Home Fall 2012 Informal and Participatory Cultures in Music Education

Informal and Participatory Cultures in Music Education

Published on October 11, 2012, in Fall 2012.

Deanna C. C. Peluso load pdf

Informal and Participatory Cultures in Music Education: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Music provides a forum to explore knowledge, creativity, collaboration and expression as a part of the human condition, in which we relate self-identity, self-knowledge and a socio-cultural context for our experiences (Hodges, 2005). Many youth are able to be involved in participatory cultures, where musical learning occurs easily and without formal intervention, through the development of complex technologies that allow interaction and sharing across the world without the limitations of geographical boundaries. Musical activities are a significant part of many young people’s everyday lives, as they are musically encultured from a young age, yet the majority of their musical participation occurs outside of formalized music education (O’Neill, 2005), through informal learning within popular music (Green, 2007). Contemporary music educators are faced with finding ways for youth to strengthen the connections between music education at school and their musical experiences outside the school walls; and I posit that an understanding of participatory and informal music learning practices might help this challenging endeavour.

Informal Music Learning Practice

Historically, music-making practices have been a predominant part of the social culture in which human beings exist (Blackling, 1981). Green (2007) proposes that “informal music learning practices” are how many popular musicians are becoming educated as musicians, and that formal music education has had little relationship to the popular musicians who create a majority of the music that the world listens to and appreciates (p. 16). According to Green’s (2007) research, the criteria that describe young musicians’ informal music learning practices include encountering knowledge and experiences outside of formal education, being enculturated into musical practices via “lived experience in a musical environment”, interaction with their peers and family outside of formal teaching capacities” and “self-teaching by developing independent learning techniques” of skills and knowledge acquisition (p. 16). For comparison, Green defines “formal music education” as instrument-based in nature, where “classroom music teachers” implement “practices of teaching, training and educating” (p. 16).

Upon comparing formalized Canadian music education to informal music learning, it may seem that formal music education is overly rigid and standardized, as it adheres to a set curriculum that requires quantifiable assessment of learning outcomes. This can be seen in The Ministry of Education – Province of British Columbia (2010) Curriculum Guide that focuses on structure and form within music education, and how curriculum should provide learning outcomes that can be “expressed in measurable and observable terms” (p. 11). In reality, formal music education is not always the stringent classically-focused entity that one envisions of music education in conservatories or in days gone by, as jazz, blues and popular music have become a large aspect of the formal school curriculum (Jaffurs, 2004). Yet, a pertinent question arises, ‘if popular music is primarily learned through informal music learning practices, then how are teachers within this formalized environment helping their students learn this popular material within a technologically evolving world?’ Further, while informal learning practices have provided many popular musicians with their musical skills and knowledge, the challenge for music educators in incorporating these informal practices into their classrooms is not only ‘how to implement it’, but to address the challenge of creating and developing spaces within the classroom where music can be expressed “as a medium, practice, and art that carries, reflects and instills values” (Mans, 2009, p. 89), not simply as a skill that is honed through solitary practice, repetition and systematic achievement of seemingly arbitrary goals.

In the endeavour of integrating informal learning practices into formalized environments, Green (2007) suggests ways for music educators to strengthen their understanding of how popular musicians learn, such as teachers first attempting to place themselves in the position of their students, and to “try out some informal learning for themselves” by experimenting with “purposive listening” to recorded music (p. 214). Applying an approach such as Green suggests to an existing culture, where youth are learning music through informal practices, has its limitations, as the approach is not a natural progression within the formal classroom and does not fully encompass how youth are experiencing music. To enable a comprehensive understanding of how youth are learning and engaging in music, I propose, in addition to Green’s informal music learning practices, that Jenkins’ (2009) notions of youth participatory culture in media education may be of use in providing a way for music educators to strengthen the connections of music education for youth, both in-and-outside of school.

