Bob Harrison tunes in to the debate about music education and the advances offered by technology
Artwork by Fillbit, Wikimedia CommonsArtwork by Fillbit, Wikimedia Commons"Put your hands up if you think music education is just about playing an instrument," said David Price, project leader for Musical Futures. No hands went up. Our politicians' view of what music in schools is about was given the thumbs down by the audience at the recent Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) "Music Technology in Schools" conference.

Enough said about the politicians’ view – secretary of state for education Michael Gove MP is due to publish his music plan in November.

Quoting John Paynter, one of the most influential and creative music educators who died last year – “Music is getting excited about sound” – the think piece circulated for the day set the scene for the debate. And with the synergy and tension between technology and music creating intriguing challenges for schools, policy makers, teachers, the music industry and academics, it is fitting that the event was held in Manchester, home of the Halle symphony orchestra (the fourth oldest in the world) and the late computer scientist, Alan Turing.

Many educators believe that the combination of Paynter's words and the advances in digital and mobile technologies, not to mention the digital expectations of pupils, schools need to think afresh about what this means for the music curriculum. Technology can vastly increase the range of sounds, timbres and rhythms available for learning and teaching.

Described as “a bit isolated” by one of it’s own members, there is a polarisation of views in the music education community. At one end of the spectrum is the primary school teacher who believes there is no place for technology in music - “Children have too much exposure to technology; I want them to learn how to play the recorder when they are in school.” While at the opposite end are those who happily incorporate sound generating devices and mobile devices, including smart-phones, as an integral part of a child’s musical development.

“We are getting mixed messages from the Government”, said one music adviser. “On the one hand pupils are carrying powerful musical devices around in their bags and pockets, and on the other hand ministers are saying mobile phones should be banned in schools. It doesn’t make sense!”

Despite these divisions and range of views, music educators have what is probably the most useful and dynamic web community of any subject association – Teaching Music, an online community that offers rich support for music teaching and learning.

There was no doubt at Music Technology in Schools, of the consensus that Government thinking is from another era. There was also common ground that music education should contain the musical processes of understanding (listening) expression (performance) and creation (composing). The only thing lacking was widespread understanding about how technology could be used as the catalyst to achieve this.

Is the government policy context hampering progress?

David AshworthDavid AshworthIn his comprehensive overview, “Music Technology in Schools – a consideration of the issues, the opportunities and possible ways forward", music education consultant and ex-BECTA adviser David Ashworth, made a bold attempt to summarise the context and challenges the advances in digital technology present to music education. But some in the audience were concerned about the overall policy context which was undermining the efforts of many teachers.

“It is difficult to generate enthusiasm among teachers of music when they have seen their budgets cut, the local authority music service decimated and the government obsession with academic subjects, such as the Ebacc and PISA tables”, said one leading music educator.

In addition to this, there was the shadow of the National Curriculum Review which is seen by many as the most significant threat to a comprehensive music education for all pupils. The review, which reports back to the Department for Education early next year, is thought to be considering a slimmed down National Curriculum.

Jonathan Savage, reader in education at the Institute of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University, says he is worried: “Should music disappear from the National Curriculum, it could spell the end of a systematic and developmental music education in the lives of most of our children. What we would see is a privatisation of music education services delivered to schools rather than being integral and located within schools.”

Despite obvious uncertainty about its own future, the TDA was anxious to keep the mood music positive and the focus on moving forward – and all the delegates complied – but there was a tangible undercurrent of frustration, especially among the teachers in the room.

It is no secret, and according to some music specialists, an extremely narrow view of what constitutes a music education, that the schools minister’s view of music education is that it should provide “the opportunity for all children to learn an instrument or sing”. Little space then for the creativity and innovative use of digital technologies that were highlighted in discussions throughout the day.

And with only one major player (Associated Boards of the Royal School of Music) in the music education arena taking part in the conference, this under-representation of the music technology industry had the audience wondering if this was a buy-in of the minister's vision of music education.

So what happens now?

Being part of a wider consultation about the place of music in the curriculum (the technology element will form an Annexe to the National Plan for Music Education - a 'plan within a plan'), this separation of technology from the wider plan itself stirred some unrest.

Cantoria Della Robbia: WikimediaTime for music education to come into the 21sr century?“If digital technologies are so embedded in the everyday lives of children, surely we just need a plan for the learning and teaching of music, and having a “plan within a plan” just perpetuates the divide”, one delegate observed.

According to the TDA, the future direction could involve seven stages: A coherent plan; Identification and sharing best practice; Affordable CPD; Authentic music technologies; Live performances; Dissemination; Implementation. While this outline received almost universal nods and approval from the delegates, some believed it had the feel of an industrial mindset being applied to a digital age.

“Students are regularly making music outside of school on their iPhones and iPods and yet, in most cases, the music-making devices they most identify with are banned in their music classrooms," said James Cross, consultant and music teacher. "Similarly, they are also learning to play instruments by watching YouTube videos – yet YouTube is blocked in music departments across the country. This is causing a disconnect between students’ musical lives and identities and their music education.

"Technology has completely transformed the way in which music is created, shared and enjoyed in the ‘real’ world. With instant streaming, online video, social networks and music making apps, real world music is becoming more connected, instant and democratised. The argument isn’t that we should lock away the percussion trolley and swap the tubas for iPhones. Rather, it’s a case of focusing on the musical learning, and looking at ways that technology can make it more relevant, engaging and credible for the young people in our classrooms.”

More information   

David Price blog 
Dr Jonathan Savage 
John Paynter 
ICT in Music curriculum (BECTA Archive)  
Teaching Music website    
Henley review  
David Ashworth on Teaching Music 
Next Brit Thing 
James Cross
More on music and technology on the Futurelab website:
"Digital music: the waves of change"
"Music for all' teacher hits the right notes"  

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services and Toshiba UK. He runs Support for Education and Training.

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