From Idea to Dogma

This afternoon I was reading Janet Mills’ book, Music in the School, for a project I am currently working on, when I stumbled upon an interesting conjecture she made about the cyclical pattern of curriculum development in music. I think it is worth sharing because it provides a perspective on the evolution of curricular and instructional ideas that animate the work of many educators.  Mills describes this cycle as beginning with a (1) very good idea that is developed. For example, Guild Keetman and Carl Orff developed an innovative idea for artistically educating students in Bavaria, during the first half of the twentieth century. This is followed by a period when disciples (her choice of word) observe, work with, and learn from the original developer(s) and (2) the idea grows, takes root, and spreads. The disciples, who learned from or with the developers, then (3) pass on the idea to second-generation disciples. TheIMG_0573se individuals may or may not have worked with the developers and may only learn from secondary sources.  In so doing, they focus more on how they are supposed to do something than on asking why they should be doing that something. The (4) very good idea starts to fade to dogma. Mills states, “As the content of the curriculum becomes disconnected from the very good idea, practices develop that would be anathema to the originator, but which are still credited to the very good idea” (p. 96). For example, meaningfully transplanting the philosophical and curricular ideas of Kodály from Hungary to another time and place (21st century UK) requires a deep understanding and critical thought of its broad aims, that could be easily become obfuscated if dogma (pitch and rhythmic sequence) has already overshadowed the idea (musical fluency). When (5) dogma becomes the focus, gurus (again her word choice) replace the disciples. The gurus train teachers, provide recipes, market products, and contribute to a cottage industry around those good ideas. At this point, teachers might fail to ask why they are doing what they are doing because it just seems to “work” in the classroom. Practice may lose relevance and meaning for the very people for whom these ideas were first developed—the students. Mills claims that over time this leads to the (6) failure and disuse of the dogma, until (7) another very good idea is developed.

I leave you with some lingering questions and a final thought. Are some or all of the theories, approaches, methods, or philosophies that guide teaching practices on a wide scale victim to this or other cycles? What role do our national organizations and leaders play in this process? How do they play into this model? How can the forces imbedded within any of these stages, if they do hold up to scrutiny (especially 2-6), be disrupted, challenged, or at the least made more transparent? This last question in particular brings to mind Cathy Benedict’s (2009) reminder that we “need to interrogate the indiscriminate embracing of these methods as a possible form of control and coercion, as well as the possible appropriation of musicking as a way to increase the social capital of music teachers” (p. 222).

References and Articles of Interest
Abril, C. R. (2013). Critical issues in Orff Schulwerk. In C. Wang (Ed.) Orff Schulwerk: Reflections and direction. Chicago: GIA Press.
Benedict, C. (2009). Processes of alienation: Marx, Orff and Kodaly. British Journal of
Music Education, 26(2), 213-224.
Bennett, P. D. (2005). So, Why Sol-Mi? Music Educators Journal, 91(3), 43.
Mills, J. (2005). Music in the school. New York: Oxford University Press.

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