Finding Common Ground through Curriculum Design

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Finding Common Ground through Curriculum Design

Brian Bersh, Music Department Head, Germantown Friends School, Philadelphia, PA; Cohort Member, Global Leaders Program 2022

The author leads a curriculum workshop. Photo: Brian Bersh.

As a member of the 2022 Global Leaders Cohort, I recently completed fieldwork at The Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory offers the only NASM-accredited undergraduate and graduate music degrees in Puerto Rico, and faculty are in the process of reviewing their music education curriculum to ensure that it continues to be responsive to its many stakeholders. While on campus, I presented a series of workshops related to curriculum, assessment, and evaluation. Throughout it all, I was reminded of the immense value of connecting with colleagues with different professional and life experiences.

Discussions on curriculum-building are particularly effective at bringing together people with diverse experiences. The process of designing curriculum has the power to transcend traditionally imposed grade-level, ensemble, or content boundaries. In Puerto Rico, conversations were richer for our differences; context-dependent teaching experiences—moments of recognizing challenges and opportunities through a culturally informed lens—did not limit our ability to participate. Nor did our geographic differences. In fact, a wealth of different perspectives ended up serving as common ground.

The Untapped Potential of Curriculum Discussions

Much of the professional development that I’ve experienced has focused on techniques for teaching within a curriculum’s scope. Given the short-term nature of many professional development offerings, and perhaps the interests of those paying to access them, I understand providers’ focus on such tangible skills. After all, when I am inspired by student performance, my first reaction is often to think about which rehearsal strategies and methodologies supported the performance. I am not as quick to consider the multi-year or multi-semester sequence of skills and standards that prepared students for their moment of musical success. Preoccupied with real-time teaching techniques, I lose sight of the more important question: how can I can tweak my curriculum to better reflect long-term student achievement goals and the program’s mission and vision?

Developing effective teaching strategies is important, but if those strategies are the sole focus of professional development, music educators will miss invaluable opportunities for collaboration outside of their specific content areas. There is great value in learning from peers who serve communities different from our own.

And every music program is unique. Our teaching circumstances depend on the structures in place to support us, the financial resources of our institutions, the demographics of our students, and the social and cultural characteristics of the communities where we teach. Because we must personalize our instruction to reflect these circumstances, it is logical that we would seek out a network of colleagues in similar situations with whom lesson plans and rehearsal techniques might easily transfer. However, we should consider the impact that surrounding ourselves in pedagogical echo chambers, disconnected from the broader world of music-making, might have on our programs’ capacity to grow and meet the needs of an ever-changing population.

Five Key Questions for Every Music Teacher

Too often, curriculum design is reserved for a few administrators or lead teachers, even though it is integral to understanding and supporting musicianship development. But this process has the potential to unlock incredible opportunities for collaboration in our field, unifying stakeholders by giving everyone an equal voice in the conversation. Whether you instruct a choir or steel band, teach general music, or run a community orchestra, the process of curriculum-building directly impacts your students’ success. Here are a series of questions that music educators can use to learn from each other.

  • How do we determine the depth and breadth of appropriate content for the learners we serve?
  • How do we determine a sequence for instruction that enables learners to use prior knowledge and life experiences as a bridge to new skills?
  • How can we structure opportunities to review essential skills that we have determined to be fundamental to the continuity of student learning?
  • How will we connect the many aspects of our curriculum so that students can transfer knowledge and comprehend the relationships between the skills they are learning and their experiences?
  • What process can be undertaken to ensure that the sequence of instruction a student receives from grade to grade, or semester to semester, is intentionally related? How can that process be approached when working with multiple instructors or volunteers?

A Path Forward

Working with young teachers in Puerto Rico led me to reflect on my own experience as a young teacher. Teaching in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I have access to a network of support and institutional knowledge—certification programs, state conferences, music education associations, sample curricula from my state’s Department of Education. This robust network of government and institutional support is not readily available to music teachers in Puerto Rico, despite an incredible culture of music-making and a deep pool of talented music educators and students. This is not a Puerto Rico-specific problem; there are many teachers and school systems worldwide that lack support for music education. I see a great opportunity for institutions and organizations that have the curricular know-how and resources to collaborate with school systems or with individual teachers who lack structural support.

Since my fieldwork, I have been more active in reaching out to educators who teach in different contexts from my own, and have been continually rewarded with the insights and inspirations that come from their perspective. Cultural and pedagogical exchanges of ideas, experiences, practices—eventually, even our resources—can enrich our work. Attention to curriculum development can support new teachers in their early years, aid in better retention for the music teaching profession, and bring music teachers from different walks of life together to learn from each other and develop innovative approaches to music education. 


© Copyright 2022 Ensemble News