Creating, not Predicting, the Future: The Case for Effectual Thinking in Postsecondary Music Education

September 20, 2018

Recently, I designed and began teaching a new ensemble course called Music Collaboratory. But a funny thing happened on the way to the podium: I decided to dismiss the director. That’s right—I terminated myself. At the first class meeting, I announced this decision, recast myself as a faculty mentor, and introduced a framework for transferring nearly all of the authority to the students through a system of collaborative governance. I offered only one dictum—“own this experience!”—and passed out the syllabus, which was a blank sheet of paper. My students smiled at first but quickly realized the empty syllabus was no joke. Working together, we used the remainder of the class period to craft the syllabus by sharing opinions and coming to a consensus on outcomes, format, evaluation criteria, and logistics. In the ensuing weeks, I quite literally lurked in the wings of the recital hall as my students sorted themselves into four separate performing groups, negotiated repertoire choices, arranged and composed songs, taught one another, ran rehearsals, and performed both on and off campus. The end of the semester was a celebration. Both my students and I found the student-centered environment we created to be more meaningful, productive, and relevant to the realities of a career in music than traditional teacher-centered instruction. I offer this account as a testament to the appeal of this approach for both faculty and students, and to introduce the framework of Effectual Thinking (Sarasvathy, 2001)—a type of entrepreneurial logic that helps conceptualize teaching and learning as inherently creative endeavors.

In the book Intelligent Music Teaching, Duke (2015) describes a common problem with school-based learning:

Think back through your school experiences and you will likely find that most of what you did in school was in response to directives from teachers...but once school ends, the tasks required of us are not so clearly spelled out by others. We’re expected not only to answer questions put to us by others, we’re expected to formulate questions ourselves. And in school, when do students practice that? (14)

To paraphrase Duke, students do not assume agency over their learning nearly enough. Take a moment and make a mental list of the tasks required for success as an independent practitioner of music. Your list might include things like running rehearsals and setting up a P.A. system, or higher-order skills like mediating artistic choices among colleagues and adapting musical arrangements on the fly. Now, consider when (and how often) your students practice these tasks at your school. The answer might not be pleasing to you. Formal music education typically features one central decision-maker (the teacher) guiding learners in what Sarasvathy describes as “causal thinking”: trying to predict the future by identifying a desired end result and searching for the best means to achieve it. The problem is, this causal approach is not always well-suited to the dynamic world in which we live—especially today’s artistic landscape. Sarasvathy coined “effectual thinking” to describe an alternative process: trying to shape the future by starting with the means at hand and leveraging them to find new and different ends that are not necessarily predetermined. This effectual mindset serves as the foundation of entrepreneurship, but also lies at the heart of constructivist teaching approaches where students are encouraged to become reflective knowledge producers rather than mere consumers of content.

Traditionally, collegiate-level music education is focused on a series of predictable targets. These might include theoretical mastery of four-part voice leading in the style of Bach, or artistry demonstrated through performance of standard repertoire. Such goals are worthy of our teaching efforts, and we generally do a good job leading students to achieve them. Our students need grounding in these areas in order to think about and do the things that musicians do. The problem is, today’s artists live in an effectual-thinking world with little certainty, yet the majority of their formal educational experiences place a singular focus on causal thinking. Consider the traditional ensemble model in this light. A performing group guided by causal thinking prioritizes the educational value gleaned from re-creating existing music, while one guided by effectual thinking acknowledges the affordable loss of a portion of that traditional value for the sake of creating something new and unexpected. Upper echelon ensembles often employ an additional hallmark of causal thinking—competitiveness—to drive achievement. Effectually-minded performance groups might do that, too, but are more apt to promote peer mentoring, or to establish strategic partnerships with outside artists and organizations. Most of all, while a causally-oriented ensemble program stresses prediction, or strategic variance reduction through conformity and minimization of mistakes, an effectually-oriented ensemble program embraces uncertainty and mistakes as keys to enriched learning. Sarasvathy (2001) dubbed this a process of “leveraging contingencies,” or turning the unexpected into the valuable, and argues that this type of thinking is “the heart of entrepreneurial expertise” (6). Moreover, these core principles of effectual thinking—embracing affordable loss, collaborating strategically, and leveraging contingencies—are activated by exploiting three given means that everyone possesses: who you are, what you know, and who you know.1For more information, including graphics and videos explaining the process of effectual thinking, visit the Society for Effectual Action’s web site at

