Part Five: Curriculum Models

From “Times have Changed”

By Merlin B. Thompson

How can music teachers teach in ways that feel authentic and relevant to today’s students? What kind of explorations will be most valuable? How does teaching today’s music students differ from previous generations? What has changed? 

This essay is the fifth in a series devoted to the theme: Times have Changed. In this essay, I demonstrate how teachers may expand their teaching approach with the implementation of curriculum models. As always, my goal is to shed light on what’s necessary for teachers to respond to students in today’s music teaching context.

Curriculum Models – When I first began teaching some forty years ago, I had the impression that having the right curriculum/repertoire/materials for my students would guarantee their successful musical development. Somehow – if I could obtain the ideal materials, everything would go well. Students would make noticeable progress. They’d feel empowered to practice. And I could avoid the disruptions of students not making noticeable improvements or being disinterested in practicing. Yet, my search for the right curriculum turned out to be a journey with no end. Curriculum/repertoire/materials that proved successful one year sometimes resonated with students the next year. Sometimes not. Similarly, strategies that stimulated students’ attitude towards practicing one year might fall flat the next. 

If only I’d known sooner about the role curriculum models play in every students’ musical journey. What are curriculum models? In simple terms, curriculum models may be described as the sequence of experiences teachers employ to assist students in achieving proficiency. Whether intentionally, by accident, or by habit, when teachers select one curriculum model over another, they determine how they’ll guide their students’ musical journeys. The following four curriculum models are prominent with music teachers: 1. Teacher-led curriculum, 2. Student-led curriculum, 3. Student-sensitive curriculum, and 4. Shared curriculum. Each curriculum model is designed to meet the needs of a specific student group.

Starting with a Teacher-led curriculum, teachers may be most familiar with this model as it forms the basis of master/apprentice teaching wherein teachers use a formal, predetermined approach to guide students’ musical development from beginner to advanced levels. Examples of Teacher-led curriculum include sequential series like RCM exams, Suzuki Method, and method books from Faber & Faber, Alfred Publishing, and more. A Teacher-led curriculum is especially valuable in preparing students for exams, competitions, and auditions where much of what students explore is outside their skill and knowledge base. 

With a Student-led curriculum, teachers recognize that students’ musical journey is 100% driven by students’ intrinsic musical interests. This model is evident in adult amateurs, teens with adequate musical skills, and beginners who pursue music studies because they have specific repertoire explorations in mind. Here, students are well-aware of the directions they’d like to take. Their own musical connections provide the ongoing catalyst for musical exploration.

In a Student-sensitive curriculum, teachers typically modify an established instructional series to accommodate students with special learning needs. Teachers create modifications so that students make progress through manageable steps appropriate to students’ physical limitations or mental development challenges. 

Finally, a Shared curriculum is characterized by the strategic blending of teacher guidance and student interests. In this case, both teachers and students have meaningful input, particularly in selecting repertoire right from the very first lesson. For example, teachers may choose 50% of material and students choose 50%. A Shared curriculum offers the foundation and flexibility needed to ensure that both students and teachers make vital contributions to students’ musical journeys. 

Diverse Student Interests – Over the expanse of my forty-year teaching career, it’s interesting to note how my teaching has experienced all of the above curriculum models. During the first two decades of teaching, my familiarity with Teacher-led curriculum meant I consistently helped my students through a Teacher-led curriculum (most often) and a Student-sensitive curriculum (as appropriate). And I would probably still be teaching that way, except through a combination of various events, students, parents, and colleagues, I gradually grew more confident with a Shared-curriculum approach. These days Shared curriculum is my preferred modus operandi. With this model, I establish trust and get to know my students’ musical interests so that when we need to make adjustments – with a teacher-led, student-sensitive, or student-led curriculum – we have the practical backdrop for how we’ll respectfully work together. In this way, I use a Shared curriculum as the gateway to each of the four curriculum models in order to meet the needs of my diverse student group. 

What seems abundantly evident is that without meaningful attention to curriculum models, teachers’ capacity for responding to diverse student musical interests may be enhanced or compromised. Students with strong internal motivations to pursue their own personal or cultural directions may not be served well by a Teacher-led curriculum. They may feel completely unrecognized by the focus on predetermined musical outcomes. Elsewhere, students attempting to complete formalized music requirements may not be served well by a Student-led curriculum. They may struggle with plans to complete academic music requirements because there’s simply too much they cannot figure out on their own.

Times have changed – Today’s music teachers are working in a period of immense change. We’re teaching in a time where teachers’ choice of curriculum model makes a huge difference. An era wherein it’s possible to evaluate different curriculum models for their benefits and disadvantages. In today’s context, what seems desirable is that teachers genuinely align their curriculum with the aspirations students bring to their musical journey.

Now that I’ve got you thinking about how Times have Changed related to four curriculum models, here are a few questions for your attention:

  1. How do you feel about each of the four curriculum models? Which feels familiar? Which feels unfamiliar?
  2. What do you see is involved in aligning your curriculum with the musical aspirations students bring?
  3. How do you recognize student diversity in your studio? Where are the challenges? Where are your successes?
  4. How do you feel about change?
  5. What makes you nervous about moving away from the tradition of teacher-led curriculum?
  6. What makes you excited about using four curriculum models to guide your students’ musical journeys?