We have an essential and urgent responsibility to model and teach critical thinking through our ensembles. Now.
One thing the pandemic has exposed across the world is a deep deficit of critical thinking. This lack of critical thinking is also deeply embedded in other societal issues: the rise of fake news, a lack of awareness, understanding and transparency around algorithm-curated news feeds, increasing polarisation, decreased tolerance and a culture of individualism.
This dearth of critical thinking has also led to the value of real expertise plummeting. Everyone is now an expert in everything, with whatever knowledge we have. No further research required. No questioning of our own perspective and what might sit in opposition to it.
There also seems to be a decreasing tolerance for discomfort. Our ability to hold two perspectives in tension and sit, question and probe is rapidly diminishing. We’re becoming increasingly stuck in our own world, where our social media feeds are programmed to reinforce our point of view. The more we express our strongly held views, the smaller the echo chamber becomes.
As educators, we have a sacred and vital responsibility. We teach the next generation of our communities, our societies, our world. Our students have a lot of information coming at them from all sides, yet the personal relationships and influence we have over their future selves shouldn’t be underestimated.
We are their role models.
So what does it say to our students when we claim knowing better than public health officials, medical experts and researchers because we’ve seen one study that validates what we desperately want to be true?
I have a medical degree. I worked as a doctor for 4.5 years. I’ve had significant training in epidemiology - how to review scientific studies and evaluate their validity. And I will be the first to put up my hand and say “I don’t have all the data. I have not reviewed every study on aerosol transmission through singing, wind and brass playing. I have not unpacked the study design, methodology, sample size, validity and quality of each study. I would need more information to make an informed decision on the safety of singing and playing woodwind and brass on my own.”
I haven’t done the research. And I haven’t critically appraised the research. Right now, I’m willing to comply with the directives given by the government who I believe have at least done more research than me. I’m not saying they’ve been exhaustive - I don’t have the evidence for that either.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m not advocating for being a subservient, obedient, unquestioning citizen. Quite the opposite. If you’re uncertain about the reasoning behind a decision then a simple formula could be this:
Ask questions > Making assertions. Is the issue really that ’the decision is not based on evidence’? Or is it that you don’t know what evidence has been considered in making the decision? If that hasn’t been communicated clearly then by all means ask, lobby and insist on further clarification. Making assertions because you have seen one study that undermines the decision being made is not exemplifying critical thinking for our students.
Do your own research. Try to find as much research as possible on the topic that both supports and refutes your point of view. Then filter through and evaluate the quality of the evidence (see below)
Play devil’s advocate. Look at it from the opposite point of view. Find research that supports the opposite perspective - for example, that brass, woodwind and singing is potentially dangerous and that we should limit these activities while the virus is active.
Question your perspective. How is my bias influencing my perspective on this issue? Acknowledge that we have a vested interest in getting back to doing what we know and love as soon as possible. We’re sick and tired of this whole thing. And that might be influencing our reading of evidence and our responses.
Are you at the point where, on balance, you think your (insert instrument/voice) lessons are more important than the public health (mental and physical) consequences of another outbreak and lockdown? Because if you are it might be a time to pause and think.
Does your perspective (and evidence) stand up to critical appraisal and analysis? What would make it stronger?
Asking questions, taking responsibility for your perspective, supporting your perspective with evidence, exploring other points of view, testing the strength of your perspective. If this sounds familiar it might be because it’s what every Year 10 English student learns during an Issues unit. To deconstruct, analyse and critique information. And middle and high school science students study this by forming and testing hypotheses and reflecting on the results.
We can also reinforce the value and importance of critical thinking for our students, not just in how we ourselves act and respond, but through our music teaching.
Right now, whether you’re teaching online, in person, with or without instruments there a few simple ways that we can model and engage our students in critical thinking through music:
1. Repertoire Choice
Discuss what makes a quality piece of music. What do students think? Why? What do you think? Why? Can you find examples of high and low quality music? How do these compare to each other? This can be applied to solo repertoire as much as ensemble repertoire.
Student Activity Debate! Set up, research and present a class/ensemble debates like:
"Mozart will be remembered and Stravinsky will be forgotten "
(thanks to my Year 10 Music teacher Roland Yeung for this one - I still remember throwing a score of Mozart 41 on the ground for dramatic effect!)
"Aggressivo! is a better quality piece of music than Air for Band. Discuss."
I for one, would personally LOVE to hear the logic displayed by Year 8 and 9 band students on this topic!
(The adult debate version might be: Calling a Grade 2 band piece 'Aggressivo' is an excellent way to help develop characteristic tone in 8th & 9th grade boys. Discuss)
Check out these awesome debate resources.
2. Performance Evaluation
How do you know if a performance is high quality or not? What factors influence your experience? Who are performers you admire on your instrument/ensemble? Why? Who are people you don’t admire? What do you think is missing? How can you apply this to your own practice and preparation as a soloist or ensemble member?
Student Activity Make a list of top 5 performances in a specific genre or for your instrument/voice/ensemble. For each, explain WHY you think these are high quality (in about a paragraph). Present it as a verbal/video presentation, a powerpoint, annotated playlist or digital poster.
3. Rehearsal Evaluation
Discuss what constitutes a satisfying rehearsal or lesson. What happens in a great rehearsal lesson? What happens in a less satisfying one? What is each individual’s responsibility in contributing to a great or poor rehearsal?
Student Activity Create a class infographic/poster that shares the conclusions of the discussions that can be put on the ensemble room wall/in music folders/at home, and referred to whenever you are rehearsing or practicing.
It’s our responsibility as educators to model and teach critical thinking to our students. This is our contribution to a world that is kinder, more empathetic, more tolerant and more informed.
There are more critical thinking activities in my eBook 110 Innovative Online/Hybrid Rehearsal Activities, all which you can also run in person.
A simple approach to instantly approach every piece with more musicianship, storytelling and emotion - for us, and our ensembles!
Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.
The path to musical nirvana starts with a single question. And the path to musical hell starts with telling the ensemble what to do.