A Polysemy of Meanings: Music Education for Critical Pedagogy

By Gowan, Jennifer | The Canadian Music Educator, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

A Polysemy of Meanings: Music Education for Critical Pedagogy


Gowan, Jennifer, The Canadian Music Educator


Introduction

Critical pedagogy has been explored with increasing frequency in the music education literature in recent years (e.g., Abrahams, 2005a, 2005b; Abramo, 2015; Shor, 1993; Smyth, 1990; Spruce, 2012). This pedagogy is centred on the belief that schools play a role in maintaining the social formation of society when they should instead be redressing inequities and social injustices. Critical pedagogy, as conceived by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire and, more historically, Karl Marx (Morrow, 2002), involves questioning and otherwise challenging traditional practices and programs with a view of changing school programs and, ultimately, society, for the better. A key idea underlying Freirean critical pedagogy is the concept of conscientization, or the ability to distinguish social, economic and political contradictions, and to recognize and resist the oppressive elements of reality (Freire, 1998; Spruce, 2012). A growing number of researchers and educators in the field of music education have explored the potential relationship and significance of critical pedagogy for music teaching and learning. Recently, however, this exploration has fallen back into old patterns, leading certain educators to ask what critical pedagogy can do for music education (Abrahams, 2005a, 2005b) instead of how music education, through critical pedagogy, can reclaim its moral purpose of fostering needed changes. With the goal of legitimizing and validating the status quo or existing practices of music education within the current school culture, those scholars have arguably abandoned or distorted the very spirit behind critical pedagogy in order to defend themselves and their programs from marginalization or elimination as educational "frills" (Schmidt, 1996).

The Ontario government recognizes that all educators have the obligation to maintain and promote the ideals of equity (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 2) and [social] justice (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 77) in all that they do. Music educators are thus also required to relate those ideals to their own practices and programs, and critical pedagogy can help them achieve this political goal. Critical pedagogy - along with critical theory and critical thinking - seeks to ensure that people develop the skills and knowledge necessary to question and to discern "inaccuracies, distortions, and even falsehoods" (Burbules & Berk, 1996, p. 46). Its specific focus insists on the examination of uncritical acceptance of and obedience to ideology with a specific focus on educational institutions and how they "perpetuate an unjust status quo that leads to inequalities" (Shaw, 2014, p. 66).

As Apple (2000) asserts, our schools are not immune from politics (see also Spruce, 2001; Woodford, 2015). Society is changed in and through education as children are produced and reproduced according to the dominant priorities of larger political structures. Schools play a role in the social and cultural reproduction of gender roles, social classes, and racial and ethnic prejudices. Educational venues, including music classrooms, are therefore inevitably political, and are thus implicated in those and other social problems and practices (Benedict, Schmidt, Spruce, & Woodford, 2015). As is explained next, a method that uses only elements of critical pedagogy to legitimize the status quo in music education within current educational power structures is a bastardized version, as it is stripped of its political content. Employing only aspects of critical pedagogy in order to justify music education within current societal power structures does a disservice to the underpinning philosophy of this Freirean ideal. This paper defines and explains critical pedagogy, and examines and illustrates its implementation by music educators, in order to critique its uses in the classroom. It admonishes music teachers to avoid hypocrisy with respect to the misrepresentation of Freirean critical pedagogy (or others that reflect similar purposes including libertory education, problem-posing, critical education, or Freirean education) with little else of significance to reflect the central philosophies that support this movement. …

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