Revisiting 21st Century Skills in Music Education

As we began this century, it was understandably popular to discuss what skills students would need to succeed in the 2000s, and to consider in light of those identified skills in what ways, if any, education needed to adjust to possibly new demands the times would make on students as they transitioned into adulthood and the workforce. Then, as now, communication and critical thinking were prominent in those discussions. There is no reason to question the value of those skills which are both of timeless value, even though the latter was slighted in favor of rote learning in the early 20th century. But now that we are nearly a fifth of the way through the century, it seems to me good to re-evaluate what the most needed skills have so far appeared to be.

Interestingly, since the beginning of the century, mindfulness has emerged as perhaps the most emphasized skill. Though it comes as no surprise to arts educators, the emotional piece of both communicating and thinking critically was not given much thought. But now we have come to widely realize that understanding, managing and communicating our emotions has a great deal to do with how well we can solve problems and communicate with others. In other words, we must communicate with ourselves, and understand how we feel, how we think, how we effectively communicate, in order to bring those assets to what we do and to others.

Music educators skirted this realization in the early 1990s with the publication of Dimensions of Musical Thinking (Boardman, E., 1989). The authors discussed types of thinking applied to music, and ways in which students could become more proficient at understanding how they thought and how they learned. But at that point, there was little attention given to understanding oneself emotionally; it was mostly cognitively centered around skill acquisition.

David Elliott moved us closer as he championed praxial music education. Simply put, students would learn about music by doing, not the other way around as in traditional methods (Elliott, 1995). Elliott wrote that praxial education “is a knowledge building community that actualizes concepts authentically so that students not only learn comprehensively, they learn how to learn.” Elliott went on to write that “students get caught up in the enjoyment and excitement that surrounds their efforts to make ‘real music’ artistically and creatively.”

Enjoyment and excitement are feelings, and feelings are akin to but not the same as emotions. To understand the contribution music can make to mindfulness, we must first know what there is about music that elicits enjoyment and excitement. This is at the core of mindfulness knowing what we are feeling and why we are feeling. Because of the way the brain understands music that is being heard, music stimulates some of the same physical responses that are known as “fight or flight.” Music can raise our heart rate, cause the palms of our hands to sweat, give us “goose bumps” and even frighten us or bring on a chuckle. Because music can do this, students can practice managing those responses without actually being placed in a frightening, or overly stimulated situation. They can also talk about how they felt while they listened to the music, leading them to further understand both the feeling, and how they managed it.

It has been debated whether or not music can actually “make” a person feel or emote in a certain way. There is one line of thinking that argues that music is associated with life experiences during which an emotion or feeling was experienced, and it is the association and not the music itself that brings about the present experience of it. Be that as it may, music is involved in bring the onset of the emotional experience, and so is of value in practicing mindfulness. Learning can be facilitated by exploiting the associations with open ended questions. For example, one can ask, “how did you feel while you were listening to that music? What other experience can you remember during which you felt the same way? How was feeling that way now as you listened different from feeling that way then? If you were put in the same situation again, how do you think having felt that way from the music would help you manage how you feel in the situation?” In other words, just as music provides a healthy outlet for musical expression when we perform, it also provides a healthy means for understanding and managing emotions common to musical experience and other life experiences.

This raises the possibility of expanding Elliott’s vision of praxial education to include musical skills beyond executive and cognitive ones. It entails learning about emotions by experiencing emotions stimulated by involvement with music making as a listener, performer, and creator. Emotions are yet another shared element of musical experience through listening, performing, and discussing the emotional components of those experience across the learning community, be that a class, ensemble, or what have you. As the emotional component of one’s self becomes more understood, it then expands to inform one’s overall understanding of how one thinks and learns in the contexts of critical thinking and communicating. Indeed, practicing mindfulness requires critical thinking and communicating with self in order to obtain the self awareness being sought. Music is a valuable tool in obtaining this awareness.

Boardman, E. (1989). Dimensions of Musical Thinking, Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference.

Elliott, D. J. (1995). Music Matters A New Philosophy of Music Education. New York: Oxford University Press


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