Austin Showen is a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant in music education at Arizona State University. Prior to coming to ASU, Austin taught elementary general and choral music in West Virginia. Austin is interested in music education inquiry that is informed by poststructuralism and contemporary critical theories, particularly in the context of Kodály and Orff pedagogy in elementary general music. In addition, Austin hopes to explore how critical pedagogies might be reconceptualized and enacted in elementary music classrooms. Austin received his Master of Music in Music Education with Kodály certification from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio and his Bachelor of Music Education from Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Problematizing Discourses of Development and Modern Constructions of Childhood in Elementary Music Curricula
In this paper, I engage in a critical reading of elementary music curricula to problematize discourses of development and apparent constructions of childhood based on the modern Subject. Drawing on the poststructuralist work of Glenda MacNaughton (2005) and Guoping Zhao (2011), I explore how developmental discourses of children unfold in elementary general music curricular texts and how those discourses might be challenged through close examination and alternative theoretical frameworks. Ultimately, I propose ways of approaching elementary music curricula that better account for cultural context and differences among children.
Modern conceptions of teaching, coinciding with an emerging belief in the rational autonomous Subject, have been predicated on the notion that learning should proceed from the simple to the complex (Rousseau, Pestalozzi). Guoping Zhao (2011) highlights a common construction of childhood that posits children as “lacking, but with natural unfolding potential for, rational power” (p. 245). This particular construct is played out in curricular sequencing, or “unfolding,” of musical elements, concepts, and skills from simple to complex, which then “prepares” students to understand music in a predetermined manner. Modern conceptions of childhood—and their concomitant conceptions of children’s cognitive capacities—undergird elementary music curricula, devaluing musical ways of knowing and being particular to children and leaving little room for an appreciation of the complexity of children’s knowledges and experiences.
Such a construction of childhood is also at work in discourses of child development. Glenda MacNaughton (2005) uses poststructuralist tools from Foucault and Derrida to examine problematic assumptions of the Child rooted in modern constructions of childhood, investigating how discourses of development present problems, including racism, heterosexism, and classism, for educators working with young children. In her discussion of poststructural approaches to truth, MacNaughton concludes that “if developmental psychology is partial, situated, local knowledge, then it cannot be applicable to all children at all times” (p. 18). MacNaughton details how educators might use theoretical tools to contest developmental discourses—what she terms becoming “poststructurally reflective” (p. 13). She shares the accounts of several early childhood educators who utilize poststructural theories to reflect critically on their classroom practices and curricula. In each case, the educators emphasize the importance of understanding cultural contexts in each situation and attunement to differences.
Much like the early childhood classrooms MacNaughton investigated, curricular approaches to elementary music education that claim to follow developmentally appropriate practices, such as Kodály or Gordon, can be viewed as deeply rooted in the same modern constructions of childhood and discourses of development. These curricula sequence tasks and concepts, “levelled” by degree of perceived difficulty, students’ “readiness” for the concept, and their supposed appropriateness for particular ages of children. Although they may prove useful to music educators, they may also unnecessarily limit children’s musical experiences and ignore socio-cultural differences among diverse populations of children.
In Kodaly Method I (1999), Lois Choksy details specific musical elements, skills, and concepts that should be introduced based upon grade level and age. With each set of concepts addressed, a list of recommended folk song repertoire is included based upon each song’s melodic, metric, and rhythmic content. This textbook is often held as a universal standard for
North American elementary general music education among Kodály educators. Choksy’s text, however, universalizes musical elements, concepts, skills (i.e. musical development) that are culturally bounded to the repertoire represented in it, which are predominantly songs of Anglo- American origin. Although music educators may use this curricular text differently in their particular classroom contexts, the musics and musical experiences included in it are not representative of the cultural and musical diversity of North American schoolchildren and does not account for socio-cultural differences in children’s musical understandings and experiences.
Through a critical examination of constructions of childhood and developmental discourses present in elementary general music curricular texts (such as Choksy’s), I explore how music educators might approach curricular texts through a “poststructurally relfective” lens. Through this process, I investigate what knowledges and ways of being musical in the world may be marginalized or excluded in the guise of developmentally appropriate practices. As MacNaughton cautions, “classrooms are replete with texts and their meanings” (p. 58). A poststructurally reflective lens allows music educators to approach curricula in a manner that reorients them toward cultural inclusivity and openness to diverse musicking and musical understandings.