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The future just happened: Lessons for 21st-century learning from the secondary school music classroom

Graham McPhail

Many ideas from the discourse of 21st-century learning are already present in much secondary school music teaching in New Zealand and have been for some time. The adoption of these ideas has resulted in many positive changes in students’ experiences of music at secondary school. On the other hand, there have been some unintended consequences which are potentially less positive. The changes in music education therefore may be instructive for educators in a range of subject contexts in negotiating the tensions between different understandings of knowledge and pedagogy in the shift towards 21st-century learning. A case is made for finding a balance between music education’s practical application and conceptual knowledge. There is a risk that in the drive for relevance, the subject has become less able to provide the grounding and conceptual depth necessary for access to the discipline’s generative concepts.

The future just happened: Lessons for 21st-century learning from the secondary school music classroom

Graham McPhail


Many ideas from the discourse of 21st-century learning are already present in much secondary school music teaching in New Zealand and have been for some time. The adoption of these ideas has resulted in many positive changes in students’ experiences of music at secondary school. On the other hand, there have been some unintended consequences which are potentially less positive. The changes in music education therefore may be instructive for educators in a range of subject contexts in negotiating the tensions between different understandings of knowledge and pedagogy in the shift towards 21st-century learning. A case is made for finding a balance between music education’s practical application and conceptual knowledge. There is a risk that in the drive for relevance, the subject has become less able to provide the grounding and conceptual depth necessary for access to the discipline’s generative concepts.


The reshaping of secondary school music over the past two decades has been far-reaching; arguably more so than for most subjects (McPhail, 2012). A curriculum of cultural transmission centred on classical traditions has largely given way to alternative conceptions focused on popular music and student rights of ownership in regards to curriculum content. Music teachers appear highly responsive to making the curriculum relevant for their students, and music’s applied nature has also resulted in flexible approaches to curriculum content and pedagogy (McPhail, 2013a, 2013b, 2014b). I argue that many ideas now gaining prominence from the discourse of 21st-century learning are already present in much secondary school music teaching in New Zealand and have been for some time. The adoption of these ideas has resulted in many positive changes in students’ experiences of music at secondary school. However, there have been some unintended consequences for music education which are potentially less positive (McPhail, 2013b; Wenden, 2015). The experiences of music education therefore may be instructive for educators in a range of subject contexts as they negotiate the tensions in the general move towards adopting 21st-century learning and associated pedagogical shifts.

I begin this article by outlining some of the key ideas in the 21st-century literature. I use a synthesis of this international literature written in 2012 and commissioned by the New Zealand Ministry of Education (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012). This report is used because it is described as providing “a powerful set of messages for educators at the system and school levels in New Zealand and beyond” (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. v). I then provide a brief chronology of the shift in music education from an aesthetic paradigm to a praxial one and point out the congruence of these changes with the current 21st-century literature. Finally, I consider a potentially major and less positive unintended consequence of this paradigmatic shift—lack of epistemic access. There is a risk that in the drive for relevance, the subject has become less able to provide the grounding and conceptual depth necessary for access to the discipline’s generative concepts.

Future-oriented learning and teaching: A New Zealand perspective

New Zealand’s perspective on the world-wide trends associated with 21st-century learning has been most extensively developed by scholars working for the New Zealand Council for Educational Research in a number of publications and research projects (Bolstad, 2006; 2011; 2012; Bolstad & Gilbert, 2008; Gilbert, 2005; Hipkins, 2011). Alternately known as 21st century, future-focused, or future oriented, this discourse starts from the premise that current schooling is not up to the task of preparing students for the challenges of a fast-changing, complex, globalised world. New personalised ways of learning are required to produce self-regulating, adaptable learners who can construct knowledge and approach the problems of the future with creativity and resourcefulness; education needs to be about learning how to learn.

Pedagogy is reframed, through a student-centred, “real-world”, problem-solving approach. The ideas contained in this literature have influenced the approaches of a number of new schools in New Zealand (Hipkins, 2011; McPhail, 2016) and have also begun to exert influence on teaching approaches in more traditional schools (Gilbert & Bull, 2014, 2015).

