What Impact Does Expected Evaluation Have on the Creativity of Music Students?

By Mitchell, Nancy | The Canadian Music Educator, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

What Impact Does Expected Evaluation Have on the Creativity of Music Students?


Mitchell, Nancy, The Canadian Music Educator


Creativity, which can be defined as generating ideas or products that are both novel and appropriate (Osche, 1990), is highly valued in many aspects of society, including the arts. Most musicians and music teachers would agree that creativity is an important part of the music-making and music-learning process. Musical creativity can be expressed through the generation of new musical ideas (improvisation or composition) or through the individualized interpretation of a performed work. Both of these aspects of creativity can help fulfill musicians' need for personal expression and audiences' desire to hear something new and engaging. Unfortunately, other competing values in education often prevent students from developing their full creative potential (Dineen and Collins, 2005, p. 44; Nicholl and McLellan, 2008, p. 585).

Whether they learn in a classroom setting, in which report card grades are submitted at regular intervals, or in a private studio, in which festivals and conservatory exams likely feature prominently, most students who engage in formal music learning do so with a keen awareness that there will be a mark attached to their level of proficiency. This focus on evaluation has many ramifications for music learning. In particular, the relationship between creativity and evaluation is fraught with potential difficulties (Craft and Jeffrey, 2008, p. 578). In the next two articles in the series on evaluation, I will examine two facets of the interplay between evaluation and creativity in music learning. Firstly, I will discuss the impact of an expected evaluation on the degree to which creative activities are included in music instruction and on the creative process itself. The second article will focus on the challenges inherent in evaluating creative products and will provide some practical suggestions for teachers.

In an educational climate that places high value on accountability, and on the supposedly objective evaluations that are used to establish the quality of a particular program, teachers are often highly invested in the marks their students receive (Nicholls and McLellan, 2008, p. 591). For a school music teacher who is assigning his or her students' grades, this means being able to justify each grade with carefully documented supporting evidence. No one would dispute the importance of students and parents being able to understand how a student earned a particular grade; however, the drawback to this hyper vigilance is that teachers sometimes neglect richer educational experiences in favour of those which are more easily marked. In music, original compositions and imaginative performances are notoriously difficult to evaluate with any semblance of "objectivity" (Boyle and Radocy, 1987, p.8). Unfortunately, this difficulty in assigning grades means that many music marks are assigned based largely on characteristics that are easier to quantify, such as correct notes and rhythms, or accurate responses on paper and pencil tasks that have been designed to have right or wrong answers.

In private studio settings, many students follow a rigorous program of preparing for evaluative performances, such as festivals and conservatory exams. Because of the high value placed on results from these evaluations, many students do not have the opportunity to engage in musical activities that are not part of the required curriculum (Tye, 2004). This means that many students who learn in private studio settings go through their entire musical education with little to no attention given to developing their skills in improvisation and composition. Creativity in performance is also frequently sacrificed, as it is often the safe performance that is rewarded in evaluations. In some cases, students are even provided with recordings of the required pieces in order to encourage imitation of "correct" interpretations.

As discussed above, a strong focus on evaluation can decrease the likelihood of creative activities being included in music instruction. …

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