The Race to Be Relevant


We consistently hear arguments over education reform, funding, and unexpected cuts to salaries and programs. Many schools are reducing arts education and shifting focus from teachers to technology in a race to be relevant in our changing culture. What if, in this educational sprint, music teachers stood on the cutting edge of instructional techniques, challenging those who say music isn't relevant, catapulting students into the 21st century? Concept-based music instruction can be used to teach the problem-solving, collaboration, and technology skills necessary in all other content areas. Music educators have the opportunity to reframe timeless skills with timely teaching strategies.

The Inquiry Method, long supported by science educators and recently made popular in language arts settings by Jeffrey Wilhelm, is at the center of teaching strategies supported by the Common Core State Standards for Education. These Standards, now adopted by 43 states, will guide professional teacher development and instruction through the next decade ( Designed to promote literacy in every content area, the Common Core State Standards prepare students for the workplace or higher learning. Music educators are an important part of these changes.

Known for years as the “scientific method,” inquiry based teaching reframes curriculum content in terms of guiding questions. Students take the initiative to observe, question, pose hypotheses, and draw conclusions. This student-centered strategy encourages students to ask and interact with meaningful questions about what they are learning, and moves away from "stand and deliver" teaching where the teacher's authority instructs a passive student recipient.

According to Jeffrey Wilhelm, author of Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry, asking students guiding questions is “a powerful alternative [that] ‘uncovers’ the same curricular content by putting students in the position of operating on and integrating the required material.” Instead of memorizing facts, for example, students use content area knowledge to solve a problem. The inquiry method “connects students to real expertise as practiced in the world” (Wilhelm, 9).

Applied to music education, when learning with inquiry, students are exposed to problems and situations a musician might encounter. These real-world scenarios provide relevant purpose and motivation for learning. Initially, teachers create questions which ask students to apply current knowledge or seek new information in order to solve a problem. Students pursue new content knowledge as new questions arise. They take ownership in their own learning, increasing motivation and energy. Teachers and students become partners in education: a skilled, wise facilitator assists and guides valued problem solving.

Framing concepts as inquiry encourages an energetic learning environment. Often, the best questions have several possible answers, and students attack challenges based on their skill set and learning style. The most exciting learning happens when a small group of students work together to solve a problem, learning from each other, guided by the teacher. Inquiry and engagement are “catalyzed by questions and fueled by talk” (Wilhelm, 15). Students learn best, then, in dialogue with other learners. In a musical setting, students may “dialogue” through verbal discussion, collaboration on a piece of music, improvisation, or sharing digital files. The language of music becomes a platform for a unique form of inquiry.

See how a variety of common musical concepts can be reframed for inquiry:

Direct Instruction Content Re-framed as Inquiry
Intervals Why is it important to notice if a note is on a line or a space?
Chord Roots How could a string bass play with a piano score of Schumannʼs "Melody" (Opus 68 No. 1)?
Basic transposing What would be different about this song if we started singing on a G? An A? An F?
Advanced transposing How could your friend play the melody to this on his tenor sax while you play it on the piano?
Genre What would it sound like if Chopin rewrote a Bach Invention?

Pressured by a multitude of concepts to teach in a limited timeframe, we often skip across the surface of musical ideas, racing to “cover” theory, technic, repertoire, and ensemble during music lessons. Inquiry environments, on the other hand, are effective by “going deep” with learning:

"Students and teachers address the same required content but go far beyond ‘coverage’ to achieve deeper understanding and to learn purposes and processes that traditional schooling does not promote" (Wilhelm, 13).

Teaching with inquiry gives students the opportunity to hone transferable skills in music, critical thinking, collaboration, and use of technology. Students learn more than the correct answer; they learn practical ways to solve dilemmas. In working with others and framed questions, students articulate their thoughts, learning processes, and explain conclusions.

Successful learners have specific, traceable qualities. They are self-confident and rely on their own judgement. With certainty, they enjoy problem solving, even crave it, and can be bored simply "taking in" information. Productive learners donʼt have a fear of being wrong, but know — when given a relevant problem — if they try enough times and in a variety of ways, theyʼll find the answer that works best (Postman and Weingartner). Inquiry strategies push students to connect music and problem solving, lighting up our learners, and making music instruction even more valuable to educating the whole child.

Imagine inquiry as a pin ball machine: Students bounce around, light up, gather information “points,” knock into surprises that excite them to keep going, try their ideas and learn a variety of ways to “win” by watching others. The teacher observes, directing students back into the game with a well-timed press of the flipper that flicks against the ball, tossing it back into learning.

Wrestling with musical problems engages all learners, spanning all disciplines. When students work together to answer questions, skills are not only covered, but students learn strategies necessary for music and for life, applying knowledge to each new learning query. In our musical settings this fall, it‘s important to note that we are teaching more than music: we are teaching students to observe music, develop questions about music, seek answers, and apply new information. When we structure lessons from inquiry, there is no limit to what our students can do!

For more information, see the following resources and works cited:

For more about the birth of inquiry through the scientific method, see the National Science Education Standards website:

For more about the Common Core State Standards for education being adopted nationwide, see:

For more about the history and concepts behind inquiry, see: Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner:

For more about reframing content ideas as inquiry and direct application to classroom strategies, see: Engaging Readers & Writing with Inquiry by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm:

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