Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Towards a Philosophy of Student-Centered Music and Social Justice Learning

Yona Stamatis, University of Illinois–Springfield

In 2013, I introduced into the general education curriculum at the University of Illinois, Springfield, a new undergraduate course called “Music and Social Justice.” The course was designed to help students engage the theory and practice of music making in order to bring about social change. My teaching philosophy for the course incorporated a student-centered learning approach designed to encourage critical thinking through the questioning of preconceived cognitive schema (Dewey 1944, Weimar 2008). This constructivist approach was integral to this course, as it served as the primary pedagogical framework and as a model for social justice action: as students engaged in individual activism projects in their community, their primary goal was to achieve social change by influencing ways of thinking. As the course came to an end, I was left with a number of thoughts and observations about music and social justice as a tool for student-centered learning that may be useful to other instructors. While this essay provides a model for a semester-long Music and Social Justice course, it is also useful to instructors planning to teach a shorter unit on the topic as part of another course.

Towards a Philosophy of Student-Centered Music and Social Justice Learning

Social justice is a political philosophy that implies equal and fair opportunities for all members of a society through a balance of social equality and individual freedom (Rawls, 1971). Teaching about social justice calls for the consideration of numerous context-based and relativistic concepts like social justice, inequality, injustice and discrimination. Music is an optimal means for students to complicate these ideas because musical meaning is similarly multi-layered and complex and is shaped by similar cognitive assumptions. As such, music and social justice education fits well in a student-centered learning environment that encourages student engagement, active learning, self-examination, and individually designed projects. This approach contrasts with more traditional learning models that position students as passive receptors of information (MacLellan and Soden 2004).

Curriculum design for a student-centered Music and Social Justice course presents numerous challenges. First, it is likely that students will bring to the classroom widely varying knowledge backgrounds about music and about social justice issues. This leads to difficulties in creating effective lesson plans and individualized projects that motivate students to take charge of their learning process. Second, the lack of a “music and social justice” textbook or of an established curriculum affords little guidance to the instructor. For example, a course might focus on one particular music genre, examining how particular musicians have engaged their songs in different kinds of social justice activism. Or a course might focus on the songs that emerged from important various social justice movements. Third, student-directed projects tend to revolve around hot topics in the media such as “abortion policy,” “equal marriage rights” and “gun license policy.” These subjects often incite strong feelings from students and can lead to circular debates that do not necessarily encourage cognitive development.

The pedagogical paradigm of constructivism is one feasible methodology for resolving these issues. This approach was most famously summarized in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development in children, that suggests that an important cognitive transformation occurs when a child encounters an experience that does not fit with preconceived frames of reference. This creates an experience of cognitive disequilibrium in which the child is able to recognize the cognitive scheme and to reconsider its accuracy (McLeod 2012). Numerous scholars have expanded Piaget’s theory into adulthood, examining transformations that occur at higher cognitive stages such as advanced reflective thinking, moral reasoning and self understanding (King and Kitchener, 1994; Burden, 2000). In an undergraduate Music and Social Justice course, cognitive disequilibrium is best achieved through guided individual projects and conversations that help students question and revise their ways of thinking. Guiding students through cognitive disequilibrium requires the instructor to accept an important pedagogical shift from conventional information-based methodologies to teaching techniques that help students learn “how to think” instead (Rust 2002, 146).

Important Pedagogical Considerations for a Constructivist Approach

Instructors interested in a student-centered constructivist approach to teaching Music and Social justice might incorporate the following three learning goals: First, help students understand social justice and music as context-based relativistic concepts. While guiding students towards an understanding of justice as a social construction appears to be relatively commonplace, examining music in the same way is less common (see Guenther, 2011 for a sample syllabus). If students are to question individual frames of reference and achieve the cognitive disequilibrium necessary when “learning to think,” it is crucial that they understand music as a social construction whose effectiveness in social movements relies on a host of contextual factors.

Second, it is important that students come to regard music as more than a form of entertainment. Many of my classroom surveys have revealed that students tend to consider entertainment to be the primary or sole function of music. However, music is a powerful tool that can have powerful physical and psychological effects on the listener ranging from simple entrainment of pulse rate to psychologically destructive processes. For example, studies have found that even in anticipation of listening to music, people can experience the release of dopamine in the brain (Mindlin, DuRoussea and Cardillo, 2012). In addition, music can help reset and regulate our nervous system (Campbell, 1983) and it can be used even as a type of torture device (Cusick, 2006). Recognizing the potential power of music to have physical and psychological effects on the listener requires a shift in common understandings of musical function.

