Mrs Curwen’s surprise on Twitter!

The most retweeted and most ‘liked’ tweet I have ever made was a recent one, wherein I said this:

Sometimes I read things on edutwitter from someone who thinks they have discovered something amazing, which often sounds profoundy, thinky, or researchy, and I sigh and reflect on how music educators have known said thing for years. In evidence I give you Mrs Curwen, 1886:

  1. Teach the easy before the difficult.

  2. Teach the thing before the sign.

  3. Teach one fact at a time, and the commonest fact first.

  4. Leave out all exceptions and anomalies until the general rule is understood.

  5. In training the mind, teach the concrete before the abstract.

  6. In developing physical Skill, teach the elemental before the compound, and do one thing at a time.

  7. Proceed from the known to the related unknown.

  8. Let each lesson, as far as possible, rise out of that which goes before, and lead up to that which follows.

  9. Call in the understanding to help the skill at every step.

  10. Let the first impression be a correct one; leave no room for misunderstanding.

  11. Never tell a pupil anything that you can help him to discover for himself.

  12. Let the pupil, as soon as possible, derive some pleasure from his knowledge. Interest can only kept up by a sense of growth in independent power.

(Curwen, 1886)

A number of people commented on which ones they liked the most, and also which they didn’t! The controversial one in the list was number 11. This is unsurprising, as there has been for a while a meme on education social media that discovery learning, project based learning, guided discovery and their cognates are ‘bad’. This ranges from the “just bloody tell them” approach, to a general dissing of pupil-centred learning. So to be expected to be controversial, then. But a number of readers also pointed out that what Mrs C actually says is “Never tell a pupil anything you can help him to discover for himself” which places the emphasis away from the “never” if the teacher can help the learner (C19 gender specificity aside) discover it themselves. For a number of respondents this was their favourite one of the dozen anyway!

What is interesting  (at least I found it interesting!) was that this was picked up, liked, and retweeted many times far beyond the music education community, by people in all sorts of other subjects. This got me thinking about why this would be the case. I can think of a number of reasons, but I am going to concentrate (selfishly, I know but it’s my blog!) on two:

  1. We don’t have much space for teaching and learning history of education on current ITE courses
  2. Music education has a long and proud tradition of pedagogy which is often neglected by practitioners from within, let alone without.

I think number 1 here is interesting for a number of reasons. I don’t think it’s the fault of teachers that they don’t know very much about the history of education. I think this has been a deliberate act by politicians to remove this from ITE courses. And in-service CPD is so precious that it cannot be squeezed in as something which is simply of interest. History of education is only one aspect of what is missing, all sorts of things which may count as being ‘theory’ have been squeezed out, or removed:

…the Government has decided to resolve the tension between theory and practice by simply cutting out theory altogether, to leave only practice. (Northcott, 2011, p.9)

This seems a little sad to me. I am not for one moment casting aspersions on ITE, or ITT, but this removal of ‘knowledge’ from teacher preparation courses seems at odds with the “knowledge-rich” curriculum that some aspects of the Government and teaching profession prefer?

Turning to the second aspect, that of music eduaction and pedagogy, we know that there have been key texts on this for many centuries. Michael Mark’s pivotal “Music Education – Source Readings from Ancient Greece to Today” (1982) kicks off, as the title suggests, with Plato, and then takes us through a gamut of texts on this topic. (I don’t know if he includes Mrs Curwen, as with so many of my books I’ve lent my copy to someone!) But music education practitioners in England, at least, are trained according to precepts outlines above. This means that there is precious little time on a PGCE to develop thinking about teaching and learning in contemporary music education, without digging around in history. And bearing in mind that the Swanwick-Tillman spiral(Swanwick & Tillman, 1986)and ‘Sound and Silence’ (Paynter & Aston, 1970)are music history (meaning being published before the teachers were born) then anything much before then is seriously unlikely to get a look-in!

But even so, we music educators can have a hard time agreeing with each other, after all, as Bernarr Rainbow observed over 20 years ago:

Nor even among those who have defended music’s place in the curriculum has there been a greater measure of agreement on how it should be taught. Children have had their heads stuffed with facts – sometimes expressed in a dead language – before being permitted to utter a note. Some pupils have been limited to rote-singing; others have been obliged to sing everything at  sight – from manual signs, from the Gamut, from numerals, from sol-fa, from fixed or movable do, from sundry patent notations, or from the staff. …Certain of these disagreements – and others at least as contentious – survive in our own day. Contrary opinions are still expressed, and it is far from unknown for an earnest teacher to spend energy devising and trying out experimental methods which have already been tested long ago, and failed. (Rainbow, 1995, p. 43)

So why do I think Mrs Curwen’s ideas stirred up so much interest and agreement? I think it is because they are universal in nature, and apart from the C19 gender-specificity, offer elegantly phrased maxims that serve us well in our contemporary pedagogic quest.

Of course, as with all things, we are not the first to re-discover Mrs Curwen, and in Music Education can I point interested readers to Keith Swanwick’s “Music, Mind and Education” (Swanwick, 1988)where he discusses Mrs C’s maxims, and compares and contrasts them with those of Murray Schafer. This chapter is in turn commented on by Jonathan Savage, in his book “The Guided Reader to Teaching and Learning Music” (Savage, 2013).

But I also think it is often the case that the wealth of knowledge, experience, and understanding that we have as music educators can go unrecognised by our colleagues in other subject areas, who, through no fault of their own, are unaware of the long history that music education has in pedagogic, psychological, and practical research, and, let’s be frank, wisdom, that can inform other areas of teaching just as well as our own.

But it is also nice to see that Mrs Curwen is still relevant for the 21stCentury!




Curwen, A. J. (1886). The Teacher’s Guide to Mrs. Curwen’s Pianoforte method (the child pianist). Being a practical course in the elements of music. London: Curwen’s Edition.

Northcott, D. (2011) What do teachers want from teacher education? IN In defence of teacher education, SCETT, 2011

Paynter, J., & Aston, P. (1970). Sound and Silence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rainbow, B. (1995). The Challenge of History. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 3(1), 43-51.

Savage, J. (2013). The guided reader to teaching and learning music. London: Routledge.

Swanwick, K. (1988). Music, Mind, and Education: London: Routledge.

Swanwick, K., & Tillman, J. (1986). The sequence of musical development: a study of children’s compositions. British Journal of Music Education, 3(3), 305-309.



About drfautley

Professor Education at Birmingham City University, UK.
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1 Response to Mrs Curwen’s surprise on Twitter!

  1. Hubert Spall says:

    I may have misunderstood it, but I take issue with Rainbow’s assertion that “it is far from unknown for an earnest teacher to spend energy devising and trying out experimental methods which have already been tested long ago, and failed.” Revisiting and interrogating supposedly “failed” methods is crucial, as fashion tends to throw out the baby with the bathwater. “Experimental” is often used synonymously with “responsive” in teaching too, and no two teaching/learning contexts are alike so experiment is always necessary. Methods which didn’t work before may well work in a new environment or serve a different learning need.

    While I can’t fault anything in Mrs. Curwen’s list, there is something peculiarly 19th Century about the idea of a prescription for good teaching.

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