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Music and Education: a Constructive Approach

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

In the Alaska College of Education, constructivism is a buzzword. The thinking is that knowledge is not transferred from a teacher to a student, but rather constructed by students based on their own experiences and guidance from a teacher. For those of us who grew up in a “sit and git” school, this takes some getting used to.

Take me, for instance: I did quite well at memorization. I actually enjoyed trying to make sense of school subjects on my own, even though I didn’t always let on. Now, halfway through a Master of Arts in Teaching, I’m seeing the value of treating knowledge as something inherently personal for all kids.

Constructing knowledge requires creativity, both from the teacher and from the student. Teachers have to be creative when designing experiences that motivate and facilitate learning for their particular students. Without teacher creativity, lessons don’t fit the learning context very well. For their part, students need to get creative when they try to fit what they’re learning into what they already know. Sometimes, they have to restructure what they thought they knew to fit what they’re learning, and that takes even more creativity. But what they’re creating isn’t always visible. It’s knowledge and understanding…which is another way of saying that learning is constructivist.

It’s easy to see that if Alaskan teachers are going to make good on their degrees, they’ll need practice being creative. Likewise, if students are to really learn, not just memorize, they’ll need creative practice too. Without creative practice, the multiplication tables and grammar rules they memorize will be useless, because they won’t know how or when to use them. If we hope our young people will be ready for college or jobs when they graduate, then we should make sure they get the opportunity to be creative, both in school and outside of it.

Another word you’ll hear a lot in the AKCOE is closely related: social constructivism. It is what you think it is—building knowledge together. The idea is quite old, really, although not always put to use in schools. Quite simply, learning environments are more effective when kids collaborate and help one another.

This may seem obvious, but kids don’t always do work together, and teachers don’t always let them. In fact, kids have to learn how to get along with one another, and teachers can help by telling kids how to do and say some things that make it easier. But like with knowledge about things, knowledge of how to do things is only useful when students construct it. For example, it’s hard to learn to ride a bike by reading an instruction manual.

So, kids need practice working together and being creative in order to learn and grow into productive adults. Music would be a great start. It can be collaborative and creative, and it engages people of all ages in a way little else can. Without the skills that creative practices like music provide, our students won’t be able to use the information they gain in school, and teachers won’t be able to give it to them in a way that makes sense. All the work they do in K-12 will become nothing more than answers on forgotten worksheets.

Just as importantly, music connects us with one another in ways that aren’t measured by tests, job applications, college essays. We need that connection. Alaska is wonderfully diverse and has the opportunity to set an example of what a harmonious society could look like. When we get there, music will also be a representation of who we are together.

Contributed by Michael Dickerson, composer, writer, and editor based in Anchorage, AK

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