Third, it is crucial that the course syllabus allows opportunity for students to engage in real-world application of music and social justice advocacy outside of the classroom. It is unrealistic to expect students to change policy or law within the short time span of a course. Yet, we can encourage students to help raise awareness and even help others question cognitive frameworks about important social justice issues. If we require them to incorporate the use of at least one song to achieve their goals, students will have to consider musical style, lyrics, audience and intended outcome, and necessarily shift their perceptions of music from a form of entertainment to a potential tool of social justice. Below, I provide the framework for the course and include two sample assignments that enable cognitive development.

A Sample Course Outline

Unit 1, “The Social Construction of Justice” introduced students to the notion of social justice as a social construction. Through an examination of social contract theory, it challenged students to question preconceived notions of social justice and of personal responsibility. In addition, it included projects that encouraged students to question their ideologies and to invigorate their sociological imagination by exposing them “to the social world beyond the boundaries of their individual cultures and personal interests” (Brayfield, Adler and Zablotsky 1990: 364).

Project 1: “Questioning Economic Systems” This two-part in-class activity encourages students to achieve cognitive disequilibrium by questioning economic systems like free-market economy and market socialism. Divided into small even-numbered groups, students first participate in a class vote in which they are asked to choose between a free-market economy, market socialism or any other system as optimal. While opinions are divided, a large majority of the class votes in favor of a free market economy, the economic system with which they tend to have the most experience. In Part II of the project, student groups are given an odd number of coins. With these coins, they are asked to create a fair economic system for their individual group that now represented a miniature society. How will they distribute the wealth? Which students in the group deserve to earn more money than others? How much money will be allotted for public works? Students then present their findings in a brief in-class presentation. The difficulty of this assignment is always surprising to students as they come to the realization that no current system seems entirely fair for all group members. After completing the project, students are able to complicate the system in new ways and to question their own frames of reference.

Unit 2 “The Social Construction of Music” introduced students to the notion of music as a social construct. Understanding music as a context-based relativistic concept is crucial to the successful orchestration of a social justice movement. This is because its effectiveness as a social justice tool relies as much on social factors as it does on musical factors and on personal taste. Often, students come to class with the perception that music is a universal language that somehow transcends geographical and cultural boundaries and unites humankind. By engaging in close listening of diverse musics from around the world, music and social justice instructors can guide students to an understanding of musical taste as a cultural construct.

Unit 3 “Music and Social Justice: Case Studies” consisted of a survey of contemporary social justice issues from around the world. Topics included indigenous rights in North America and Hawai’i; racial discrimination in schools; music as a torture device in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and international networks of human trafficking and slavery. This unit was designed to introduce students to social justice issues from a local and global perspective. It challenged them to complicate notions of justice and of human rights across cultural and geographical boundaries. As students listened to various musics associated with these topics, they questioned the effectiveness of particular songs as tools for raising awareness and for challenging cognitive schema.

Unit 4 “The Future of Music and Social Justice” engaged students in self-directed projects in the community that encourage reflection-in-action. This unit was devoted entirely to completion of their individual projects.

Project 2: Individual Projects. Throughout the semester, students researched a social justice topic of their choice. In addition to writing a research paper, they designed their own viable social justice movement. Based on Gene Sharp’s model of nonviolent resistance (1973), the potential movement involved three basic elements: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. Each element was supported by the inclusion of a unique song and students justified and explained their song choices taking into consideration musical style, lyrics and context. While time constraints did not allow students to see through the creation of an actual social justice movement, they were able to try to help members of the campus community question preconceived notions about important social justice topics. For example, they publicized their research in various ways including creating online blogs and Facebook pages and distributing informative pamphlets and CDs.

Final Thoughts

Music and social justice education from a student-centered learning approach can lead to an exciting interactive course that encourages students to develop and question their frames of reference. The following is a brief list of suggestions to instructors interested in teaching a course or a unit on Music and Social justice from a constructivist approach: 1) Develop learning goals rather than content goals; 2) Give students freedom to talk about, write about, and think about, topics that truly interest them; 3) Help students understand social justice and music as context-based relativistic concepts; 4) Encourage students to understand music as a complex social text; 5) Engage students in real world application of music and social justice outside of the classroom. In the rapidly globalizing world, it is important that students learn how to approach ethical and moral dilemmas from diverse perspectives and to develop skills of persuasion in order to influence positive social change. A Music and Social justice course from a student-centered learning pedagogical approach helps students understand how music can play a key role in social intervention, engaging students in real-world application of music and social justice advocacy outside of the classroom.

This work is copyright ©2014 Yona Stamatis and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.