Why Music Education should lead all education in the 21st century

| November 28, 2014

It’s a bit long as a title for a book, but I think that’s what the book will be called (at least in the book proposal forms), because that’s the conclusion I’m going to draw. I first put this idea forward in my keynote at the Music Technology in Education Conference in 2013, and have been working on it since – but given there’s a lot more research to do before I can write such a tome, I readily accepted the invitation to share my ideas here.

Learning has changed. Forever. And it’s wonderful. If you were a 13 year-old with the ambition to participate in the rock scene but had the confidence and self-esteem of, well, a 13 year-old, why would you waste money and parental negotiation on guitar lessons? YouTube is one click away, and there’s a good chance that the virtual (and motivated) teacher there is better than Fred who has a studio at the local shopping centre. Buckle up, young autodidact, and learn guitar. Or DJ-ing. Or film composition. Or live electronic performance. Confronting to us music teachers? It shouldn’t be. We struggle to engage even 10% of our high school students to learn music through to the end of year 12 [i], despite the fact that they “report that listening to music is their favourite activity”  (Rose & Countryman, 2013). If we’re advocating for the good that music is in the lives of our children, we need to put that before any judgement of the quality of the genre or the pedagogy.

In the music education advocacy world we’re busy worrying about the place that music will really end up with in the new Australian Curriculum, and whether in our primary schools the teachers delivering it will have the expertise to do it properly: given that in most states in Australia we already have in vast majority a non-specialist-taught (and perhaps sometimes even non-delivered) music curriculum, we shouldn’t hold our collective breath [ii].

But in education more broadly, the advocates for change are mostly worrying about a rapidly-approaching future where a degree in law or medicine will be no guarantee of a job, where more than half of our children will not have the luxury of permanent employment, but will instead balance a range of freelance work, and, perversely, where the value and role of the teacher as a holder-of-knowledge will be challenged and drastically changed.

For the industries of the future, we are told, students will need to understand meaningful use of technology, to be able to collaborate on multi-disciplinary projects, to have an appetite for innovation and change, and to be self-motivated to update and upskill themselves via open learning many times over their working lives. Luckily, there is an established education literature and related pedagogies that spans over a century[iii] on how to nurture such skills in children, and a great number of schools around the world who are taking those ideas and giving them a 21st century twist.

The best example I’ve seen of this so far is in the rather awkwardly named High Tech High. Awkward only because technology isn’t at the centre of what they do at all. Instead, nearly the entire curriculum (maths doesn’t take part) is based on Project-Based Learning. Each semester, teachers from two different subjects pair up, design a project, do it themselves so they can see what the potential pitfalls might be, and backward-engineer the learning outcomes into a program of learning which has a clear timeline and connection to those outcomes. During term time, teachers meet at 7:30am every day – yes, every day – to discuss how each student is going, mark work together, and adjust the project if needs be. Every project reaches out to the community and has ‘real world’ outcomes, whether it is by collaborating with local scientists to investigate a specific problem, making furniture to decorate homes, or opening the school up to the community with one of their many ‘Presentations of Learning’.

In fact, High Tech High is more than one school. It’s actually 12 schools based on the same model. Five high schools, four middle schools, and three elementary (primary) schools. Each one is kept below the 500-student mark because it is believed that that is as many names as a teacher can remember, and therefore engenders a sense of community. And while the schools operate under the same principles (personalisation, adult world connection, common intellectual mission and teacher as designer), the ‘flavour’ of each was distinct. As a charter school, places are offered by lottery, so there are an even mix of students of different socio-economic status, including those from the poorest areas around San Diego; yet since opening in 2000, 98% of its graduates have gone on to college, 75% into four year degrees – and the pride these students showed in their school and learning backed up the impression there were next to no drop-outs. Compare this to America’s national averages of 66% college entry, and a 6.6% dropout rate. It’s not just a great model of 21st century learning, it’s a successful one.

The strongest and most impressive character (and there were a few) that I met at High Tech High was art teacher Jeff Robin. Jeff had been at the school since the beginning, and had very strong feelings about how to do project based learning right. His animation “What is PBL” sets out the basic rules for designing and delivering projects, and focuses on the High Tech High philosophy of making sure teachers always DO THE PROJECT YOURSELF – FIRST

Back in my school, and at other schools where I did residencies, I collaborated with art teachers, science teachers, and even had my greatest success with the maths teachers who weren’t supposed to be able to fit to the High Tech High model. But without a school-wide commitment to support such a change in learning the typical problem of not allocating “enough time to prepare for student-led conferences” (Berger, Rugen and Woodfin, 2014), it was difficult to “cultivate a classroom culture that values excellent work”, as I had seen in San Diego.

We music education advocates had doubts about this, too. As soon as you blow apart the timetable to allow all that cross-disciplinary deep learning to happen, it’s difficult to see where the hours of rehearsals you need to run a high level performance program will fit. And as I discovered my own first experiments in project based learning, when music joins other subjects in the curriculum, it’s all too easy for it to be reduced to a bonus extra: “in science students researched green issues, in film studies they learned how to make a documentary about their research, and in music they … dragged some incidental music in from GarageBand…”. No real search for excellence there.

