music education

Descale the arts machine now

The latest QTAC report is out, advertising (let’s face it) the ways that all general senior subjects in Queensland were variously scaled up or scaled down for students who completed school in 2023.

It’s as ‘league table’ as Queensland gets these days, with these published rankings used 1) by students to aid in their subject selection, 2) by schools to convince students to pursue high ranking subjects, and 3) by nefarious ATAR calculators that rub crystal balls and give students predictions based on assignments that they have not yet completed (!).

Just as arts educators suspected, arts offerings have fared (even) worse than previously. I’ll spare you my own analysis, but when paired with elective class numbers around the state, we see a glib picture. An old colleague has had to collapse Music into a composite Year 10, 11, 12 class this year. Other schools have been forced to reduce the number of senior arts subjects offered. I know at least two local schools that have tiny groups of Year 12 Music students working unaccompanied in the library without a Music teacher.

I keep getting this blinking error light

The QTAC report reminded me to revisit 2022’s ABC News article, penned at a time when arts advocates had sprung to life to defend extant syllabus offerings. By Sally Eeles’ assessment, kids were abandoning senior arts offerings “in droves in the belief they will secure higher ATAR with science-based subjects”.

That same year (2022), we saw invigorated lobbying and proactive steps by arts professional organisations. Drama Queensland, for instance, was on the front foot, seeking urgent meetings with QTAC to “ensure that we take active and informed steps forward to ensure a productive redevelopment of Drama curriculum provides the best possible opportunity for our students to succeed, against other subjects equally”.

Since then, though, curriculum change has been entirely negligible. The latest round of arts syllabus iterations were carefully curated by Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) following consultation, but this process was marred by confirmation bias (an insider joke) and tweakery. From an arts perspective, QCAA was shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.

Arts educators need to think bigger. Woes of inter-subject scaling are both no-one’s fault, and everyone’s fault, but QTAC and QCAA need to hear together from arts bodies and scholars. It’s time to descale the arts machine.

A bitter taste

To anyone outside of formal learning right now, I ask: When was the last time you did a two-hour, individual handwritten test in order to best demonstrate your understanding of something? And when was the last time you did that to demonstrate criticality, creativity, teamwork, sociality, tech-savviness, or any other 21st century skill (as identified by QCAA)?

To be blunt (and I stress, I am just talking as an individual artist-teacher-researcher!), the Queensland system has been characterised as cruel, unusual, biased, inauthentic, bland, and sad.

Watch out, though!

Watch out, though!

Where arts educators fail to react sufficiently to the status quo, we inadvertently subscribe to the hidden curriculum that shouts:

  • “Standardise me!”: The overt move towards STEM-at-all-costs through a neoliberal drive for standardisation—as demonstrated through the observations of Theo Clark (2022) and Morgan Rogers Wilson (2019)—has driven recent Queensland education imperatives. Education-as-meeting-quantified-objectives is entirely unhelpful for children, their parents, and their support dogs.
  • “Paint me into a corner!”: Queensland syllabi are so fixated on cognition over experience that arts learning culminates in written tests that are more-than-symptomatic of David Perkins’ aboutitis.
  • “Stop collaborating!”: Teamwork is deemed risky in high stakes testing environments, causing individual efforts to be reduced to quantified evaluations of individual students’ products uploaded to a (team-created) portal to be assessed by (teams of) assessors. It’s skewiff! Does any post-school worker reading this not lean on teamwork to produce work outcomes? Let’s team up.
  • “Creativity is great in theory!”: I hear so much about the importance of creativity and 21st century skills—and we all get it!—but I invite you to scan the latest Queensland senior syllabi and arrive at your own conclusions. Move beyond the corporatised rationales, and delve into the assessment practices. State-mandated creativity is great in theory, but it would be even better in practice.

A double shot

It is all well and good to blame statutory bodies and commissions on matters of zeitgeist, but there are two final shots to serve.

Firstly, the Queensland Government’s Creative Together roadmap for arts, culture and creativity falls far short of helpful policy orientation. The 30-page document fails entirely to mention ‘schools’, ‘teaching’, ‘learning’, or ‘students’. It mentions ‘education’ in the most generic sense, as you might expect for a public document, with phrases such as “arts in education has been linked to increased self-esteem, increased positive behaviour and enhanced academic achievement” (p. 10), and “strengthening the links between communities and other sectors, such as education and tourism” (p.16).

We might as well be watching an episode of ABC’s Utopia. Who does the government propose should be charged with identifying, fostering, and developing this magically appearing creativity in the young people (who will be the workers by the time this roadmap reaches its glorious endpoint around the Brisbane Olympics in 2032)? Are we to continue subscribing to the Romantic myth that creativity somehow drops on these children in their sleep?