After thinking about all of this, I asked myself the following question: How might I create a music learning environment that requires students to think, collaborate, and create like real-world musicians do? The answer was to let go of my traditional faculty role, a shift that was easier said than done. Like many faculty members, I was conditioned to serve as the primary dispenser of knowledge in my classroom, probably because my teachers modeled the same approach when I was a student. In order to create the conditions necessary for effectually-oriented learning to occur, I simply established some structural guideposts for my students and stepped aside. This might sound reminiscent of chamber music, and that comparison is fitting granted a few extensions. First, there were no preconceived expectations regarding what the ensemble would entail. In co-creating the syllabus and allowing students’ musical skills, interests, and sensibilities to guide everything from personnel groupings to composition of new works, our mantra was less “what do we need to achieve?” and more “what have we got to lose?” Second, early on my students decided that our musical activities should serve a higher purpose within our community, so we established a strategic partnership with the office of student support services at our school. This enabled my students to identify as socially-aware artists collaborating to help others, and culminated in fundraisers at several of our performances to benefit assistance programs for students in need. Last and most broadly was a collective embrace of surprises as valuable resources. When one student leader unexpectedly dropped the course, it created space for a less assertive student to assume a leadership role. When there were too many keyboard players in another group, it enabled one member, a concert pianist, to unearth talents in percussion and bass guitar. In other words, we tried to remain open to “the upside opportunity that surprises—even negative ones—can represent” (Read, Sarasvathy, Dew, & Wiltbank, 2017, 182).

Granting students such high levels of autonomy also required a different approach to assessing their learning: critical reflection. Like all aspects of the ensemble, this approach seemed to be more effective because it was facilitated, not dictated, by me. Students participated in many forms of self, peer, and course evaluation, all designed to encourage metacognitive critique. Recent studies of music pedagogy in higher education demonstrate the transformative effects of mindful, reflective practice (Gaunt & Westerlund, 2016; Latukefu, 2009). I found that my students could evaluate their own work with greater rigor and objectivity than I expected, and with deeper consciousness of how their learning was situated within and inseparable from the social context of the ensembles they built together (see “situated cognition,” Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Further, by establishing a culture of shared accountability, I avoided injecting an air of artificiality that may have arisen if I alone wielded all the evaluative power.

At the end of the semester, reactions to the course were uniformly positive, and not one student mentioned the lack of a strong central faculty figure as a detriment to their learning. On the contrary, many expressed that they finally felt in control of their musical education. I believe that postsecondary music education is most effective when students own the process through active engagement, and when they collaboratively construct and reflect on new skills and experiences. Causal thinkers start with a desired end in mind and try to find the best means to achieve it. Effectual thinkers start with the means at hand and use them to find innovative ends which are not necessarily predetermined. These two frames of mind are not mutually exclusive; rather, they intersect and amplify one another. The best teachers know how to teach both. In writing this brief essay, my hope is to add bricks and mortar to the foundational conversations regarding what it means to be a 21st century musician, and how current models of postsecondary preparation may or may not align with that truth. The College Music Society Manifesto of 2014 (Sarath, Myers, & Campbell) laid the groundwork: “In a musical world bustling with change, curricular frameworks that limit students from taking responsibility for their own development, and for the exploration of music in real-world contexts, are highly questionable” (30). Indeed, we as a profession should embrace effectual thinking as we continue to debate the future of music in the academy—a future that we need not try to predict because, together, we control it.


1 For more information, including graphics and videos explaining the process of effectual thinking, visit the Society for Effectual Action’s web site at


Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. 1989. “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher 18 (1), 32–42.  doi:10.3102/0013189x0180.

Duke, R. A. 2015. Intelligent Music Teaching. Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources.

Gaunt, H., & Westerlund, H., eds. 2016. Collaborative Learning in Higher Music Education. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Latukefu, L. 2009. “Peer Learning and Reflection: Strategies Developed by Vocal Students in a Transforming Tertiary Setting.” International Journal of Music Education, 27(2), 128–142.  doi:10.1177/0255761409102320.

Read, S., Sarasvathy, S., Dew, N., & Wiltbank, R. 2017. Effectual Entrepreneurship. 2nd ed. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Sarasvathy, S. D. 2001. What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial? Darden Case no. UVA-ENT-0065. Retrieved from

Sarath, E. W., Myers, D. E., & Campbell, P. S. 2014. Transforming Music Study from Its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors. Retrieved from


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