Dogmatic Practice and Teaching Objectives

I have recently been reflecting on the way I teach music. It takes humility to start such a process as we can become far too comfortable with our methods. Indeed, teachers can easily fall into dogmatic practice and become utterly convinced of their effectiveness in the classroom without due consideration of evidence. Before we continue I would like to offer a definition of the term dogma:

A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. It serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system, and it cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the very system’s paradigm, or the ideology itself. The term can refer to acceptable opinions of philosophers or philosophical schools, public decrees, religion, or issued decisions of political authorities. (1)

I believe that dogmatic practice becomes embedded through the following scenarios:

-Dogma via institution – Some institutions do not allow experimentation and frown upon the process of trial and error. Schools and departments may use rigid planning documents and leaders may demand that they are adhered to exactly. How do we know if a new approach or idea will result in greater attainment from students when some of us are unwilling to trial it?

-Dogma via inheritance – We may inherit dogmatic practice from peers who we trust to be effective practitioners. In her book Music in the School, Janet Mills gives an example of dogmatic practice born of inheritance:

Someone has a very good idea: the Kodaly concept, an approach to music education of the very highest integrity, would be a case in point. Disciples grow up around that person, and the very good idea spreads.

The disciples attract their own disciples. These second generation disciples may never meet the originator of the very good idea, or read anything that the originator has written: they copy what the first generation disciples do, without necessarily understanding why they do it.

The very good idea recedes behind the dogma that is developing. Teachers put particular ingredients into their lessons because these are part of the dogma, rather than because they relate to the very good idea.

As the content of the curriculum becomes disconnected from the very good idea, practices develop that would be anathema to the originator, but which are still credited to the very good idea. An example would be the dogma, frequently credited to the Kodaly method (note the change of title from “concept” to “method” as the approach has become more dogmatic) that the songs first taught to children in England should use only the musical interval soh me. In fact, Kodaly believed that children’s first songs should be drawn from their culture. Hungarian folk songs are, I understand, frequently based on soh me: English folk songs, and the music that English children hear as they grow up, are not.

The dogma becomes the focus. The disciples are replaced by gurus who train teachers to carry out procedures, without explaining what the procedures are for. Teachers feel that it is their fault that they do not understand what the procedures are for, and their confidence as teachers diminishes. They teach lessons that just consist of procedures, and that have not been planned to enable students to learn. The music education of many students suffers.

In due course, the dogma falls into disuse. Sometime later, someone has a very good idea… (4)

-Finally, Dogma via stagnation – We may forget or ignore that teaching is an ever evolving art from; subjects, experiences, curricula, schools and the psychology of learning all evolve. Teachers should not be praised for their years of experience without consideration of their dedication to self improvement within this time.
During my recent reflection I was able to support many of my teaching methods with strong evidence regarding their impact upon student learning. However, there was one avenue of exploration that led me to a suspicion confirming discovery; my students were at a creative detriment due to learning objectives.

I have always been assured that the learning objective (what you want the students to be able to achieve by the end of each lesson) must be measurable and concrete; all students must understand and heed exactly what you want from them for the lesson to be deemed successful. Typically this involves ‘I can’ statements such as I can compose a pentatonic ostinato or I can perform rhythms using crotchets and quavers.

Learning objectives such as I can compose a pentatonic ostinato have never sat well with me. While success can be easily measured and assessed at the convenience of the teacher (not the student) and differentiation catered for by extending or retracting the objective, we are actually generating a creative prison for our students. OFSTED appears to agree with this statement and features the following scenario in a section regarding weaker practice:

Pupils were asked (learning objective) to compose atmospheric soundscapes using crotchets and minims. Their natural response to this creative task stimulated combinations of sounds not easily represented in traditional rhythmic notation. As a result, they either constrained their ideas to fit the patterns of crotchets and minims or found it very hard to get beyond their difficulties with this form of notation to think creatively about the sounds they wanted to use. (2)

I’m sure that the teacher concerned was able to assess his/her students with the utmost ease thanks to the learning objective and its creative restrictions. Any students using crotchets and minims would have achieved the learning objective while the truly creative students who harnessed the immeasurable word atmospheric would have apparently achieved nothing during the lesson.

Due to the fact that learning objectives serve the teachers of creative subjects more so than the students, I would like to unmask this common piece of teaching terminology and reveal it to be nothing more than a teaching objective.

As I considered the above article I began to wonder if I had become vulnerable to dogma via institution. I used learning objectives in every lesson but somehow expected high levels of creativity from my students. It was then that I read the following OFSTED article pertaining to outstanding practice:

One pupil was asked to read out a message that had been left in the middle of the performance area. The message said that if they played their music particularly well today and created the right atmosphere something special would happen.