Secondly, arts educators need to turn inwards. It’s a dark storm. Let’s look back—like never before—at arts curricula and pedagogy to ensure more relevance, robustness, and remarkability. It looks like we will need to do this despite vague/vanilla, mandated curriculum imperatives. Welcome to (yet another) era of pedagogical evolution. As any trumpeter will tell you, thankfully, we’ve got the chops!

Milking it, for all it’s worth

If syllabi, statutory bodies, and governments fail to recognise the importance of arts learning all the way through to adulthood, we need to keep evaluating arts learning itself.

To be honest, the quasi-science of ‘arts makes your brain stronger’ advocacy is becoming tired, and the vocational education slant could be dangerous. Arts educators know that arts learners are not just in our classrooms to become professional artists, just as they are not in German to become Germans, or in Biology to become biologists. In arts classrooms, children are with us to become adults who thrive in a world of uncertainty through creativity, collaboration, and criticality.

Well, at least, they should be. As I said, it’s time to descale the arts machine.

Andrew Pennay is an award-winning music teacher. He is currently undertaking doctoral studies in songwriting pedagogy at QUT. Andrew has taught in primary, secondary, and tertiary arts contexts for 25 years, and has presented to teachers and music education researchers nationally and internationally.

The brand new syllabus should let the music play

The NSW Year 7 to 10 Music syllabus is the most important in Australia. The NSW government last reviewed and renewed it in 2003, so the recent publishing of a new version, to be taught from 2026, was a once-in-a-generation opportunity,to create a world-leading syllabus embracing  latest research and drawing on the most engaging and beneficial teaching practices from around the globe. 

It fell far short.

It’s not terrible. There are some good things about it. It doesn’t prioritise one musical culture over any others, any more. The first draft, released over a year ago, still prioritised classical music. Its published Aim is as noble as in 2003, mentioning ambitions for teaching and learning music such as “active engagement”, “enjoyment”, and (this is my favourite) to “develop a lifelong sense of wonder and curiosity about and engagement with music”.

There is a definite de-centring of The Score as the “text” for music. Inthis work-ready world that feels about-time, given that the “text” for music is sound passing through time. And most musical engagement nowadays happens through streaming services, with music jammed live, produced on computers, or created and disseminated in other digital mediums.

Music syllabus: why it’s important

This syllabus matters because although NSW’s K-6 Creative Arts syllabus mandates the teaching of music, research suggests a clear majority of schools do not have the specialist-trained staff to teach it. 

Not only that, but the NSW Department of Education doesn’t even have an employment code for a “music teacher”, and the New South Wales Education Standards Authority (NESA) does not even offer a music specialism accreditation for a qualification for a primary school teacher. 

At the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, we teach primary music approaches as part of our secondary teaching qualifications, simply because we know that our students will be in demand in the primary schools that can afford them – but technically they are all accredited as secondary school teachers.

That the Government systematically makes it impossible for schools to deliver the education promised in the same authority’s syllabus is one thing. At the same time, NAPLAN pressure, the teacher shortage, and funding pressures on principals push music to the edge of the curriculum.

Music pushed to the edge

There are wonderful advocacy projects seeking to remedy this problem, such as the Richard Gill teacher mentoring program, which pairs specialist teachers up with classroom teachers to kit them out with the skills they need to teach music. But we need systemic change, government-down, to fix such a large-scale and widespread problem. 

All of this means that the chances are students arrive at high school in Year 7 having never had a class taught by a specialist music teacher – someone who actually plays, sings, writes music, arranges, gigs, leads ensembles, and all of that traditional music teacher stuff. 

But at this age, we provide it, at last. We provide at least 100 hours of specialist-led music classes, in a syllabus that has historically centred the integration of all those wonderful music experiences, labelled “performing, composing, and listening”. 

I call this the most important music syllabus in Australia simply because NSW has the most children of any state or territory. And in terms of participation, we are doing well.

The important thing is to grow love

And that’s why that “Aim” statement is so important. Classroom music at this level isn’t designed to produce the next Yehudi Menuin or Taylor Swift. We’re not trying to produce classrooms full of professional composers and performers – as I say to my trainee-teachers, wouldn’t it be awful if you called a plumber to fix your leaking shower and all they did was sing you a song about it? The aim of this short experience in music is to grow the love children already have for music, which according to a recent UK report is the most important thing in their lives, equalled only by video gaming.

This music education experience is to nurture that inherent love that they bring, and then open their ears and eyes to other musical cultures. It’s to give them enough of a taste in music that they think they can, and maybe they’ll do a few more years in music, or maybe later they’ll join a band, or a choir, or produce some dope beats on their laptop.

