Turning toward an Ethnographic Approach to Teaching: How Ethnography in the Music Classroom Can Inform Teaching Practice

By Sirek, Danielle | The Canadian Music Educator, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Turning toward an Ethnographic Approach to Teaching: How Ethnography in the Music Classroom Can Inform Teaching Practice


Sirek, Danielle, The Canadian Music Educator


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In May 2016, The Huffington Post1 published an article lamenting that music education wasn't "keeping up with the times": that we don't teach the music students love, and that we are long overdue for a drastic change. One that privileges the creating, recording, and sharing of music that is important to and beloved by our students. One that re-envisions the music teacher as music producer-someone who is "part musician, part technician, part guidance counselor and part magician" (Randles, 2016). At the time of writing, the article had been read more than 9,000 times.

This re-imagining of the music teacher might seem at best impossible, and at worst offensive, to the teacher practitioners who find themselves reading the article. After all, specialist music teachers in North American and European schools are more likely to have been taught in formal Western classical university music programs or conservatories than in popular or non-Western music styles and learning settings. They perhaps have had little opportunity to even engage with, let alone become "experts" in, the multitude of musical genres preferred or experienced by their students (Spruce, 2012; Welch, 2009). Music teachers and music teacher educators overwhelmingly teach "the music they know, in the way that they were taught and in the way that they were taught to teach it" (Saunders, 2010).

But Randles, the author of the article, has a point: despite the obvious importance of music's role in the daily lives of many young people, we are having difficulty attracting students to, and engaging them in, our music classes. School music and music outside of school (e.g. popular musics) more often than not are significantly different from each other, and school music is frequently seen as failing student musical aspirations and as resulting in varying levels of student engagement and success (Finney & Laurence, 2013; Green, 2008; Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003; Lamont, Hargreaves, Marshall, & Tarrant, 2003; Sloboda, 2001; Wright, 2008).

As teachers, we can potentially learn how to make school music experiences more significant to our students by engaging with ethnography in the classroom. Reflecting upon Randles' "music teacher-as-producer" idea, in which the teacher is recognized as musician, facilitator, listener, and guide, this article outlines ways in which teacher-initiated classroom-based ethnography can facilitate a move away from the typical teacher-led, curriculum-driven paradigm to one in which the teacher 1) privileges students' experiences and voices; and 2) learns and creates music important to students with the students. There are some significant gaps in the music teaching literature here since classroom-based investigation of one's own students remains uncommon-comparatively speaking-in educational research and practice, and also since there exist many barriers of access to conducting formal research in the classroom (Tilley, Powick-Kumar & Ratkovi, 2009). Indeed, teachers, curriculum writers, and policy makers often infer, or simply decide, what is "best" for students to learn, as well as the "best" way for them to learn it, rather than gathering this information from the students themselves-the learners and consumers of schooling (Wright & Davies, 2010).

Ethnographic approaches to teaching can afford deep understanding into our students' music-making, and the cultural and relational experiences therein. By engaging with ethnography in the classroom, teacher-researchers can gain useful information on meaningful and successful music teaching and curricula. …

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