Tipping the Paradigm


Bartel, L. (2005) Tipping the paradigm. Canadian Music Educator Vol 47, No. 1


Tipping the Paradigm
Lee Bartel

The recent CMEA book entitled Questioning the Music Education Paradigm presents the individual voices of 23 contributors arguing that music education as it is dominantly defined and practiced needs to be altered, adjusted, amended, or appended. The blended sum of these voices calls for nothing less than the tipping of the paradigm.

In the currently popular book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains that an “epidemic” of change may develop slowly and unobtrusively until it reaches its “tipping point” and then that change spreads rapidly. The “diffusion model” of change focuses first on innovators, visionaries, or adventurous ones who see another way of doing things, who question the paradigm. The visionaries connect with the early adopters who demonstrate that the ideas are possible. Although in the Questioning book there is often reference to the “dominant paradigm,” the generally accepted way of doing music education, examples abound of “early adopter” music educators who do things differently: who embrace greater diversity, who emphasize cultural relevance, who democratize, who show the way to another approach. At the tipping point the way of the “early adopters” is quite dramatically picked up by the “early majority,” the ones who are the “deliberate and the skeptical mass,” the ones who will not try something until the most respected of the group have tried it first. Then follow the “late majority” and finally “the laggards.”

I believe that in music education we are approaching a tipping point. I see innovative “early adopters” across the country creating and refining approaches to music education that depart from the established paradigm. What we need is for these ideas to become “sticky” and infect the early majority to the point where they change.

I present here a summary outline of the direction of change envisioned by the researchers in Questioning the Music Education Paradigm. This outline presents problems with the current paradigm of music education and suggests possible changes. It was circulated in this form at the Pan-Canadian Think Tank on Music Education at the University of Western Ontario in May 2005.

Who teaches music
- A key realization for us must be that we are only one small part of the music education of students. Even in Kindergarten the student is not a blank score. We are not the only teachers of music. There are many contributors to music learning. Music teachers must give these greater place in their teaching.

- Music educators often struggle with music identity and, consequently, tend to “construct” everyone in school except other music educators as “non-musical” and, consequently, they tend toward program and social insularity. Music educators need to become productive team players with all teachers, recognizing, valuing, and engaging the musical abilities of all.

How we teach
- The effect of the teacher dominated rehearsal model is strong communication through the “hidden curriculum”: it favours certain learning goals and learning styles. Music education needs to replace the pervasive traditional teacher dominated approach with a diversified pedagogical repertoire (from dominator to facilitator, collaborator, inquirer, celebrant, supporter, resource, etc). We need to democratize the learning process, even if this means some reduction in large ensemble programs or public performance.

- Changing how we teach at all levels would make greater coherence between structural divisions of education possible. We need to eliminate the professional “great divide” between elementary music teachers and secondary teachers. We also need to readjust out secondary thinking to create program for all students.

- Our expectations for “discipline” and performance perfection, as well as permission for the passionate pursuit of “the art” of music have too frequently created a culture of abuse in music education. We need to seriously examine the social and emotional climate we create in all music classes and renew the profession for a culture of creative nurture and community.

What we teach
- The belief that we teach “what matters in music” and the fact that most of that is “classical” in nature alienates many students in our culturally diverse, media rich environment. We need to eliminate teacher and student intolerance toward diversity of musical style.

- Our curriculum, conceptualized consciously or unconsciously, as a linear knowledge sequence leading from most basic rudiments to professional ability is mis-educative for many students. We need to rethink our curriculum in terms of practical life skills – something like the Phys. Ed curriculum vs. the sports program.

- Making the replication of existing music prescriptions the primary pre-occupation of music class neglects the very important skills of “playing and singing” by ear, improvisation, and composition. An emphasis on music performance develops the faulty concept that music is not made of manipulable elements but rather exists as “works of art” to be replicated to perfection.

- By making “the beautiful” our principal pursuit, we neglect the range of sound and restrict our creative potential and tolerance to styles of elitist or commercial culture.

- Music education and the dominant musical culture has made critical judgement the first response to music. The common result is that the more we study music the less we enjoy it. We need to reduce the vocabulary and rhetoric of analysis and judgement and develop a vocabulary of response. And of course we need to validate affective response to music in all contexts, not the least the music classroom.

For what we teach
- The present goals for which we teach, both the long term goals of creating professional musicians, and the short-term goals of keeping the talented in music through high school so that we have wonderful performing ensembles, lead us to accept as inevitable the removal of 90% of students from music by secondary school. We need to reset our goals clearly to teach for life-skills and attitudes for all students. We need to restructure our programs to value musical diversity – diversity of musical style and musical skill. We need to actively counter the social blight of labeling talent and the competitive pursuit of excellence at all costs.

What is expected of teachers and how we teach them
- Our present music teacher education system perpetuates the paradigm as it is. We need to become activists for change to the paradigm by how we teach and what we teach.

- We need to select music education students who represent musical and cultural diversity. We need to expose them to diverse contexts of education and above all facilitate conscious identity examination and development, and the development of the habit of critical reflective thinking.

- We need to develop teachers who do not need to be in control of everything, know everything, and be able do everything before they feel they can teach. We need to develop a greater sense of adaptive problem solving, to create facilitators rather than maestros.

- We may also need to be careful about allowing inflexible traditionalist “excellent” teachers and programs to be the mentors and models for our students.

Whom we should be teaching
- We should be teaching everyone positively.
- The problem with the present music education paradigm is not only that we do not teach all student, but it is that we do teach all students – those 90% who quit music have learned very effectively that they are not able, not wanted, not suitable for music classes. Music remains one of the most important aspects of their life but they have learned to believe that music class is not the place for them and for most their self-efficacy related to “making music” has suffered serious damage.

- We need to create music classes that welcome cultural and stylistic diversity, that create real communities of learners, that have authentic involvement and investment with empowered responsibility, not simply group adhesion and conformity orchestrated by a charismatic “director.”

What are our Foundational Assumptions
- We need to emerge from a philosophical era that features a traditional and totalizing approach grounded in linear logic, theory and power, irrelevant in and irreducible to the lived experiences of music educators. We need to give place to musical experience, learning experience, and pedagogical experience.

- Although feminist scholars have addressed the legitimate needs of girls, they have in the process contributed to another gender imbalance: they have too often ignored the plight of boys in relation to music in our culture. The gender pendulum should swing to the centre.


Change does not have to be an “all at once” and “all or nothing” phenomenon. I believe if we could begin to personalize and act on even one or two of the points above, we would begin the move toward “the tipping point.” Small change in these points would make more pervasive change easier. We would then finally tip the paradigm. I believe we are getting closer.