Bolstad and Gilbert’s (2012) synthesis of the literature provides a New Zealand perspective on this discourse. In many ways the perspectives in the Ministry of Education-commissioned document can be seen as a continuation and development of progressive educational ideas which have a long history in New Zealand education (Mutch, 2013). Interestingly the New Zealand document, in contrast to much of the international literature (e.g., Voogt & Roblin, 2012), proposes a new conception of knowledge for education:

Knowledge is the process of creating new knowledge. It is a product of “networks and flows” coming into being through interactions and intersections on a “just-in-time” basis to solve specific problems as they emerge. (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. 13).

I return to the question of knowledge later in the article as changing understandings of knowledge are central to my argument concerning epistemic access.

The key ideas

Bolstad and Gilbert’s report (2012) lists six key principles: (1) personalising learning, (2) equity, diversity, and inclusivity, (3) using knowledge to develop learning capacity, (4) rethinking learners’ and teachers’ roles, (5) a culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational leaders, and (6) new kinds of partnerships and relationships: schools no longer siloed from the community. I briefly outline each one below and will return to these principles later in the article to note the congruence with approaches to music education.

Personalised learning is theorised as a genuine involvement of students in decision making about their learning through a synthesis of their input (such as identifying areas for study that are personally relevant) as well as “what teachers know to be important knowledge” (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. 19). Moreover, the report suggests that personalised learning will often be realised through partnerships with the community which provide students with opportunities to experience “real-world” projects. Significantly personalising learning “calls for reversing the logic of education systems so that the system is built around the learner, rather than the learner conforming to the system” (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. 17).

The second of the six principles is equity, diversity, and inclusivity and it involves a change in conceptualisation of these issues by “not just addressing the underachievement or disengagement of particular groupings of students and communities” (p. 3) but through developing deeper links with communities and developing a more diversified sense of the markers of success than is currently the case. We see a “biographical turn” (McLean & Abbas, 2009) in statements such as “we need to take much more account of who learners are, where they come from and to what and to whom they are connected” (p. 26, italics in original). As well as this, the report suggests schools need to develop education for diversity: developing the ability in students to engage with people and ideas from diverse cultural backgrounds.

The third principle explores the notion of using knowledge to develop learning capacity. The report draws strongly on Gilbert’s (2005) notion that curriculum is currently influenced by two different epistemologies—knowledge as content and concepts and knowledge as something that does things, where students create and use knowledge. The second of these two views of knowledge is explained:

Knowledge is rapidly created every day. Knowledge is the process of creating new knowledge. It is a product of “networks and flows” coming into being through interactions and intersections on a “just-in-time” basis to solve specific problems as they emerge” (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. 13).

Bolstad and Gilbert (2012) signal the need to work at shifting underlying thinking of many educators towards this new conceptualisation of knowledge. They argue for using “high-level organising ideas” (p. 34) such as education for enterprise, sustainability, and key competencies. Just how these organising ideas can give sufficient depth for learning as compared to more traditional structures of knowledge found in the disciplines is an area for further research (McPhail, 2016; McPhail & Rata, 2016). For example, can key competencies be “taught” or do they emerge from disciplinary based learning activities? A New Zealand vision as espoused in the Bolstad and Gilbert report looks towards inter-disciplinary approaches:

[Students] need good skills in mediating, translating and moving between the different disciplines. In the Knowledge Age, this kind of systems or metalevel knowledge and the ability to move between disciplines is more important than just knowing the detailed facts of those disciplines. (p. 36)

I later draw on these and other ideas about knowledge, in particular the sociological concept of knowledge differentiation—the idea that different sorts of knowledge have different powers (Muller, 2006)—as a counter-argument to this conception of knowledge as a process fostered by themes and competencies rather than disciplinary concepts: in essence, de-differentiated.

Pedagogy and the roles of teachers and learners is the focus of the fourth principle. If the change in conceptualisation of knowledge in the third principle is accepted, then the role of teachers must shift from that of transmitter of knowledge and the students’ role must move from passive to active. Students and teachers will work in partnership as co-constructors of knowledge: “This is not about teachers ceding all the power and responsibility to students, or students and teachers being ‘equal’ as learners” (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2012, p. 42). Rather the report draws on the work of Bereiter (2002) to suggest “knowledge building” as a metaphor for the type of approach for 21st-century learning.

