Musical knowledge, critical consciousness and critical thinking

Spruce, Gary (2012). Musical knowledge, critical consciousness and critical thinking. In: Philpott, Chris and Spruce, Gary eds. Debates in Music Teaching. Debates in Subject Teaching. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 185–196.



The concept of critical thinking is understood in a number of ways. In some definitions it is close to the idea of metacognition - ‘thinking about thinking’ - whilst in others it describes a process of ‘logical thinking’ involving the gathering, assimilation and analysis of evidence from which emerges a ‘reasoned’ conclusion. In his book Democracy and Music Education (2005) Paul Woodford suggests that although critical thinking is supposed to ‘develop independence of mind’ it is almost always equated in curriculum documents ‘with the application and development of abstract thinking skills and abilities divorced from social, moral, ethical or political considerations’ and that ‘Few music teachers realize that this separation of mind and matter is a perversion of what Dewey, one of the fathers of the contemporary critical thinking movement, intended’ (Woodford 2005: 95).

In this chapter I will explore critical thinking as part of the framework of critical (social) theory and examine how, as I have written elsewhere, ‘properly embedded, critical thinking and understanding enables pupils to make connections between their musical learning in school and their lived reality, and thus empower them as learners’(Spruce 2009: 36). Critical thinking is here conceptualized as a key element in the development of a more socially just society in which all are enabled to fully participate. I will argue however that in order to create the conditions within which critical thinking can flourish, we need to examine the ways in which knowledge is conceptualized and understood and how knowledge, particularly in school, is positioned in relation to the ‘knower’ or ‘learner’. I will suggest that such a reconceptualization will inevitably present challenges to some pedagogical approaches.

I begin the chapter by exploring the philosophical underpinning of some commonly-held conceptions of the nature of knowledge and the relationship of the knower to knowledge; noting through examples from music education the impact these relationships can have on young people’s experiences of music in school. Drawing on the ideas of Paulo Freire (1970; 1974) I will then explore how through a process of ‘conscientization’ leading to critical consciousness, and supported by a critical pedagogy, critical thinking might be nurtured and ‘independence of mind’ developed within the music classroom. At various points in the chapter I will exemplify the points being made with brief examples or more worked out ‘case studies’ from music classroom practice.

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