Participatory Culture and New Learning Spaces

The term ‘participatory culture’ can bring to mind a variety of definitions, and in many cases, the term is related to old (pre-digital) and new (digital and interactive) media technologies (Jenkins, 2006a). At its core, participatory culture holds the possibility of developing skills and competencies that not only hold value with the present-day workforce but allow for diversified cultural expression, creative expression, and opening opportunities for civic engagement (Jenkins, 2009, p. xii). Jenkins’ (2009) defines this media-based participatory culture as one that has “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement”, where there is “strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others”, “some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices”, and “where members believe that their contributions matter and where members feel some degree of social connection with one another” (p. 5). Examples of participatory cultures include online social communities (e.g., Youtube), creative digital forms of expression (e.g., video ‘mash-ups’), and disseminating media and content through such forums as blogs (Jenkins, 2009, p. xii; Jenkins 2006b).

The traditional formats of music education, where knowledge is transmitted from the teacher to student have become only one option for learning music, as youth are engaging in multimodal and technologically advanced musical activities (Peluso, 2012). Jenkins (2009) provides similar observations in that many youth are engaging in meaningful new informal learning environments (either physical or virtual). These virtual collaborative learning environments are termed “affinity spaces” by James Gee (2003), where youth engage in experimental learning and knowledge sharing in collaboration with others, rather than the conservative and solitary regimented learning environments of formal school education (Jenkins, 2009, pp. 10-11). Participatory cultures provide youth with a new sense of empowerment and identity, that they typically might not have the chance to explore outside these affinity spaces.

Within virtual affinity spaces, youth are able to create new identities for themselves, where they are able to learn, share their expertise, and be a part of a knowledge sharing community that fosters creativity and expression, all without judgment of their background, ethnicity, and most importantly, age. Within these participatory cultures, such as YouTube, youth are able to create, edit, remix, mash-up, and broadcast their own content in the form of videos (Jenkins, 2009). More importantly to music learning, many of these videos incorporate complex music creation and editing, which youth have learned within the context of experimenting with these technologies. Within this environment, youth are able to create, express and learn music with little resistance, and a high level of support and mentorship.

Participatory cultures not only encompass many aspects of informal learning practices, but also allow youth to be musically creative and expressive individuals, and provide an outlet for civic engagement and a place to express one’s values. These participatory cultures provide youth with not only a vast environment for expression, but also an environment where they are supported and heard. Participatory culture and informal music learning practices each bring forth their own benefits, thus it would be ideal to find a way to embed these practices and culture into formal music education, as a way to provide educators with opportunities to be involved in these ways of musically learning.

The Teacher In This Digital Age of Musical Learning

I propose that youth still need someone to facilitate their music education, while incorporating informal learning and participatory cultures, as well as helping youth navigate the changing landscape of musical learning and expression. Adults have the ability to influence how youth are enculturated into music, as seen in Green’s (2007) study, where many popular musicians came from musical families or environments. Jenkins (2006a) suggests that adults, and in my adaptation, music educators, can use contemporary media content such as television, to instigate conversations with youth about issues that may be difficult to understand due to differences in generations. This provides youth with ways of communication that are relevant and familiar, as Prensky (2001) notes that in comparison to their pre-digital age educators, contemporary students have become technologically literate from early childhood. These conversations can provide a forum for reflection and new ways of talking about issues, such as sexuality, violence, politics and social lives. Taking Jenkins’ suggestion and applying it to music education, it could be possible to engage in similar conversations using multimodal resources such as YouTube, where image, video, text, and music are ways to discuss meaning, moral and ethical issues. By providing a way for youth to connect their interests outside of school to meaningful concepts in the classroom, educators may find a way to critically engage their students in ways that traditional routes have not had a chance to do otherwise.

While many teachers may believe that they already have existing participatory cultures in their classrooms, as they let their students surf the net for music videos and sheet music, they are not truly enabling a participatory culture. To clarify, a participatory culture must consist of a combination of the five outcomes that Jenkins’ identified. While it is beneficial to allow students to use new technologies and expand their knowledge online, they may really only be exploring potential new genres of music to listen to, or in the worst scenario, viewing the use of the computer for non-participatory related actions – as just another curriculum task that does not relate their out-of-school experience.


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