I feel really lucky to be involved with the teach through music program (TTM). It has drawn together amazingly talented music educators who are knowledgable, enthusiastic experts.

Teach Through Music is a year-long, fully subsidised professional development programme for KS3 music teachers in London schools and sets out to create a ‘Centre of Excellence’ for KS3 music teaching in London.

The cross cutting themes of Teach Through Music are :

  • Making music the dominant language of the classroom
  • Teachers and pupils behaving and thinking as musicians as they learn and teach
  • Empowering teachers and young people through creative ownership
  • Drawing on London’s rich cultural resources.

They seem clear themes. I would like to reflect upon some of these themes over a few blogs starting with the theme of empowerment. Here I use some of the thoughts of Biesta and ED Hirsch to help think what it mean to empower.

  • Is it possible to empower others within education?
  • Is empowerment a valid purpose for education?
  • What does empowerment look like for a teacher or a student?
  • How do you ensure ownership?
  • What does creative ownership look like or sound like for young people – is this different for teachers?
  • Is my creative ownership in tension with the creative ownership of the young people I teach?

These are the questions that I wondered about after reading the ethos. Empowerment is a powerful idea however there are a few who would suggest that this is not the role of education. For some – schools are a place for learning and gaining knowledge, nothing more.  There are those that might also suggest that empowerment comes from knowledge and from a knowledge that an educator shares because of his experience and authority as an expert.

ED Hirsch and his supporters might suggest that the texts that get studied should develop  Cultural Capital.

“but no more studying popular culture. Sure it’s ‘engaging’ but kids can use their own time for this. School is for the breadth and depth of stuff they would not otherwise be bothered to learn.”


This approach clearly diminishes the importance of student ownership and instead views the empowerment of  students is best accomplished through the development of a broad base of knowledge and introduction to the great cultural achievements of Western Society. This approach often goes alongside a view that progressive education is ruining education with its constructivist ideas about learning – discovery learning instead of ‘direct instruction’ for example.

“Today our schools and colleges of education… are still the nerve centers of an anti-intellectual tradition. One of their most effective rhetorical tics is to identify the acquisition of broad knowledge with ‘rote learning’ of ‘mere facts’ – in subtle disparagement of ‘merely verbal’ presentation in books and through the coherent explanations of teachers. “ Hirsch from @webofsubstance

Teacher and student empowerment are at odds. The neo-liberal might argue that teacher empowerment ultimately leads to student empowerment. Content is too important to leave to chance. The neo-liberal might argue that content choices are essential to stimulate and broaden experience. Students learn more effectively and in the end are more successful if they develop the right kind of Cultural Capital. Joe Kirby puts it like this:

In short, all pupils should understand our most valuable and enduring human achievements.

There is nothing inherently elitist about this. There is nothing that almost every single pupil cannot grasp by the end of their time at school. It is instead elitist to deny any child their global birthright, the inheritance of the centuries that have gone before them. To live without an understanding of the greatest ideas humanity has ever created, such as writing, is a travesty. The best education systems in the world ensure every pupil has a broad knowledge and deep understanding of them by the time they leave school.

Dylan Williams has argued pedagogy trumps curriculum. Curriculum is important but not as much as content. Williams suggests that we focus on curriculum because this is easier.

There is a range of views on the importance curriculum has for students. At the more extreme student ownership would be to deny a great deal of teacher input in the curriculum design. This more extreme version of teacher authority and the curriculum’s importance would ultimately be at odds with student’s creative ownership.

It could be said, that creative ownership relates to ensuring that students are allowed to creatively engage with the ideas and music as presented by the teacher. It could be that the starting point is drawn from John Paytner’s fascinating book Sound and Structure or maybe from the teacher’s own recent musical interests.

‘Assignment 2: Choose any two notes. Experiment with distinctive ways of playing them. From this experiment derive a two-note musical motif and explore ways of keeping it going, using changes of dynamics and articulation to vary it and to make it grow and develop. Try a number of possibilities: some fast, some slow.’

Creative ownership seems less important than a good stimulating content. Curriculum over pedagogy-  possibly. Or is it just the need for quality materials, the right starting points for students. There is a safety here maybe. There is a quality and substance in the creative development of motifs that ensure appropriate musical challenges for our students. Is empowerment really just about a neo-liberal agenda of passing on the best of knowledge?

Does empowerment need the teacher to control certain important elements such as content? If so, is this empowerment? Or do we say that empowerment is a by product of good and effective teaching? And if so do we not really erase the student out of all this? How long does the student wait before they can start to have a say?

Is too much deliberation over this issue is really a way of neglecting the central issue of making music the dominant language of the classroom? It might seem that way. But whose music is the dominant language? The teachers or the empowered student? Or does it not really matter?

Can we see things differently?

This is were I find the ideas of Biesta useful in considering  a different conception of teaching and empowerment.

Biesta notes that there is a conception of education that does try and contribute to the freedom of the human subject in contrast to neo-liberal approaches  that place the importance of education in the development of knowledge. However at the same time he argues there is a contradiction. Once we talk about empowerment we imagine a “powerful intervention” and immediately there are issues around  the power invested in the teacher and what exactly is the lack of power in the students. The task of the teacher becomes that of one of revealing what is hidden.

He suggests that this relationship is built on the idea that a relationship of inequality is made into one of equality. (Pge 77 TBROE)  In a sense empowerment is done to someone and equality lies in the future after the student has been empowered. The question becomes when does the dependency disappear? The logic of empowerment suggests that the teacher needs the student to be inferior.

The problem is that the students to be empowered become objects and are dependent on the knowledge revealed by the teacher. There is a logic at work that reinforces dependency. Biesta argues that this constitutive of Western philosophy and discusses the work of Ranciere as a way of overcoming the contradiction of being in a position of power empowering others to see the truth.

Ranciere argues that “as long as we project equality into the future and see it has something that has to be brought about through particular interventions and activities that aim to overcome existing inequalities – such as the education of the masses or the integral pedagogicization of society – we will never reach equality but simply reproduce inequality.”  p96 TBROE

This argument at the very least highlights more tensions in TTM aim of empowerment for teachers and students through creative ownership. A teacher who aims for an excellent curriculum which then aims to empower students might find their students do not need empowering, or indeed we might just end up replicating similar issues of dependency, authority and knowledge.

Empowerment becomes just another subtle way of keeping students dependent. They need the right knowledge and we have the musical insight to recognise just how to rectify this lack of musicality. It is tempting to keep putting of the moment when students loose their dependency on our insights.

The desire to empower might also be a desire to control, limit and define. To claim to empower might limit creative ownership at the same time it holds out hope for giving students the knowledge they lack.

There are many people looking to empower young people; successful musicians on TV rescuing classical instruments for the young to use, rich patrons funding schools to afford orchestral playing for all, the BBC presenting 10 pieces to excite and liberate and London teachers seeking to give the gift of creative ownership.

There is a need for care in approaching education as something that empowers the other.

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