Critical Thinking in Music Teaching

Teachers ask questions for different reasons in the United States and in Japan. In the United States, the purpose of a question is to get an answer. In Japan, teachers pose questions to stimulate thought. A Japanese teacher considers a question to be a poor one if it elicits an immediate answer, for this indicates that students were not challenged to think. One teacher we interviewed told us of discussions she had with her fellow teachers on how to improve teaching practices. "What do you talk about?" we wondered. "A great deal of time," she reported, "is spent talking about questions we can pose to the class which wordings work best to get students involved in thinking and discussing the material. One good question can keep a whole class going for a long time; a bad one produces little more than a simple answer."

-- Harold W. Stevenson (Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan) and James W. Stigler (Professor of Psychology, UCLA) in The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing.

As Richard Paul has recently stated, although "critical thinking" has long been recognized as a powerful tool for learning, our educational system at all levels has not yet fully exploited the value of that tool on a large scale. Professors who "dictate" and students who "reiterate" -- talking teachers and quiet students -- still dominate most classrooms.

A growing body of evidence, however, suggests that the Critical Thinking Movement (a kind of antidote to the "cultural literacy" trend of recent years) is gradually emerging as a vigorous force in pedagogical circles. In addition to The Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique (Sonoma State University), which has been prominent in American education for over a decade, newer groups, such as The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (NCECT) and the International Center for the Assessment of Higher Order Thinking (ICAT) have been promoting the importance of developing students who ask probing questions; who seek to investigate the "how and why" of things; who examine tacit assumptions; who analyze implications and consequences. Such students hold an enormous advantage over the learner who memorizes bits and pieces of information as if they were so many BBs in a bag.

In music teaching of all types (classrooms, rehearsal halls, private-lesson studios, CAI, etc.) opportunities abound for fostering the goals of the Critical Thinking movement goals that include not just being able to think logically and fairmindedly about one's own beliefs and viewpoints but also about diametrically opposed beliefs and viewpoints not just to think about them but to explore their adequacy, their cohesion, their very reasonableness vis-à-vis our own. Moreover, as Richard Paul has compellingly argued, a person who thinks critically is not just willing and able to explore alien, potentially threatening viewpoints, but also desires to do so. Such students question their own deeply held beliefs and, if there are no opposing viewpoints ready at hand, will seek them out or construct them from scratch.

This issue of flexibility of viewpoint recalls the following story:

One day the husband of a woman who was sitting for a portrait by Picasso dropped in on the artist at his studio. "What do you think?" Picasso asked, revealing the nearly finished canvas. The husband cleared his throat, stalling for time in which to think of a polite response. "Well," he said at last, "it's not how she really looks." "And how does she really look?" the painter countered. Refusing to be bullied by this fierce artist, the husband reached into his wallet and produced a snapshot. "Like this," he said. Picasso studied the photograph. "I see," he concluded. "Small, isn't she?"

Exploring opposing points of view involves far more than rational skills. It involves attitudes and passions, as well. It is not just something students do in school; it should permeate their lives. Critical thinking is not exactly just a species of thinking; rather it is a species of living. It is living, in Socrates's phrase, an examined life, a deeply examined life. To become a critical thinker is not, in the end, to be the same person as before only with more knowledge or better abilities; it is, in an important sense, to become a different person.

Suspending judgement is another aspect of critical thinking. The willingness and ability to suspend judgement is not a skill or passion exactly, though both are present. It is closer to an attitude, but that doesn't really capture it either, because it is the kind of attitude that exists only in concert with a host of other attitudes: humility enough to recognize that one does not know an answer, self-confidence enough to assert one's self, morality enough to feel there is something wrong in acting as if one knows when one does not. It includes the level of honesty at which one lives life; how one responds, thinks, feel about an issue, other people; how one feels about one's self. This is the kind of person that real education tries to produce.

To maintain that there is not a single, convergent, complete answer to multi-dimensional questions is not at all to say that any answer is as good as any another; it is not to say that "it all depends on your point of view." Discussion, comparison, evidence, arguments, persuasion, explorations of consequences and motives, critical tests where possible are the deciding factors. Critical thinking is never mere discussion; it is always reason-backed and experience-backed discussion. It is subjecting one's point of view to critical scrutiny (and perhaps to refutation).

