Thoughts on Why Music Schools Must Embed Context into the Curriculum

Yesterday, I wrote this post, which discusses the role of arts entrepreneurship in higher education. After the post, I started thinking more deeply about the role that context plays in the process of educating our arts students.

Higher education helps students go deep in a few subject areas, but mostly, the courses students take provide a big picture overview of many subjects. The odd thing is that the professors teaching the big picture overview courses most likely got their teaching positions because they went incredibly deep in a very specific subject area. Teaching a big picture class is antithetical to the depth of work and research most professors conducted in their studies in order to get the position they have teaching their general studies courses.

Instead of big picture classes, our current college students need depth classes with less content so they can take the information learned and connect it to the broader context of our 21st century world.

Here are a few additional thoughts on the value of context:

We now have unlimited access to knowledge.
Smart phones allow us to have every imaginable fact and figure in the palm of our hands. Instead of memorizing dates and facts about moments in history, work in higher education must turn towards helping students develop a way to organize, categorize and easily find the information in order to use it in our hyper-connected world.

Instead of broad strokes, context allows us to focus.
Imagine an assignment in which a student is asked to research a work by Palestrina and connect it, composer by composer over the years, to Morten Lauridsen’s latest work. Would you get 45 different papers? Absolutely, and there’s a good chance they’d all be correct. Context is about connecting the dots. Assignments such as the one described here would allow students to understand deeply, how to utilize the endless amount of information available to them.

Note: An amazing byproduct to this way of thinking is that it would allow us to hire professors to teach the subject area in which they are most passionate and then connect the dots to other relevant touch points.

Context allows us to embed arts entrepreneurship into the course of study.
One of the biggest challenges with arts entrepreneurship is that it is often an extra curricular endeavor. Creating a school-wide expectation that courses embed an element of context into the course of study, deepens their understanding of the content, and helps students think about how they might apply the information after graduation.

What role does context play at your institution? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below and, as always, if this post was enjoyable to you, I would greatly appreciate it if you shared it with your network.


(Photo Credit: TH)

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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