The fifth principle concerns a development of a culture of continuous learning for teachers and educational leaders. The report suggests that there will need to be some investment in convincing teachers of the potential for learning transformation offered by 21st-century approaches. Teachers will “need to know more in terms of their disciplines, not less, but this knowledge needs to be more focussed at the systems-level in order to support students to learn in more open-ended knowledge-building ways” (p. 46). Teachers will also need to model individual learning dispositions for their students and in turn their development will need to encouraged by “future-oriented educational leadership” (p. 48).

The final principle looks to partnerships and relationships to alleviate the problem of schools siloed from the community. Change towards 21st-century learning goals, the report argues, is not likely to succeed unless there is community buy-in. Personalised learning will be realised through partnerships with the community which provide students with opportunities to experience authentic “real-world” projects that are of interest to them.

Having introduced these key ideas from this perspective on 21st-century learning articulated by Bolstad and Gilbert (2012), I now provide a brief overview of the ideas that have underpinned classroom music teaching since the late 20th century. The trends in music education from the 1990s onwards anticipated those suggested by the literature on 21st-century learning, in particular a shift in the conception of music knowledge from object to process. Given that music teachers have been experimenting with these ideas since the 1990s, the case of music education may be instructive in considering the general move towards 21st-century learning approaches in other subjects, particularly in relation to the nature of pedagogical shifts and what constitutes important or valuable knowledge and knowing.

The music curriculum

Music as a knowledge object

In the early part of the 20th century, the dominant ideology for music education in New Zealand was imported from the United Kingdom and was described in terms of music’s potential to promote certain socialisation and citizenship values such as “the profitable use of leisure time, and [the] development of sensitivity and imagination” (Pitts, 2000, p. 34). The intention was to achieve this by exposing students to the “good” music of the great composers. Classical and folk music were seen as having a civilising influence on people; certain music could act as a moral force. A more specialised music curriculum developed after World War 2 in which the academic practices and traditions of Western high art music provided the basis for music instruction, particularly for senior students when music became a New Zealand School Certificate subject in 1945 (Thwaites, 1998). Reflecting the emphasis in the international fields of production at this time, university music departments, music in the school curriculum was focused on the Western canon—as a series of works to be analysed and reified for their aesthetic and historical significance.

In the 1960s, a second wave of progressivism began to influence educational thinking and action (Bernstein, 2000; Mutch, 2013) and music was caught up in a general move away from a focus on a particular body of content knowledge towards an interest in the creative capabilities of the student, particularly in the pre-secondary years. This was often achieved through creative group work where students were encouraged to play, improvise, and compose music. At the same time as this period of progressivism, a group of music educators in North America turned to philosophy, and aesthetics in particular, to develop a deeper justification for music’s place in the school curriculum rather than its utilitarian value or transfer effects (McCarthy & Goble, 2005). This approach encouraged teachers to consider the value inherent in music itself, and the possibility of aesthetic development primarily through directed listening. This approach became known as “music education as aesthetic education” (MEAE) and it emphasised the formal, qualitative, and supposedly universal aspects of musical works (Elliott, 1995). The essence of this approach was “the development of sensitivity to the aesthetic qualities of things” (Reimer, 1972, p. 29). Readers may recall the Silver-Burdett series of music textbooks prominent in New Zealand schools in the 1970s and 1980s edited by Reimer.

The postmodern turn: Music education as praxis

Sloboda (2001) has noted that the relationship between the “meaning of music” and its realisation within education requires “an implicit agreement between stakeholders … about what it [music education] is for (Sloboda, 2001, p. 243). In the 1980s, this agreement began to break down and in opposition to MEAE, postmodern views of music education emerged that attempted to “accommodate the values and paradigms of contemporary thinking in critical theory, psychology, sociology, ethnomusicology, and cultural theory” (McCarthy & Goble, p. 38). As well as these influences, changes in society generally, such as advances in technology, culturalism, and globalisation, exerted pressure on school music to broaden its horizons. Popular and non-Western music entered the curriculum and challenged the hegemony of classical music and its associated pedagogies (McPhail, 2012, 2013a, 2013b).

