In which I fall over in Lisbon, and reflect again on the knowledge/skills debate

Sometimes there are things which happen which make you really think about things. One of those happened to me at the weekend. I was in Lisbon to address the Associação portuguesa de educação musical conference there. What happened was that I fell over in the street. It was morning, I was stone cold sober, and I tripped over an uneven pavement. I think that this is in part because, as a varifocal wearer, the ground is constantly out of focus for me, so I have to sort of guess what’s going on down there! Now, apart from the fact that this hurt a lot, and damaged my lip as I hit the ground, reflection occurred afterwards, as Schön would have said, ‘reflection-on-action’. If the ground is constantly out of focus, why not do something about it? Maybe not wear varifocals when walking? So I’m trying that!

But apart from playing for sympathy, this also got me thinking, suppose for a lot of people the ‘ground’ is always out of focus? In music education the notion of a ground – as in, (tenuously, admittedly) the psychology notion of figure-ground – is hard to define. But there has been a lot of talk again of late about the place of knowledge and skills. I have recently listened to a radio programme in which one commentator observes that some teachers don’t think “knowledge” is important, and so said misguided teachers only teach skills. Now, we’ve been here before! This argument is hard to apply in music education. As in so many other things we are out in the lead of other subject areas. The ‘ground’ here, which is so out of focus to the commentator I listened to, is that for music education knowledge and skills go hand in hand. And philosophers will tell you that knowledge includes knowing “how to” anyway, so skills themselves are a form of knowledge after all.

As I said, I was in Lisbon, and so, thick lip, but cleaned up somewhat, I addressed the Portuguese music educators concerning curriculum and assessment. Interestingly, at the point of me talking about knowledge and skills, they smiled and nodded sagely. One of them then said “yes, we had politicians here who thought that, but us educators told them they were being silly, and that of course kids needed both!” “Good”, I said. But this made me think. Why is the ground so unclear in England that we allow people to say things about knowledge and skills that we music educators know to be “silly”? After all, how can you develop skills in, say, guitar playing, and not know the names of chords and their relations? What is it that has created the situation that has allowed “silly” ideas like this to flourish?

One of the reasons, I think, is that for some of the people saying these things, music is so far from their own ground that they never give it a thought. A related reason is the stratified and rarefied view that these people have such that their own subjects don’t have anything like musical skills, and for them, in their subject areas, skills are somewhat nebulous. After all, the skill to read a map is nothing like the skill required to achieve a crescendo on a xylophone. Skills in music require mental and physical interaction, this is not the case in some areas of the curriculum, and it is those areas which have provided the people who have come to prominence peddling this nonsense. But why didn’t we, en masse, like the Portuguese educators did, dismiss this daftness?

Well, I think the answer is political. It suits the zeitgeist for some to say “this is broken”, and a small group of naysayers become empowered beyond that which their limited vision (like mine!) should really allow. And it is not just in knowledge/skills that we see this lack of vision. In England at the moment we are hearing of music disappearing from school curricula. This is so schools can concentrate on subjects which neoliberalism values. And that ain’t the arts! But again, there is a whole host of otherwise sensible people whose varifocals won’t let them see the ground they have been churning up. But that sad saga is for another day!

Which brings me back to falling over! This requires mental and physical interaction in order to not fall over, and so just as I will be more careful with the ground in future, we can but hope that some of those misguided commentators can also look for a ground which includes music education, rather than tacitly assume all subjects are like theirs. And if they don’t “get” music, I’m sure our PE colleagues can oblige with a few examples!

 

 

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