Key Approaches in Music Education and completing degree accreditation for NESA/AITSL

I’m coordinating a new (for me) Unit of Study (UoS) this coming semester at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Key Approaches in Music Education. This is first year course that follows on directly from Key Ideas in Music Education.

Taking over a UoS gives you chance to stamp your personality/philosophy on it. Ever since my first day (nearly 7 years ago!) at “the Con”, I’ve been utterly inspired by the UoS Outlines and associated assessment tasks that my colleague Dr Michael Webb created and subsequently that we collaborated on; he always balances the theoretical and the practical so beautifully, and his tasks for our undergraduates are always highly experiential and relevant to their future careers.

So what would I want to change?

Surprisingly, I’ve been rather inspired by the (re-)accreditation process for our degree (BMus (Music Education)) for AITSL which is administered in my state by NESA (who under the instructions of the last few ministers for education have made it not a little bit more onerous). I completed the first draft of our documentation just before taking a month’s leave recently, and it was over 187,000 words … and I know there’s much more to do. It has stopped me teaching, and thanks to endless (and very ill-advised) top-down cuts to our support staff by the big bosses at Sydney University, has almost entirely had to be done by me.


Which is why it’s surprising, perhaps, that I’ve been inspired by it. Aligning every UoS with the national “Standards”? (Always reminds me of the great Larry Rosenstock quote – he’s the CEO of High Tech High in San Diego – who told me “the problem with the idea of educational standards is that you’re only half a word away from standardization…”.

Larry Rosenstock

But many of them are well thought-out and very sensible (it’s more the reporting of them that is problematic, rather like the reporting in our primary and secondary school systems that sucks up teachers’ time and brainspace and diminishes their autonomy to respond to their communities and learners and differentiate), although often well out of balance (I’ve read quite a lot of the research about what’s lacking in pre-service teacher education, and the idea we need to think about future professional learning as much as kitting them out with behaviour management skills and content knowledge definitely doesn’t come up!).

And that lead me to think well, what would I have as music educator “standards”, if it were up to me to write them? What would I want every first-year-out music teacher to be able to do? And what does research suggest we need them to be able to do?

In addition to these questions, the accreditation demanded that we collect lots of data on what’s working – or not – in our degree. This ended up being a brilliant idea, although the way that they have us report it renders it a meaningless paper-push, because they don’t demand the data itself and the demands of the forms push you to align whatever you find out to what you want to “prove” for accreditation, rather than genuinely critically assess the data and your degree.

Nonetheless, I get to look at a survey I did with graduates of our degree since our last accreditation, and see what they consistently say we missed out of their training. Funnily enough, it’s not preparing them for future professional development, and it has a lot to do with behaviour management and content knowledge! And king of content knowledge was that they would have liked MUCH more training in Orff-Schulwerk – especially from those who go graduate and immediately access the professional development we all know is there, and do the “Orff levels” that are so brilliantly run by the NSW Orff-Schulwerk Association.

And, I have to say, we (the Music Education Division at SCM) all think that too – in fact, we had to cut it back when we were last accredited because we were told we needed to have more “up to date” pedagogies represented in our courses. (This matches some special nonsense the minister added in 2019, that all of our courses must feature readings from only the last 5 years … I pointed out that Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey haven’t published a lot in the last 5 years, but to no avail – and then a colleague pointed out that the syllabus was published in 2003, so we better stop getting them to read that, too!)

So! Key Ideas in Music Education last semester doubled the number of weeks of Orff-Schulwerk training. To six. Yes, I agree. We need 12. Maybe 24. But after the 6 week can and do re-visit and extend the pedagogy in lots of other subjects, so it’s a better start. And the assessment task I redesigned with this content was simply to peer-teach a melody through chunking and imitation, and then add two body percussion parts that the teacher-students had written themselves. A relatively easy task, but with weeks and weeks of modelling, one we demanded they must do well. No referring to music or notes – all from memory. Clear and arresting communication.

And this semester, we’re going to match that in Key Approaches in Music Education with 6 weeks of Kodaly and a similar assessment task that will include using Curwen hand signs … and then 6 weeks of contemporary pedagogies that I have really substantially redesigned.

In the past we’ve done a bit of a week-by-week tour of the last 60 years of music pedagogies, starting with the Creative Music movement, then comprehensive musicianship, cultural diversity in music education, and informal learning. This was pretty cool, but students complained of being confused by it all. So, we need a single theme to hang it all from, and that’s where I came back to the question of what would I want the “standards” to be for our graduates.

My answer came from one of our current undergrads, who having completed our Popular Music Education UoS, remarked that it was silly that many students passed that course but still couldn’t play a chord pattern on any instrument. And he’s right. That is silly. I was a classically trained pianist, and taught myself to improvise/vamp on chord patterns, but for students who come in playing violin or flute, or even piano but don’t have the inclination to learn this skill … they’ll never be able to walk into their music classroom and sightread a song to accompany/jam with their students.

So. We still want to introduce those pedagogies, but I’m going to teach the philosophy/history/pedagogy in flipped videos. And in the classes we’re going to find practical ways to engage with those ideas be jamming together – every student has to pick a new chord-playing instrument, and learn to play a number of chords, which we’ll also assess at the end of the course.

And to get a feel for how realistic this is as work to set in a single semester, I’M GOING TO DO THE PROJECT MYSELF, FIRST! So, over the holiday that I mentioned above, I’ve bought a Ukulele, and I’ve been busy learning it. I’ve asked the students to keep a learning diary, so I’ve been doing that myself too … which will be the next few blog posts. Dare I say it – it’s not only doable, but it’s even fun.


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