This paradigm shift in music education was most potently symbolised by the publication of David Elliott’s Music Matters in 1995 followed by Jorgensen’s In Search of Music Education (1997) and Small’s Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening (1998). Elliott’s book was influential in encouraging practitioners to re-think music education as a form of praxis, centred on procedural knowing in music rather learning about music. In this view, music is conceived as action grounded in a sociocultural context rather than as an abstract, intellectual, or aesthetic experience focused on existing works of music. Elliott (1995) and other postmodernist music education writers, such as Regelski (2004) and Westbury (2002), argue for the importance of the local; situated musical “truths”, expressed within distinct musical practices, replacing modernism’s concern with musical universals. Within the curriculum this translates into an exploration of music as a series of diverse problem-solving practicums based on “real-world” personally meaningful musical problems (Elliott, 1995). Here we see congruence with the perspective of 21st-century learning ideas, as music learning shifted its focus from objects to processes; processes made relevant for students through development of knowledge application in varied practices (pop, classical, jazz, and world music) along with students playing their own instruments and composing in their own style. This provides an equitable, diverse approach based on real practices (performing, composing, using music software), working most often in groups (knowledge being socially produced) with teachers working with students in the role of a coach (challenging traditional teacher–pupil roles). Students’ learning capacity is enhanced in varied ways and students are certainly not spectators but involved in “education as a knowledge-building and an identity-building activity” (Gilbert, 2005, p. 202).

But wait, there’s more: Informal learning in music classrooms

Further ground-breaking educational ideas have been put into practice in music classes around the world as a result of the work of Lucy Green and her associates in the Musical Futures programme first developed in the United Kingdom ( and based on Green’s two seminal research projects and her subsequent books How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education (2002) and Music, Informal Learning and the School: A New Classroom Pedagogy (2008). The Musical Futures project (Hallam, Creech, & McQueen, 2011) realises calls for relevance and empowerment in music education by undertaking a radical form of curriculum and pedagogy using the learning practices of popular musicians (Green, 2002) within the school context. Green (2008, p. 10) identifies five underlying principles in the Musical Futures programme:

student choice in selection of initial learning material

learning by ear rather than reading music

learning and self-teaching instruments in friendship groups

no pre-determined sequence of skill development within tasks (learning may appear unstructured and haphazard as students essentially teach themselves the instruments and songs)

integration of listening, performing, improvising and composing into holistic student directed activities.

We can see some commonality with the principles of 21st-century learning in that there are high levels of student autonomy both in regards to curriculum content (they choose their songs) and in pedagogy (they work together in friendship groups to explore how to use the instruments, calling on teachers only as they need them). In this sense students are creating knowledge themselves, which resonates with the notion of knowledge as a product of the networks and flows that help people solve problems. The “problem” (or project) in this case is the recognisable reproduction of a song for a class performance. Reflecting the 21st-century learning principles (in italics), the learning is (1) highly personalised through genuine involvement of students in decision making about their learning through a synthesis of their input in a “real world” project, (2) inclusive and equitable (music chosen by students and leant by trying new instruments and playing by ear creates a relatively level entry point for all students), (3) uses co-constructed knowledge to develop learning capacity, and (4) rethinks learners’ and teachers’ roles. These are four of the key principles of future-focused learning that are identified in the Bolstad and Gilbert report (2012) for the Ministry of Education. The fifth and final principle, connecting with communities, is realised internationally in a Musical Futures programme where community musicians visit the school to encourage performance and composition knowledge not necessarily available in the school and to connect students with art worlds in the wider community. This community engagement occurs in New Zealand schools through the New Zealand Music Commission Musicians Mentoring Scheme ( and other community music organisations that have education outreach programmes.

In New Zealand, there has not been a dedicated curriculum-based programme such as Musical Futures, but the inclusion of students’ personal music choices within the senior school assessment systems (in performance and group song writing, in particular) has meant more authentic practices associated with popular music have by design and default found their way into the classroom (McPhail, 2014b). Music teachers have been working with differentiated project-style programmes (often smaller senior classes make this easier to achieve) and group assessment for many years, aided by the choice provided by NCEA achievement standards (Thorpe, 2015) and choice within those standards in relation to student interest or pre-existing skill. Teachers also choose works of music for study that will connect with student interest.

