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A world in change – could and should music educational thinking also change?

This blog considers the change that systems thinking can evoke in music educational thinking. These considerations are reflected against a dual meaning choir practice.

Text: Johanna Lehtinen-Schnabel

We are living in a world of rapid and unpredictable changes. After we had hardly managed the corona pandemic the next crisis, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, escalated, starting a series of interrelated events such as immigration flows and a growing food and energy crises, among others. When trying to perceive the reasons for, as well as the implications and future scenarios of these and other changes of the world, we need–in line with systems thinking (Meadows, 2009)–a broader understanding of historical and emerging event chains, of complex structures, and of patterns of behavior where both the human and nonhuman world are interconnected. But what does change mean for music education?

About systems thinking

Systems thinking pushes us to think in more comprehensive ways to become aware of how our everyday micro actions are linked to much broader macro-level phenomena, such as inequality or environmental warming. Organizational researcher Peter Senge suggests that systems thinking encourages us to “look beyond events and superficial fixes to see deeper structures and forces” (Senge et. al, 2019, p. 234) we are involved in, dependent on, and part of through our daily life. This blog takes the systems perspective to approach change in music education by asking: what are the opportunities of music education to face and reflect the challenges of the world-in-change, in other words, the changes that come from outside of the professional musical sphere?

Musical vs. non-musical

It is possible to consider the dynamics of change through a multiplicity of perspectives such as inter-, multi-, trans- and cross-disciplinary approaches, even un-disciplinarity is an option (van der Leeuw, 2020, p. 23). Here systems thinking, however, poses a big challenge for musical thinking that is quite discipline-focused and draws on the tradition of music’s autonomy. In contrast to many other art fields such as fine arts and theater, where integrating out-of-the-box aspects as well as interdisciplinary approaches are seen as a source of inspiration that engenders novel insights, musical thinking still maintains an ambiguous relationship to practices that aim at non-musical ends. Non-musical aspects of musical activity easily raise the threat of instrumentalizing music in relation to its purely musical purposes. This kind of dichotomous thinking, unfortunately, reinforces the boundaries around musical thinking, being opposite to the systems perspective which advocates diversity and multi-perspective views.

Against silo thinking

By looking at musical practice through systems thinking–in this case through activity system models (Engström, 1999, 2001)–I have tried to approach the change that emerges “when old practices fail to connect with current purposes and intentions” (Edwards, 2012, p. 13). In the activity system model, a need for change appears when a tension or a contradiction in the relationships between the diverse elements of the system emerge. One example is a choir that consists of cultural and linguistic diversity and that strives to reflect the direct social needs and wishes of the choir participants. In this this case, a dual purpose is established for the choir: to create meaningful musical experiences for the choir participants, whilst at the same time supporting their second language (L2, Finnish) use. The dual purpose, however, causes multiple tensions and contradictions between the elements of the activity system, manifesting a need for change in different ways. For example, there appears a need for change in the norms and principles of choir practice that aims to intertwine music and L2-language production. The dual meaning also conveys change at the professional level by a need to expand the responsibilities and tasks of the choir conductor. Finally, the dual meaning choir practice highlights an equal and reciprocal approach to both music and language education (without hierarchies), addressing the need for blurring silo thinking in and between disciplines.

“For the good of the whole”

Changes coming from outside of the musical and music professional sphere can evoke a need for change in musical and music educational thinking and acting. In my example, the choir reflects the changing social and global situations and the subsequent new needs of choristers. This means that the accustomed habits and established norms and principles underpinning the musical practice become challenged by questions like: Are music professionals willing to expand our thinking when it means to step out of our safe professional musical (one-discipline) sphere? How much does “the threat of instrumentalizing music” inhibit novel musical practices from emerging? Highlighting a multi-perspective approach, systems thinking confronts music professionals to look at the world-in-change in ways that reach for “the good of the whole” (Meadows 2009, p. 184), not just our own discipline’s good. This also contributes to seeing the value of music and music education through a holistic approach (e.g., Westerlund, 2008) without needing to separate it into intrinsic (musical) and instrumental (non-musical) values.

Key references

Edwards, A. (2010). Being an Expert Professional Practitioner: The relational turn in expertise. Springer.

Engeström, Y. (1999). Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, & R.-L. Punamäki (Eds.), Perspectives on activity theory (pp. 19-38). Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive Learning at Work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133-156.

Meadows, D. H. (2009). Thinking in systems: A primer. Earthscan.

Senge, Peter, et al. (2011). Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organisations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (pp. 234-307). Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Van der Leeuw (2020). Social Sustainability, Past and Future: Undoing Unintended Consequences for the Earth’s Survival. Cambridge.

Westerlund, H. (2008). Justifying music education. A view from here-and-now value experience. Philosophy of Music Education Research, 16(1), 79-95.

Johanna Lehtinen-Schnabel is a choir conductor and a doctoral researcher at the MuTri Doctoral and Research Unit (music education), Sibelius Academy of University of the Arts Helsinki.

Music Education AMP

The purpose of this blog is to serve as an amplifier for critical statements and openings for discussion in the field of music education. The blog publishes texts in Finnish, Swedish and English. The writers are students, teachers and researchers in the music education degree programme and MuTri doctoral school.

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