Student-centered curriculum

What does a student-centered music theory curriculum look like?

This question has been posed to me a few times on Twitter by David Kulma. It has also come up in various conversations on critical pedagogy, as well as a recent debate at the Society for Music Theory over the AP music theory exam. Most recently, Jesse Stommel published an article on Hybrid Pedagogy, “Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Definition”, which reignited the discussion on Twitter. Add to all this that the CU music theory department is currently collaborating on a revision to the topics and skills covered by the four-semester theory and aural skills core curricula.

Much of what we discuss about music theory pedagogy involves incremental changes and minor improvements. But improvements to what end? What is our goal? If we could design a student-centered music theory curriculum completely from scratch, what would it look like?

I think the answer is impossible.

First, a student-centered curriculum cannot exist. That is, if what we mean by curriculum is a consistent set of concepts, skills, activities that every student pursues, that curriculum is by definition content-centered. Because of the diversity of our students, their backgrounds, and their goals, there is no way that a universal progression of topics can be fully directed around that diversity.

Second, a student-centered curriculum is not determined entirely by faculty. At least from the perspective of critical pedagogy, the goal of education is to empower and equip students to be critically minded agents. While instructor guidance may be appropriate, the ultimate goal is for students to be capable of making these decisions. A student-centered curriculum at the very least will help bring students to that autonomy. At the most, a student-centered curriculum will involve students in major decision-making throughout. Thus, the idea of faculty determining the “best practice” for creating a student-centered curriculum is foundationally flawed.

Finally, I think that a student-centered music curriculum doesn’t cordon off music theory on its own. The separation of discrete subjects is an industrialist practice, one that, as John Dewey would say, poses the student against the curriculum. A student-centered education will not divide subjects according to external logic, but will order studies in a way that supports and is supported by the student’s interests, abilities, goals, and even their existing social environment. Separating music theory from aural skills from performance from improvisation from composition from writing from mathematics from science, etc., imposes an external logic that precludes both student agency and student orientation. A student-centered curriculum does not arrange content into subjects to be imposed on the student-as-object. A student-centered curriculum treats the student as a subject, and the materials as the objects to be engaged, manipulated, even constructed by the student-as-subject.

In light of this, I don’t see the ultimate goal of our incremental changes to be the creation of a singular, student-centered music theory core curriculum. The ultimate goal is an entirely new way of approaching “school” for musicians — one that empowers the student as agent, and guides them through their own intellectual and musical development, helping them to navigate the world of music via a logic (or lack thereof) that makes sense for their own interests, experiences, and goals. And helps them to rethink their goals. (Whether that can be done in the context of existing university structures is an open question.)

All of that said, there are some things that we can do to make the theory core, as it currently exists, into something more student-centered.

Jesse writes that “A Critical Digital Pedagogy demands that open and networked educational environments must not be merely repositories of content. They must be platforms for engaging students and teachers as full agents of their own learning.” He offers four broad things that characterize this pedagogy. It…

  • centers its practice on community and collaboration;
  • must remain open to diverse, international voices, and thus requires invention to reimagine the ways that communication and collaboration happen across cultural and political boundaries;
  • will not, cannot, be defined by a single voice but must gather together a cacophony of voices;
  • must have use and application outside traditional institutions of education.

There are a number of things that we can do in the typical music theory core that accomplish these purposes, even without changing the content.

For instance, to foster community and collaboration, we can involve ensemble performance, collaborative analysis and writing projects, or even small things like think-pair-share activities. Faculty attending student performances and inviting small groups for coffee can also foster another kind of valuable community. Music is not, should not, be an isolated activity, and community-building can easily be part of our music theory classes if we think beyond the workbook activities that come with standard textbooks. In fact, many music theory instructors already do these kinds of things.

Aside: the more diverse our classes are, the more difficult outside-of-class collaboration can be. Not only do some students prefer (and thrive on) individual work, but a diversity of living situations, ensemble commitments, and work schedules can make major collaborative projects difficult for some, even discriminatory. I tend to focus most collaboration into class time, or assign small or optional out-of-class collaborations. This allows students to reap the advantages of collaboration while still developing their ability to work individually and not hindering the learning of students who live off-campus, work 20 hours per week, and/or have introverted personalities.

Making room for diverse and international voices is more difficult. At the very least, we should be judicious about the kinds of assignments we require of students. For example, requiring a written essay when the learning goal has nothing to do with writing may discriminate against international students who are still building fluency in English, or students with disabilities or differences that affect their writing but not their music. Generally speaking, offering a diversity of “ways in” to the musical material and a diversity of ways to assess knowledge and skills is important for us to serve our diverse students.

Giving voice to that diversity is harder. But I have found that there are often situations where different students have unique experiences or expertise that they can use to lead the class through something. For example, a music-English double-major could be asked to lead class exploration of poetry set to music. We could even ask them to help us choose and plan class activities. Asking students to write (text or music) for each other, rather than just for the instructor, also helps give voice to students of different backgrounds. And while it may be uncomfortable, it gives students an opportunity to grow socially, as they respond to each other — and not always in respectful ways, by default.

Not centering class around a single voice is a related idea. And music analysis and (model) composition are easy domains in which we as the instructors can step back and let student ideas be voiced and heard. (See my previous blog post for ideas on how to enable this without completely abandoning lecture.)

Finally, and often most problematic in music theory, Jesse advocates relevance of class activity outside the educational institution. We can start by de-emphasizing part writing, making room for other activities that are more directly related to modern musical experience. But even without making major content changes, we can add substantial relevance. For example, we could add to major composition projects the option to arrange a piece for a non-standard ensemble. This is a useful and money-making ability for gigging musicians, especially for those playing and contracting for weddings. Writing program notes or blog posts explaining music, rather than an academic essay, can help students hone their skills communicating about music to non-musicians — another important skill for professional musicians that still allows students to engage the theory “content” in the same level of detail. In many ways, communicating complex ideas about music simply and without jargon is more challenging. Additionally, using a piece being performed by the college orchestra, choir, opera, etc. in class can help students connect course content to other professional activity — and can empower them to contradict both the theory instructor and the orchestra conductor, as the students are in the midst of engaging the piece from multiple perspectives simultaneously.

None of this is to discount rethinking content. As I tweeted earlier this week, focusing on critical thinking over content is no excuse for irrelevant content. We can empower students as agents while engaging music and activities that are more likely than others to be interesting or professionally relevant. But we usually cannot change the content overnight, and as long as we teach a broad diversity of students in each class, we cannot select content that is equally relevant for everyone. Even if our students were identical, we don’t know what will be professionally relevant for them in 30 years anyway. Thus, in order to serve our students well, we must think far beyond simple content decisions.

But developing a curriculum that is student-centered is far more than a negotiation of content. In fact, content decisions will be nearly meaningless if we don’t address student backgrounds, interests, and goals. And all of that will be meaningless if treat students as objects of our work instead of subjects in their own right.

Musicians commonly talk about “art for art’s sake” and working “in service of the music.” That’s nonsense. People make music for people — even if primarily for themselves. As teachers, in particular, it is the work of our students, not the work of dead composers, that should be our primary focus. That’s what it means to be student-centered. More importantly, that’s what it means to be an educator.