There is, though, a dilemma in relation to the balance teachers need to find between student choice in curriculum content and providing access to foundational and generative concepts that underpin the discipline. In music’s case, for example, knowledge of harmony is a key generative concept for music of Máori, Pasifika, and Western musical styles but if theoretical knowledge is provided superficially, or not at all, then this is a form of instrumentality that is likely to be limiting for students as their understanding remains context-bound. As Wheelahan suggests in relation to education more generally, we may be selling students short where “the principle for curricular recontextualisation is instrumentalism and relevance, not systematic access to structures of knowledge” (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 104). In other words, “a focus on ‘knowledge in use’ may result in students being given access to contextually specific applications of disciplinary knowledge but not the system of meaning in which it is embedded and made meaningful” (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 119).

It would appear that Green’s work may hold the key to solving this dilemma between providing access to both knowledge “in use” and its theoretical forms. The inclusion of informal learning practices is a means to increased participation and motivation that ideally would lead to further music education possibilities for students. However, as Green herself points out, “if school pupils were to follow the [Musical Futures] project and nothing else, they would be likely to miss out on what most people would agree are some essential aspects of the music curriculum” (Green, 2008, p. 182). Those “essential aspects” are music’s generative, theoretical concepts such as harmony.

Music has engaged more learners in the secondary school through its democratisation over the past 20 years through a shift from knowledge to knower: the drive to include student experience and perspectives within academic study and therefore connect disciplinarity more directly with students’ individual lives. This is often achieved through approaches to curriculum content which emphasise the experiences and social knowledge of learners in an attempt to bridge the gap between the realms of everyday and academic knowledge (Bernstein, 2000). There is an argument that this de-differentiation of knowledge (Muller, 2006) is important as a pedagogical tool for engaging with disciplinary concepts, but will be deficient if it is used as the source of content for the curriculum. Knowledge de-differentiation (essentially regarding all knowledge as equal) is grounded in the idea of knowledge relativism, a clearly disputed theory which creates problems of epistemic access from well-intentioned moral aims (Clark, 2004; Davson-Galle, 1999; Matthews, 2000; Nola, 1997; Small, 2003; Young, 2008a, 2008b). Widening access through the de-differentiation of knowledge may not necessarily lead to increased epistemic access (Moore, 2014; Rata, 2011, 2014). I elaborate on these ideas in the following section which considers unintended consequences.

Positive outcomes and unintended consequences

So what insights might the shifts theorised and experienced in music education offer the developing agenda of 21st-century learning? I return to the six key principles of the Bolstad and Gilbert report (2012) to summarise my arguments relating to positive outcomes and unintended consequences associated with the shift towards the type of curriculum espoused in the New Zealand perspective on 21st-century learning: one that is personalised, inclusive, puts knowledge to use, and encourages teachers to re-think traditional pedagogical roles and models of practice.

In terms of personalised learning (Principle 1) music students are generally offered genuine and authentic choices for curricular inclusion in much of the music curriculum (McPhail 2013b, 2014a). Through performing on their chosen instrument, exploring their chosen style for composition and arranging, and their choice of topic for research, there is a high level of learning that is driven by student personal interest. This is largely the result of the reforms in assessment systems for the National Certificate of Educational Achievement in which choice is both a strength and a possible weakness. I suggest that these changes are positive ones. The curriculum and pedagogies draw on learners’ interests, prior knowledge, and musical strengths to support achievement (McPhail, 2014a).

In terms of equity, diversity, and inclusivity (Principle 2) the music curriculum provides, at least theoretically, a level playing field for stylistic and cultural inclusion and the potential for culturally responsive pedagogies. Students can achieve national assessment credits studying and playing Bach on the violin, singing a waiata, beat boxing, or live looping. There remains, however, an underlying discourse concerning the importance of theoretical knowledge, particularly the harmonic language of Western tonality that some teachers regard as significant and others as a remnant from the colonial past. Nevertheless, students and teachers can choose not to engage with standards they perceive as culturally or epistemically irrelevant or too difficult. This freedom of choice, apparently opening up access and ensuring relevance, can have the unintended consequences particularly for those students who decide to progress to tertiary study (Moore, 2014). In a recent survey of university music students studying at the University of Auckland School of Music (McPhail, in press), from a sample of 44 only two students said school music had prepared them very well for university study. Thirty-nine percent said quite well, 46 percent said not well, and 11 percent said not at all well. On the other hand, school music may well be preparing students well for life-long involvement with and enjoyment of music.

