponents stress that letter and letter-combination sounds should be learned, so that students can sound out unfamiliar words while reading. Both sides of this “debate” can show you research-based evidence that their approach is better. Here is an article with more information on Whole Language vs. Phonics.
Now consider a veteran, lower-elementary classroom teacher. In most instances, regardless of the school curriculum, she/he is likely to teaching reading with a combination of these two approaches, based on the needs of the students. In fact, evidence points to the fact that, regardless of philosophical standpoint, the home environment of the students is more important than which strategy is used.
Students who come from “high literacy” households–where young children are read to on a regular basis, there are lots of children’s books, and adults read regularly–tend to learn to read well regardless of the teaching approach used. These students tend to enter school with large vocabularies and reading readiness skills (an estimated 5% can already read when they enter school).
Students from “low literacy” households are not exposed much to reading in their homes and tend to have smaller vocabularies (as much as one-half the vocabularies of students from high literacy homes). They may speak non-standard dialects of English such as African American English and can be unmotivated students, especially if they see teachers as enemies trying to change how they speak and act, in other words their language and culture. It is argued that standard phonics approaches can be unsuccessful for these students. Whole language approaches encourage teachers to find reading material that reflects these students’ language and culture.
Yet even with our lowest socioeconomic students, the training and experience of the teacher has a great impact on student learning. (American Psychological Association):
Schools in low-SES communities suffer from high levels of unemployment, migration of the best qualified teachers, and low educational achievement (Muijs, Harris, Chapman, Stoll, & Russ, 2009).
A teacher’s years of experience and quality of training is correlated with children’s academic achievement (Gimbert, Bol, & Wallace, 2007). Yet, children in lowincome schools are less likely to have well-qualified teachers. In fact, of high school math teachers in lowincome school districts 27% majored in mathematics in college as compared to 43% of teachers who did so in more affluent school districts (Ingersoll, 1999).
The following factors have been found to improve the quality of schools in low-SES neighborhoods: a focus on improving teaching and learning, creation of an information-rich environment, building of a learning community, continuous professional development, involvement of parents, and increased funding and resources (Muijis et al., 2009).
Now for some musical examples. K-12 educators love to argue philosophy, method, approach, and strategy. Kodaly vs. Orff vs. Gordon. Literacy vs. experiential learning. Performance skills vs. listening skills vs. creative skills. Moveable vs. Fixed do solfege vs. letter names. Rhythm syllables vs. word rhythms vs. counting. Singing vs. instruments. Keyboards vs. barred percussion. High tech vs. low tech.
In all of these examples, most teachers I know do not teach with an either-or mode. They utilize familiar strategies that have been successful for them in the past, or new strategies from mentors whom they trust. And just like with the reading strategies, student learning will be highest for trained, experienced teachers, regardless of the strategies chosen. Other major impacts might stem from the amount of time students receive for music each week, facilities, instruments, and other resources available.
I’m not advocating that we stop all dialogue on various strategies and approaches. Rather, I’m merely suggesting that all the research and enthusiasm behind our various schools of thought be kept in proper proportion. A Kodaly-trained, musically literate student is a wonderful thing. As is a creative, Orff Schulwerk-inspired student. Ideally, our students are experienced in both whole-language (active music-making) and phonetic awareness (traditional notation literacy) approaches to music. And the best thing you as a teacher can do for your students is to continue your own training, reading, and planning. Go to conferences, take workshops, learn about other approaches than the one you’re familiar with. Combine multiple approaches to synthesize something that makes sense to you and your students. Then stay put and help your students grow, as you yourself grow into a master educator. Help newer teachers on the way, and work to build a foundational, high-quality program in your school system. When someone asks you to provide research-based strategies to back up your teaching, explain that all the extra training you have sought out is research-proven to increase learning, simply by making you a more conscientious and knowledgeable teacher. Any system of organization and presentation you apply will help students learn, as long as you stick with it and adapt it to your classroom.