Written by Ian Axtell, Subject Leader for Music Education, Secondary Partnership Coordinator.
Have you ever been to the University of Exeter? I was lucky enough to visit whilst attending the international Research into Music Education (RIME) conference. For me there was a very strong sense of place. The main campus is on the side of a hill with some amazing views. We were lucky enough to experience these views in brilliant sunshine from Holland Hall, probably one of the best spots for a hall of residence at any university. But these views were just for starters! When we went into the city we found the area around the Cathedral. Perhaps it was a combination of good food and good company combined with a sense of history and culture but the area was stunningly beautiful, particularly in the sunshine.
This sense of place came alive when I began to interact with other people. The desire to share and explore knowledge was tangible. Not simply to grab knowledge so it can be regurgitated at some given moment in time but much more about developing and refining ways of knowing. There was a real sense of connecting with people through their history and culture, through rich and meaningful discourse in the field of music education. I had the privilege of joining a powerful community of thinking whose participants were open to critical academic enquiry. Enormous respect was held between people who share different views because they have the insight and maturity to realise that progress and transformation are not achieved by conflict and ridicule but through the critical dialogue, generated through ethical, reflexive and even recursive discourse. It would be wonderful if our education system could reflect this open dialogic approach, where thinking and learning are prioritised over the gathering of data to measure performance.
I initially misjudged this approach, probably because I was a little in awe of the people I was meeting and I wanted my voice to be heard. I started by being egocentric. We were sitting in a pub opposite the Cathedral and an American music educator who had joined us starting talking about “American Music”. Immediately my ears pricked up and I wanted to challenge the view that music can be given such labels and even framed into particular hierarchies. Was she suggesting that some music is more important than other music? Was she suggesting that music is created in isolation away from any other cultural or historical influences? At the time I was quite assertively arguing the point that music is diverse and thus inclusive. We shouldn’t impose our own enculturation or habitus (Bourdieu, 1977) on other people as though “our music” is more important. Ethically this is very unsound and music is in fact a powerful way of creating community cohesion by bringing ideas and people together.
I misinterpreted the situation based on my own preconceptions and personal perceptions. She was not making a fixed assertion but posing a question to promote thinking. I had assumed that she was talking about American music in the context of Western Art Music which is my own field of expertise. I made this assumption based on who I saw (she was a middle class white American) and my own habitus. If I had listened more carefully and allowed her to share her thinking in a bit more detail before jumping in and imposing my own thinking on the situation, I would have realised that she was in fact posing the question: Why is music created by Black American musicians not recognised as having a significant influence on the musical world? She was, in fact, being ethical and in her approach. She was demonstrating epistemic vigilance by empathising with musicians from outside her own cultural experiences, outside her own habitus. She was being sensitive to other people’s point of view. There wasn’t a simple answer to her question but one that merited further exploration and research. When I realised what was happening this became a magical moment for me. It helped to frame the way I approached the rest of the week. I needed to maintain an open mind, to listen carefully to what was being discussed and recognise that education research is not about proving absolutes or asserting certainties but creating the conditions for transformative learning. Ethics through empathy and care underpin effective education research which in turn help to promote continuous growth and development.
I worry that the discourse surrounding the education system in England is increasingly being based on egocentricism and doxa (which Bourdieu (1977) identified as “uncontested truths”). This discourse is being led by inexperienced career politicians making bold statements based their own ideological perspectives. Their thinking is underpinned by an orthodoxy based strong opinions rather than careful, ethical research. It is as though our education system is being built on personal beliefs driven by elitist social capital and simplistic binary thinking (this is “right” and this is “wrong”). Any voices that might challenge or critique this orthodoxy, particularly in university based Schools of Education, are being attacked as enemies of promise.
This very negative and even Machiavellian approach towards development was completely absent at RIME. The education research I experienced was based on rigorous ethical principles underpinned by epistemic reflexivity and vigilance. Care was taken to value other opinions and, in the context of the field, there was a willingness to be humble and recursive in the context of the broader discourse. “Did what I said make sense?” was a common question.
This approach was exemplified by two music educators who both came from New Zealand. They respected each other enormously but had opposing views in terms of what should prioritised in music education. One expressed his concern about the lack of Western Art Music in an increasingly informal learning environment in school classrooms whilst the other highlighted the power of what he called contemporary (or Popular) music in the curriculum. Bernstein’s (1999) perspective of vertical and horizontal discourse linked to formal and informal learning in music education were discussed in an open and critical manner, recognising the complexity and variety that forms the ontological reality of music from around the world and even in one particular country. This discourse reflected a willingness to move beyond simplistic binary thinking and recognise that both orthodoxy and heterodoxy exist the field of music education.
RIME exemplified the perspective of a field that Bourdieu (1977) shared when outlining a theory of practice:
We need to maintain this “universe of discourse” to ensure that we are not just being self-recursive based on our own narrow perceptions. I was very pleased to have a positive response to my presentation at RIME, largely because my methodology reflected a willingness to engage with listening to others. I used phenomenography or research that describes people’s experiences of the world (Marton 1991). The aim was to recognise and value the complexity of people’s perceptions and improve my own practice as a result. I would have been easier to impose my ideas on others, my extensive experience legitimises this, but I have always been wary of a limited and self-centred approach. As a teacher I was much more interested in heutagogy (Hase & Kenyon, 2007) which sees the learner as a major agent in their own learning through their own personal experiences.
I hope RIME and similar conferences centred on university based education research can continue. It is important that our politicians keep challenging those in the field of education to improve the life chances of the children and young people that we serve. However, these improvements are put under threat if one of the most powerful agents for change, namely ethical university based education research, is silenced because of the fear of complexity and multi-voiced contradictions. Education research is in fact an ethical catalyst for change rather than a barrier to improvement. It is essential.
Bernstein, B. (1999) Vertical and Horizontal Discourse: An Essay. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20 (2): 157-173.
Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice: Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hase, S. and Kenyon, C. (2007) Heutagogy: a child of complexity theory. Complicity: an
international journal of complexity and education, 4 (1): 111–118.
Marton, F. (1981) Phenomenography: Describing perceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science,10 (2): 177-200.