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.

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Facilitating Learning Opportunities: Pedagogical Concerns

The picture of how youth are “plugged-in” to these participatory cultures is painted by Jenkins in such a way that there are equal benefits and consequences for this emergent culture. While Jenkins’ (2009) research noted the main competencies that emerge from participatory cultures, he also recognized the flaws of this informal way of learning within a technological culture. He identified three pedagogical concerns, which I posit provide music educators with a crucial role in helping educate their students to be informed citizens of the physical and virtual informal music worlds.

The first concern is the “participation gap”, where youth do not all possess the same skills and abilities to navigate technology, nor do they all possess identical access to these new technologies, which lead to a “digital divide” (Jenkins, 2009, p. 16). In response, many teachers do not incorporate these mediums into their classrooms, or if they do, they require that all students have equal access to the computers or media. By implementing equal access to all students, this reduces the possibilities for creative expression for the youth already engaging with these technologies in advanced ways. This also increases the knowledge gap for students who have little to no experience with these technologies, as they may not be able to keep up to the same pace as their peers. The role of the music teacher is then essential, in creating opportunities for more advanced learners to flourish, and to enable new learners of these technologies the ability to increase their knowledge. Music educators can play the role of a facilitator for peer-to-peer learning opportunities, where their advanced students can take on leadership roles in sharing their expertise with their classmates.

The second concern for Jenkins (2009) is the “transparency problem”, where the increased access of the Internet and mobile devices allows for an inundation of information available at a moments notice, and youth do not always have the knowledge and awareness to critically understand the messages within the media. The role of the music educator for this problem is clear, as youth require a way to separate fact from fiction, and to understand that not all information they interact with online is fully factual. The teacher can use this opportunity to help youth make connections between what they learn online and what the messages might be. Take for example the scenario where youth are learning to sing via tutorials broadcast by other teens on YouTube – the content, lyrics and messages in the song they are learning may potentially be morally, ethically or socially offensive, yet without critical thought or discussion about that, youth may be oblivious to the underlying messages.

Finally, the third concern for Jenkins (2009) is the “ethics challenge”, where the anonymity of identities on the Internet can be a worrisome aspect. The ethics challenge incorporates the reality that many youth may disclose personal details online, which can be used by disreputable individuals or organizations that prey on children. Youth do not always have the knowledge to be able to differentiate between what is “good” and “bad” online, and connect it to what is ethical in the physical world. For instance, within the online communities where music can be for listening, learning, remixing or adapting for creative expression, youth need to have critical discussions about whether appropriating someone else’s music or Art is suitable behaviour.

As the facilitators of critical discussions surrounding these issues that emerge from technological advances, music educators in this new context now have the opportunity to provide a space for expansive learning opportunities for youth to explore their musical creativity and expression (O’Neill, 2012; Peluso & O’Neill, 2011), while bridging the gap between formal music education and informal music learning practices.

Possibilities for Music Education

If the purpose of education were to provide students with the skills and knowledge to become full participants in their creative, public and social communities (The New London Group, as cited in Cope & Kalantzis, 2003), then it would appear that music education would also hope to encompass those goals. To enable youth to achieve this inclusive sense of community through music education, music educators need to understand how their students experience music both in and outside of school, and more so, allow their students to contribute to their music education with their own knowledge and skills. By envisioning music education within the classroom as a space to equally explore formal curriculum, informal music learning practices and aspects of participatory cultures, music educators may potentially be able to foster this comprehensive goal for educating youth to become a part of this creative, social, technological and civic community. Youth are already learning and experiencing music and a sense of community outside of school walls, yet do not have a forum within formal education to express and share their knowledge. Just as Green (2007) poses that informal music learning practices are able to be a part of formal music education, it would seem that the affinity spaces found in participatory cultures could also foster a new identity for music education, where music educators build upon their students’ existing skills and competencies in informal music practices and technology. Through informal music learning practices within their online participatory cultures, youth not only encounter music but are entrenched in musical and technological worlds, in which they learn and share musical knowledge; youth can potentially bring these skills and practices into the classroom. As Green (2007) suggests that educators learn these informal music practices along side their students, acting as peers rather than ‘teachers of knowledge’, music educators may also find that they are able to learn from their students how participatory cultures can enable learning music to be a part of a community, rather than a classroom lesson to be mastered.

In viewing music education as no longer just an institutional entity on its own, music educators can include informal learning practices and participatory cultures within their classrooms to create a comprehensive understanding of the ways youth are experiencing and learning music, both at school and outside of school walls. I don’t attempt to provide precise solutions to strengthen these connections between music at school and outside school walls, yet I do believe that through further research, and by providing educators with an understanding of these informal music learning practices and participatory cultures, we can start the conversation for change in music education to include the meaningful ways that youth are engaging with music.

Final Thoughts

Contemporary music educators are faced with a changing landscape of music education, where youth are no longer learning music solely through formal music learning practices. Music is a large part of contemporary youth’s lives and culture, especially as musical creation, learning and expression are possible without the assistance or supervision of an adult. In considering that the purpose of education according to the New London Group is to foster a culture of public, creative, economic and community based participation (Cope & Kalantzis, 2003), the technological advances in creative expression online that have led to participatory cultures and the various forms of informal music learning practices that youth engage in, provide a way for music educators to facilitate connections for youth between their musical experiences outside of school walls and within music education. By identifying the main description of Green’s (2007) informal music learning practices, and using that, in conjunction with Jenkins’ (2009) outcomes from involvement in participatory cultures, it is possible to provide scenarios to help music educators understand their new roles within these new spaces for learning. These scenarios and newfound knowledge can also help music educators to understand these non-traditional forms of musical learning, and finally how they can be embedded into music education as a complement and connection to musical learning in the classroom, rather than an unwelcome interruption or an addendum to formal music practices.


Photo by Nosha



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