The intrinsic and the extrinsic

There is already wonderful advocacy work pushing the extrinsic benefits of learning music, especially in Australia by Anita Collins and the crew at the Albert’s/The Tony Foundation. While I do want your principal to know that there is correlation between learning music and doing well in all kinds of other subjects at school, I rather feel that I’m not going to push teaching music to make kids’ maths better until maths teachers are pushing maths to make their music better.

Music is important. So what’s wrong with the new syllabus?

I’ll explain the main shortfalls here quickly, because it’s too easy to get stuck in the detail. I’ll get into that on my own blog and podcast over the coming month, if you’re interested in finding out more.

The crowded curriculum is very real

And yet for some reason, NESA thought it would be great to give teachers 56 Content Points to check off in the new syllabus (and another 57 points in years 9 and 10). That’s one tick to be assessed every 1 hour and 47 minutes in a 100-hour course.

Music teachers are experts at teaching music. The same syllabus pared down the assessable Outcomes to just 3, only to shoot itself in the foot with pages of bullet points to be covered. And 19 of 22 content points focus on what NYU Professor Emeritus David Elliott and Monclair State’s Professor Marissa Silverman call “verbal knowledge”, knowledge about music not making music, 

A step back from praxial music-making

One of the main problems my colleagues and I have written about in classroom music education in NSW is the segregation of “prac and theory”. In other words, music teachers can be tempted to draw on other subjects in the curriculum which have discrete theory components and practical skills to learn. Being an embodied skill, music-making is best learned by making music. If you’ve ever learned a musical instrument, you know this instinctively. 

This was encouraged in the 2003 syllabus with a statement that learning experiences should be integrated. The new syllabus calls those learning experiences “focus areas”, which suggests they should be learned on their own (i.e. in focus), and it also removes the integration language. The result, combined with 56 Content Points to be checked off, is going to be a lot more worksheet rote learning, instead of musical learning, in our classrooms. This will be off-putting for children.

Adopt and adapt is mainly adapt and ignore

The Australian Curriculum’s music syllabus for this age range is not a perfect document, but it is one that is regularly reviewed and updated to meet feedback and research. 

The NSW government have an “adopt and adapt” approach to the Australian Curriculum, but this document does very little adopting. Some terminology has been used, but it is used in such a piecemeal and inconsistent manner that it is not compatible. This has two disadvantages for Australian teachers and their students: first, resources created for teaching music in other states and territories who have more consistently adopted the Australian Curriculum will have to be “translated” to make sense in NSW. Second, teachers (and publishers) making resources here in NSW will not have reach into the rest of the country.

Which brings us full circle

What a ground-breaking syllabus would look like is probably the topic for another blog, but this certainly isn’t one. It is a syllabus with some great statements, a few improvements, and a whole lot of compromise and busywork for teachers.

That it took 21 years for us to review and refresh (this poorly) the last syllabus, which for its time was quite progressive, is the fault of successive governments of both major parties. NSW promises its citizens that their children will get a music education, with all the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits that that brings, and then fails to deliver for most children in primary schools, and keeps the brakes on the experience in this important window in high school. Other states and territories review their syllabi every three to five years.  We deserve better, our children deserve better, and if we could just commit to that kind of work, with a much more transparent writing process, we could inch our way there.

Let’s just hope it’s not another 21 years.

James Humberstone is a senior lecturer in music education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, The University of Sydney. He specialises in teaching music pedagogies, technology in music education, and musical creativities. James publishes traditional research focusing on music teacher worldview, technology and media in music education, and artistic practice as research. He is also a composer and producer whose music is performed in major venues around the world. His intercultural work with poet and rapper Luka Lesson, “Agapi and other kinds of love”, is currently touring Australia.

Music ed isn’t a luxury. All of our children should be learning music

Learning music can increase thinking skills, enrich strategies for learning and creativity, and enhance connections across subjects. We keep discovering more reasons to foreground music education in our schools. So why haven’t state governments acted to support music education and reform?

As I see it, music education has now been in the ‘too hard basket’ for at least a generation of Australian students. We continue to suffer a malaise in long-term governmental policy direction.

Lack of funding – heads in the sand

It’s been 14 years since the 2005 National review of school music education “recommended placing a priority on improving and sustaining the quality and status of music education in schools and providing sufficient funding to support effective music education”. 

The 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into the extent, benefits and potential of music education in Victorian schools made 17 recommendations to improve music education in Victoria. A future direction of the inquiry was for the “Victorian Government needing to develop a music education strategy to ensure that all Victorian students can have the opportunity to experience a quality school music education program.” This too remains patently neglected.