Another positive outcome relates to the changes in music teaching content and pedagogy over the past 20 years that have required music teachers to become flexible and adaptable and to see teaching as a continual form of learning and enquiry (Principle 5). As curriculum constructors in a non-prescriptive environment, music teachers continually search for ways to find a balance between various approaches to teaching and varied content (McPhail, 2014b) and the role of the teacher and learner (Principle 4) in the music classroom is often a varied one. On occasions students will be more knowledgeable than teaches about their “taste-community” or about their software of choice. Teachers will act as coaches in music performance and “guides on the side” for composition and research but ideally from a secure conceptual knowledge-base (Muller, 2006). These are also positive changes, particularly for pedagogy where teachers create classroom environments that are welcoming of diversity.

There are, though, some potential tensions and unintended consequences where conceptual knowledge becomes sidelined in favour of context-bound applications. For example, where students and teachers opt to study only areas of music knowledge that appear relevant and accessible, students may find themselves ill-equipped for further study or even to take part in conversations about music in the wider world (McPhail, 2014b; Moore, 2014). For deep systems-level understanding and application of knowledge, using knowledge to develop learning capacity (Principle 3), music’s story suggests we do need to retain some theoretical knowledge: a sense of knowledge as a realm of “objects” and “theories” that students need to come to know (Popper, 1978; Bereiter, 2002) to assist them in becoming more cognisant users and creators of knowledge.

A case for curriculum grounded in concepts

To mitigate the potential for the curriculum to become empty of theoretical content, I depart from the theory of knowledge suggested by the Bolstad & Gilbert report (2012) and which derives from the work of Gilbert (2005), and instead I argue for a theory of knowledge that is grounded in the world of concepts (Popper, 1978). Learning to do something with theories and concepts (Principle 3) is a vital part of coming to understand them more deeply and in this regard I am in agreement with Gilbert (2005) that knowledge and its use need to be more closely drawn together, but I do not regard putting knowledge to use requires its redefinition in the way argued by Gilbert (2005) and Bolstad & Gilbert (2012). It is possible to “use” knowledge or do something with it without an understanding of the underlying conceptual system of meaning from which that knowledge is derived (for example, play the guitar with no knowledge of chords or harmony, or boil an egg with no knowledge of chemistry—see, so I suggest that a key warning from music education’s experiences is the risk of widening the potential for increased participation but not necessarily for epistemic access (Feichas, 2010; Moore, 2014; Taylor, 2014; McPhail, in press). Of course, students may be perfectly happy with this outcome. However, my main point here is that the school has a particular responsibility to provide access to this type of conceptual knowledge. If we accept this shift away from conceptual knowledge, which is well evidenced in the literature (Young, 2008a, 2008b; Wheelahan, 2010) as the default position, then this marks an underlying deep change in education; a move from liberal humanism to instrumentalism (Currie & Vidovich, 2009; Wheelahan, 2010).

I return here to the concept of knowledge differentiation as a means to consider the unintended outcome of undermining conceptual and theoretical fluency as a result of the shift to a practice in a predominantly skills-based curriculum. Young (2009) elaborates two types of knowledge into the conceptual categories context-dependent and context-independent that further assists us in seeing the potential importance of this differentiation, particularly in relation to the purposes of schooling. Context-dependent knowledge helps us solve specific problems in everyday life: “it tells the individual how to do specific things. It does not explain or generalize: it deals with particulars” (p. 111). Context-independent knowledge, on the other hand, “is developed to provide generalizations … it provides a basis for making judgements” (p. 111).