There were a couple of “aha” moments that followed for me. The first was over dinner on my final evening at High Tech High. I was raving about the music program at my school, which (as amazed as I was by High Tech High) these schools didn’t match in any way. I was describing how in my music program we had truly integrated the curricular and extra-curricular music programs by basing the classroom content on the repertoire being performed in our choirs, orchestras, bands, the school musical, and so on; with assessment on their detailed understanding of the repertoire achieved by assessing their compositional responses to those models. Assessing knowledge through creativity. A High Tech High teacher listened to how we rewrote the curriculum every six months to meet the repertoire, how we blended learning about music with the act of making music, and how it all came together in a series of concerts and composition workshops, and he said “well, that’s best practice project based learning, right there!”. I love Californians and their endless optimism, but even accounting for that, this gave me hope.

The next “aha” moment was a couple of months later. The school choir and chamber orchestra put on a Christmas concert in the local church and performed Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Bach’s Magnificat. As I lost myself in end-of-year exhaustion, brilliant performance and sublime composition, the program fell open on my lap and some words stood out. As well as spending a lot of time thinking about music education, I’d been thinking about my own career. It had been troubling me that although I had composed entirely to commission for about a decade, that increasingly I was becoming “that guy who composes for kids”, and not the concert/art music composer I’d set out to be. And the words that stood out from the program reminded me that Bach wrote the first version of the Magnificat in his first year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. That he revised it several times in the 27 years that he spent at the Thomasschule, teaching and composing. It also served to remind me that we’d heard the music of Britten first that evening, whose passion for writing music for children gave permission to many “serious” art music composers in Britain to do similar. And of Holst before Britten, who spent 29 years at St Paul’s School and 17 at Morley College before that, and who commented: “That remark of Shaw is not essentially true. Teaching is not an alternative to doing. Teaching is doing.”[iv]

And it came to me in a rush. Music in itself is already, in at least one sense, cross-curricular – if not, why do we need such a wide range of tertiary music educators, be they musicologists, composers, performers, or the myriad of other specialist skills required? We mix theory with art. Emotion with understanding. We are the ultimate in experiential educators. And why? Well, consider Jeff Robin’s advice: DO THE PROJECT YOURSELF – FIRST. How many instrumental teachers would teach repertoire they don’t already know? How many teachers would set composition tasks they couldn’t do? How many would try to teach music without the actual musical experience, be it playing, singing, moving, improvising or composing? Only the poor music teachers.

Innovation is in our bones, too. There’s the composer’s search for an original, distinct voice, whatever their chosen compositional style. There’s the wide range interpretation of single works by so many talented performers. There is the unlocking of the thoughts behind the music, the secrets of sound, the stories behind the stories of music and musicians. And that’s just a start. Consider the development of musical instruments over hundreds of years – an innovation that moves on faster now in both the acoustic and electronic worlds than ever before. And consider the music teacher who tells you they are rubbish with technology, and then explains to their school’s IT staff what the problem with the audio driver is, and teaches Year 7 about a computer language called MIDI that will allow them to transmit and capture information about music and turn it into a jingle. We’re especially good at this in Australia.

We musicians always do the project ourselves. First. Because we’re not “just” teachers. We’re musicians. We’re artists. Why do we apologetically advocate just for a place in the new Australian Curriculum for Music? Why don’t we advocate that our model should be the one to lead ALL education into the 21st century? We already do everything the advocates for change are looking for. That’s what I want to write a book about.


[i] Extrapolated from Australian state Year 12 exam results in 2013. This percentage and the indication of a general malaise amongst high school students toward classroom music education is comparable with reports from the US and in the UK.

[ii] At the primary age, where music is a mandatory part of the curriculum in all Australian states and territories (just as it is in the new Australian curriculum that all states have signed up to), it is taught by a specialist (musically trained) music teacher in 88% of independent schools but only 23% of government schools. Those teachers relying on a general primary teaching degree to prepare them for teaching music used to get 200 hours of training on average in Australian degrees. Nowadays we average closer to 17 hours of training, with fewer than 10 hours in some universities. Compare this with Finland, where primary teachers receive 270 hours music training and South Korea where they receive 160.  Is it worth pointing out to our pollies that both of those countries consistently rate higher than us in the “more important” subjects, too?

[iii] Consider, for example, the huge literature around constructivist education theory which stretches back, at least in term of ideas, pre-Piaget to the theories of Dewey and Montessori.

[iv] Holst, I (1968). The Music of Gustav Holst. London: Oxford University Press, p. 150.


  1. Edward Primrose

    Excellent article and the conclusion is exactly right. I don’t know whether a book is the answer as the problem exists on many levels, much of which is cultural and political. Music educators will read the book but those who need to see the light will need something a little louder. Sounds like a campaign in the making. Get Dick Letts, Musica Viva, the orchestras, the opera, the music tech advocates on board. My 2c.

  2. Marianne

    A necessary and timely nudge to policy-makers, parents, educators…!
    I appreciated this, as mentioned under (ii): “Compare this with Finland, where primary teachers receive 270 hours music training and South Korea where they receive 160. Is it worth pointing out to our pollies that both of those countries consistently rate higher than us in the “more important” subjects, too?”

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  6. Christina

    Have you written a book yet? You had discussed book proposals – I think this would be an excellent book. I found an online course that you created on the topic and am very excited to go through the material on my own. This article was a great and encouraging read.

    1. James Humberstone

      Thanks, Christina. Yes, rather than publishing a book, I created the university’s first “MOOC” – a 5 week online course that gets to grips with all of this and asks participants to share and publish their own findings.

      A book (and a sabbatical to go with it!) are still part of the long term plans!

      I hope that you enjoy the course.


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