The South Australian government is acting on compelling benefits by committing to a four-year strategy of investment and impact for long-term outcomes to lift music education in early-years classes, teacher upskilling and resource development in that state.

Yet, most states endure cuts to music education, and in Victoria government funding of instrumental music education has not improved in over 20 years. The number of schools and students in Australia with no instrumental music tuition available continues to increase.

Many Victorian students in government schools, along with students in other government schools around the country, do not receive a continuous, sequential and developmental music education.

When it comes to music education, there are stark differences in equity between public and private schools, and urban and rural centres nationally.

How music impacts wider domain learning

A growing body of evidence supports the developmental benefits of music learning. Findings from recent neuroscientific research have highlighted the benefits music making has on learners’ brains. It helps develop:

A recent 2019 Canadian study of over 112,000 secondary students found that students who participate in music-related activities – particularly instrumental music between years 7-12 achieved significantly higher scores on science, math, and English exams in high school than non-musical classmates.  

So parents’ growing concern with maths and science education, instead of music, may be an ill-considered approach to their child’s schooling. Responding to parental urge to encourage a maths/science or music learning, the study asserted:

the irony that music education—multiple years of high-quality instrumental learning and playing in a band or orchestra or singing in a choir at an advanced level—can be the very thing that improves all-around academic achievement and an ideal way to have students learn more holistically in schools.

How does music enhance learning?

  • Learning an instrument and playing in a band enhances diverse modes of thinking and cognition. Music tuition is replete with formative feedback and assessment, where teachers continually assess and give feedback during the learning process. Consistent expert demonstration, feedback and dialogue develops a powerful learning relationship that promotes self-efficacy and motivation to learn. Research behind the Australian Teachers Toolkit asserts formative assessment can advance a students’ learning by 8 months over their high school life.
  • The learning environment and teacher dynamic greatly support metacognition, where students ‘learn how to learn’. They develop reflective skills (thinking about what they have learned) and reflexive skills (responding immediately to feedback), behaviours and specific strategies for planning, monitoring and evaluating their learning to get better. Additionally, this cultivation of personal impulses and self-regulation of learning nuanced socially by band/ensemble activity can additionally advance learning by 7 months.
  • It immerses learners in authentic interdisciplinary learning by integrating languages, maths, science and other arts in a sequential, creative, reflective and purposeful learning adventure.
  • Music tuition offers a way for students to grapple with emotions and learn how to express them as they mature. They experience teamwork and an understanding of collective good and how to develop it, including goal-setting, motivation and ambition and how to attain it, and artistic creation for its intrinsic value.
  • The “neurological benefits of music education and its contribution to personal and skills development” were showcased in the ABC TV series ‘Don’t Stop the Music’. The support and development of this production was assisted by the Australian Society for Music Education (ASME), the peak body supporting music education and advocacy nationwide.
  • Further, my research on the learning processes involved in acquiring improvisational musical skills shows how effective music education develops layered metacognitive capacities for learning and creativities across individual, teacher-to-student and group/ensemble activities.

Start purposefully and early

The late Richard Gill, renowned artistic director of the Sydney Symphony education program, asserted that music holds the key to providing a quality education system. General education can be greatly enhanced by music education, but impactful and habitual learning of music needs to start early.

Most Australian primary school Initial Teacher Education (ITE) courses include an average of 28 hours of music learning ­­- this pales in comparison to training in music education in South Korea with 160 hours and Finland with 270 hours. In Finland music learning starts in kindergarten as an essential part of early childhood learning.

An increased allocation of funding together with a more equitable outreach to primary and secondary schools for instrumental music can start to turn the tide in government/private school inequity. The significance of music departments in private schools highlights their awareness to the benefits. Yet government attitudes seem to be that music, and the arts in general, are a luxury for the financially able – perpetuating a societal cognitive poverty.

Considerable research now asserts that a significant factor in improving student academic outcomes is a holistic approach to schooling where students are engaged and enjoying their learning. Music and the arts are central to such improvement and engagement with school and in wider society.

Much work needs to be done in developing innovative teaching skills and strategies in Initial Teacher Education, supporting teacher professional development, providing time in the curriculum and funding public school music programs towards sustainable and impactful music education.

 Two decades of government inaction must end. Our students – the workforces of the future deserve better.

Leon R. de Bruin is an educator, performer and researcher in music education, creativity, cognition, collaborative learning, creative pedagogies, and improvisation, and works in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. He is ASME National Vice-President and co-editor of the Brill Publication: Creativities in Arts Education, Research and Practice: International Perspectives for the Future of Learning and Teaching, and co-author of Creativity in Education in the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Education