A handy comparison of the hidden assumptions lurking behind traditional teaching methodology (here called Didactic Teaching) with the assumptions of the Critical Thinking Model can be readily seen in the following chart (adapted from Richard Paul, Critical Thinking). Such a chart can challenge all of us to re-evaluate the philosophical underpinnings of our own goals and style as we operate in a variety of pedagogical settings each day of our lives as teachers.

Didactic TeachingCritical Thinking Model
1. Fundamental Needs
Teach what to think, not how to think (i.e., students will learn I how to think if they can only get in their heads what to think). Students are given or told details, definitions, explanations, rules, guidelines, reasons to learn. Teach how to think: one should focus on significant content but should raise issues that stimulate students to gather, analyze, and assess that content.
2. Nature of Knowledge
Knowledge is independent of the thinking that generates, organizes, and applies it. Students are said to know when they can repeat what has been covered; they are given the finished product of someone else's thought. Knowledge is generated, organized, applied, synthesized, and assessed by thinking. Gaining knowledge is unintelligible without engaging in thinking. Students are given opportunities to puzzle their way through to knowledge and explore its justification as part of the process of learning.
3. Model of the Educated Person
The educated, literate persons are: repositories of content analogous to an encyclopedia or data bank, directly comparing situations in the world with facts they carry about fully formed as a result of an absorptive process; the educated person is a true believer, a possessor of truth, and therefore claims much knowledge. Textbooks, assignments, lectures, discussions, and exams are detail-oriented and content-dense. The educated person is a repository of strategies, principles, concepts, and insights embedded in processes of thought rather than in atomic facts. The educated person is characterized by experiences analyzed and organized by critical thought, rather than facts picked up one-by-one. Much of what is known is constructed by the thinker as needed from context to context, not prefabricated in sets of true statements about the world. An educated person is fundamentally a seeker and questioner rather than a true believer, therefore is cautious in claiming knowledge. The classroom should be a lab for questions and problems; teachers should model insightful consideration of questions and problems and lead useful discussion.
4. Transmitting Knowledge
Knowledge, truth, and understanding can be transmitted from one person to another in verbal or written statements. One cannot directly give another what one has learned, but can only foster the conditions under which people learn for themselves by figuring out or thinking things through.
5. Status of Questioning
Students with no questions are learning well, while students with a lot of questions are experiencing difficulties. Doubt and questioning, by deepening understanding, can strengthen belief by putting it on more solid ground. Student progress should be measured by the ability to ask better and more perceptive questions that extend and apply learning (Is that why...? Does this mean that ... ? Then, what if...?).
6. Atomistic vs. Holistic Knowledge
Knowledge can be learned best by being broken down into elements, and elements into sub-elements, each taught sequentially. Knowledge is additive with masses of details, little back-and-forth movement. Knowledge can only be learned by many on-going acts of synthesis, with many cycles from wholes to parts and parts to wholes, tentative grouping of the whole, periodic focusing on parts (relative to each other). The relationship of wholes to other wholes is frequently canvassed.
7. Assessment of Knowledge
Students who can correctly answer questions, provide definitions, and apply formulae while taking tests have proven their knowledge and understanding. Proof of knowledge or understanding is found in the students' ability to explain in their own words, with appropriately chosen examples and supporting factual documentation, the meaning and significance of the knowledge, why it is so, and to recall it spontaneously and use it when relevant.
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Last modified on Friday, 03/05/2013

Michael R. Rogers

Michael R. Rogers, Founding Editor of the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, is the author of Teaching Approaches in Music Theory (2004) and co-author of the multi-volume, Tonality and Design in Music Theory (2005), as well as numerous journal articles on pedagogy and analysis.  His teaching appointments have included the University of Maryland, University of Arizona, Michigan State University, Australian National University, and the University of Oklahoma, where he was the Kenneth and Bernadine Russell Endowed Professor of Music Theory (now retired).  His current appointment is as Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon, where he teaches part time and continues his research on the role of intuition in musical performance.

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