Young (2008a, 2008b, 2009, 2010) and Young and Muller (2010, 2013) argue that it is the special function of the school to provide access for all students to context-independent knowledge (conceptual knowledge) which is normally not found in the everyday world. They refer to this knowledge as “powerful knowledge” in that it has the potential to enable students to think about the world in new ways. If we give away context-independent knowledge in favour of experiential knowledge or everyday knowledge, then we have, I suggest, made a major philosophical and political manoeuvre. In the case of music, recalibrating the curriculum as conceptually grounded would see teachers developing students’ musical knowledge and skills through encounters with concepts such as tonality, structure, texture, looping, remixing, and so on. Many different forms of content may be chosen and used by teachers to exemplify the major generative concepts. This is not a return to a traditional curriculum grounded in the western musical tradition but one grounded in the powerful world of concepts (Popper, 1978). In keeping with recent approaches in musicology, we can regard many concepts as cross-cultural and not restricted to a particular paradigm (e.g., Western art music); they may be exemplified by music from different styles and cultures (Hijleh, 2012). The point is, musical development is underpinned by explicit development of conceptual knowledge and the language that is required for that conceptualising. That is the “value” that the school can add to practical experience and students’ prior knowledge.

If we accept the argument that we derive curricular content from conceptual theories that assist us with explaining and understanding the world (Popper, 1978), then we are left with three central questions: (1) what are the most important concepts to include in the curriculum? (2) what is the best content to exemplify and elaborate those concepts? and (3) what are the most engaging pedagogies to enable student access to this often difficult but powerful knowledge; to understand it by using it and making it their own?


The narrative of music education provided here illustrates the shift away from the secondary school music curriculum as a collection of facts and canonical works that should be taught towards a highly socialised conception where the students’ interests and world views are recognised in a co-constructed curriculum (McPhail, 2013a). I have suggested that most of the changes have been positive. I have also argued that the changes foreshadowed much of the discourse now so prominent in the literature on 21st-century learning and I used a New Zealand perspective to illustrate the congruence of these ideas between music education and 21st-century learning. Music’s very nature as a subject lends itself well to the personalised and procedural learning approaches that are foregrounded in the 21st-century literature. Among the unintended and less positive outcomes, I have highlighted the concept of the de-differentiation of knowledge which is also prominent in the 21st-century learning discourse. This, I have argued, has the danger of underemphasising the importance of conceptual development for students. While there are strong social and ethical drivers for knowledge equivalence or knowledge de-differentiation in education, there are also strong epistemological arguments that can be raised against it.

To conclude, three quotations from Dewey (1997/1938) are apposite here to support my argument concerning the importance of conceptual knowledge. The quotations highlight the danger of equating experience as normatively educative, and indicate that education is a means to move beyond experience, to guide learners towards understanding and using generative conceptual systems of meaning so they can make sense of the world:

The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean all experiences are genuinely or equally educative … for some experiences are mis-educative. Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience. (p. 25)

But finding the material for learning within experience is only the first step. The next step is the progressive development of what is already experienced into a fuller and richer and also more organised form, a form that gradually approximates that in which subject-matter is presented to the skilled, mature person. (p. 73)

It goes without saying that the organized subject-matter of the adult world and the specialist cannot be the starting point. Nevertheless, it represents the goal toward which education should continuously move. (p. 83)

Schooling for the 21st century needs to look for new pedagogies to engage students and bring knowledge use to the fore, but it may be a mistake to consider that disciplinary systems of knowledge and their powerful concepts should be overshadowed by the foregrounding of knowledge as process, learners’ experiences, and an over-concern with key competencies. The example of music suggests that these dispositions emerge from enabling pedagogies but, most importantly, from a strong epistemic centre. Other subjects may find music’s case instructive as teachers continue to search for a balance between a curriculum that engages students with its relevance but also enables their intellectual development through encounters with the world of concepts.


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The author

Graham McPhail is a senior lecturer in music education in the School of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the Faculty of Education, the University of Auckland. Graham taught secondary school music for 21 years and worked for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority as the national moderator for NCEA music. His current research is focused on curriculum design. He has published in the International Journal of Music Education, Research Studies in Music Education, the British Journal of Music Education, the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, Curriculum Matters, the British Journal of Sociology of Education, and the British Educational Research Journal.