The class was completely captivated by the message, and there was a great sense of excitement and anticipation. The class then started to practise the raga starting with the drone and adding other parts. After the first run-through the teacher asked if it was good enough for the ‘something special’ to happen, asking, ‘Did the music create a feeling of beauty and power?’ The children agreed that it did not, and the teacher asked them to suggest what they could do, musically, to make it more special. The children offered suggestions freely, including making dynamic changes.

The piece was played several times again, with the children continuing to suggest ideas. All pupils gave of their best and were keen to improve their own contribution. After the final performance the children were asked to cover their eyes and wait to see what would happen. While all eyes were closed an older pupil crept into the centre of the circle dressed in traditional Indian costume and mask. When the class opened their eyes and saw this figure they were spellbound. On the teacher’s bidding, and with some reverence, they played the piece again while the figure danced in the middle of their circle. The class had experienced music as it had been originally created – to evoke a spiritual and contemplative response. Learning was effective precisely because the pupils had not been told what to expect at the start of the lesson and therefore the experience was unexpected. (3)

I’m sure that some teachers would be amazed that an outstanding lesson could have a hidden learning objective and immeasurable success criteria. However, I elected to improve this aspect of my music lessons in acceptance of the evidence at hand.

I firstly considered creative freedom in the reformation of my planning documentation and lesson delivery. Music has many facets and students interact with these facets with varied degrees of confidence, competence and enjoyment. Who was I to deny an enthusiastic student the chance to dance in his or her group and who was I to steer students away from harmonies they had discovered so that I could tick yet another box?

Secondly, I came to understand that creativity would only flow when students were truly comfortable so I considered the terminology I used during lessons. I felt that the mere term learning objective (or WILF or WINTS or success criteria or however else it is re-branded) suggested to students that they are not free to creatively explore without the risk of failure.

In light of these two factors I decided to evolve learning objectives into musical adventures.

Students would be free to select their own pathways on the adventures and could freely explore concepts via dance, instrumental work, body percussion, composition and performance. Rather than see 25 students composing pentatonic ostinati, I would come to see 25 students creating ostinati on their own terms and enthusiasm for music would treble!

I was very happy with the creative freedom this concept would generate but quickly realised that assessment would not be so easy to record anymore. After much deliberation I decided that I would make assessment more valuable to students rather than convenient to myself; for each lesson I would generate a list of hidden potential outcomes that related to the musical adventure and assigned different levels of value to each. I have attached an example below:

Musical Experience

As you can see, students can now be credited for multiple outcomes that may be musical or extra-musical. The students who don’t feel confident enough to sing, may show understanding via movement and students who challenge the adventure with their own, well reasoned ideas can now receive encouragement for doing so. This is not to say that I simply tell students that we are going on an adventure and then leave the room! I realise that what occurs during a creative process involves the modification and recycling of familiar ideas. To this end I still ensure that my students are exposed to scales, rhythms and music from all cultures during the lesson introduction. This typically occurs via call and response, imitation, active listening and solfege use.

Since using this concept, I have noted that mature class conversations have started to become more common place. Students feel as if their opinions and contributions are valued and they are more than willing to offer me advice as I model some of the ways in which students may explore during the lesson. Open ended questioning has become deeper as I ask students: what were your favourite features in the music I played? how can I develop this idea further? And most importantly; why are you exploring in this way?

In conclusion; it felt great to discover that much of my practice was beneficial to my students. It felt even better to discover that there was something I could enhance to make such benefits even more profound…

I will leave you with an anecdote from one of my recent lessons that demonstrates the power of the musical adventure:

I urged a class to explore the representation of an animal with sound, music and movement. In the past I may have limited them to the use of pianos, specific rhythms or movements. Instead, I allowed every student to explore the characteristics of the swan (their chosen animal) in their own way.

I observed groups of enthusiastic students using instruments that they had selected while other pupils danced around them. One group even elected to create an unaccompanied song.

As my eyes and ears scanned the room, I came to observe a pair of girls with drums sat in the corner. I couldn’t see nor hear any activity coming from the students so I approached them.

I asked one of the students what she was exploring and she replied “Making music for a swan”. I then asked her how she was making music for a swan and she calmly replied “Swans are very beautiful in the water and when they swim they make no noise at all – we are representing that right now”.

References –

  1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Ed. John Bowker. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  2. Making more of Music. OFSTED, 2009.
  3. Music in Schools, Wider still and wider. OFSTED, 2012.
  4. Music in the School. Janet Mills. Oxford University Press, 2005.