Music Education – what comes first…philosophy or technology?

What do three Sydney schools with hugely different approaches to technology integration have in common? This is one aspect of the of what the first section of University of Sydney’s MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) The Place of Music in 21st Century Education investigates. It reviewed three very different Sydney schools, two independents and one public school on their approach to technology and philosophy of learning. James Humberstone (Sydney Conservatorium of Music) spoke with Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) High School in Terry Hills, Kamaroi Rudolf Steiner Primary School in Belrose and Hilltop Rd Primary Public School in Merrylands in Sydneys West.  

On the surface they might appear very different. NBCS has technology integrated at every touchpoint through BYOD and specific music technology in class. Kamaroi integrates the arts and music into every aspect of learning with very limited use of screen technology until later years, while Hilltop Rd sits somewhere in the middle with student access to laptops as the key technology feature and research tool.

Having completed my Junior Secondary practicum experience at the end of 2016 at NBCS, I was very fortunate to have a first hand understanding of the school and music classroom philosophy and see it in action. This time changed my whole perspective as a training teacher. Having already been aware of Ron Berger (thanks to previous uni lectures) and his true project based learning approach, I was able to experience how this type of approach was adapted and implemented by Brad Fuller and Peter Orenstein through their music program. The NBCS Director of Innovation Steve Collis, has a philosophy that students are given the right space, time and tools to undertake project work at a speed that suits them, with regular, real time feedback versus at the end of the term. It just so happens the tools are technology driven such as student laptops, online cloud based music programs and recording equipment. The technology tools became great enablers to student centered learning but also requires student motivation. Motivation can be enhanced by using the technology tools that they are already engaging in outside of the classroom, but it can also be a large distraction for some. 

In contrast, Kamaroi had no screens in the early years. However this being a primary school it is difficult to compare to the adolescent needs of high school. Early years are essentail to develop fine and gross motor skills and learning through play and having the whole syllabus integrated through the arts is to foster creativity as per the schools philosophy. It would be interesting to see how technology was integrated in the higher school years of Steiner education to begin to get students ready for the outside world.

While the technology integration may seem like a strong difference between the schools, there are some large similarities, which is where my own teaching philosophy lies. Firstly, all schools put the students need at the centre of learning. They all allow the student to participate and extend themselves, in their own time, in a space that is appropriate to the learning task. Whether it be various Orff extensions applied to different parts and not using music so everyone is on an equal playing field to start with at Kamaroi, or students working through the project timeline at their own pace while using the teacher’s online resource models to model their own work or extending their creativity at NBCS, or collaborating and researching in a team project then sharing and peer teaching at Hilltop Rd.

Secondly, the teacher at all schools acts as facilitator versus an all knowing source of knowledge. Students have the opportunity to do the project themselves, try things out, research, make mistakes work out what went wrong and how to fix things, all developing analytical and critical thinking skills that are necessary now and for the future. With this approach, all schools had teachers that could provide real time feedback through the project course, be it making a clay animation, playing a melody on a xylophone or composing on Soundation. Immediate student feedback allows students to build on their knowledge, while it’s relevant, not just at the end of the assessment period at the end of term (or that will probably have to wait for the teacher to mark it over the holidays).

Thirdly, technology is seen as an extension tool or enabler to the music or learning activity, with the learning centered around the musical or project outcomes first. Even with the heavily integrated technology at NBCS, it is still a tool to deliver a music outcome first, be it music notation, composition, aural work, or enable a bands “jam session” though centralised mixing and headphones. Technology has been simplified for the students to not hamper but add to their musical experience – where the musical outcomes and project comes first. Hilltop Rd are using laptops not as “extended worksheets” as the Principal Natalie See states, but as research tools to assist in their learning, replicating what happens in the real world, another important facet of project based learning. As Virginia Moller (Principal of Kamaroi) discussed, technology is used at later years after creativity skills are established – again as a tool extension to capture video of clay animation models, not a hinderance or at the forefront of the task.

I see technology as a tool to be integrated and act as an extension to the project, not just a replacement for paper, nor to dictate the activity, ensuring that the musical activity comes first with the technology to support learning through collaboration. It was interesting to see the two primary schools as they have the advantage of cross-curricular integration opportunities, far more so than secondary that is still very siloed in the teaching approach. It would be good to compare the Steiner high school to see their use of technology integration. In school senior years, I believe technology does become a great enabler for portability of work and allowing students to develop their self paced learning and own “self organised learning environment” as Natalie See states. This can then build great long term learning habits for a lifetime of learning.

Even as an adult, I was able to complete this task, watching the video and writing this blog, at a time that was best suited to my personalised learning style (i.e. in a quiet space with coffee!)