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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Morrison

Social Emotional Learning and the Future of Music Education

It is no secret that many parts of our lives have changed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. As we begin to return to a sense of normalcy, we can begin to question what parts of normal are worth returning to, especially as this relates to music education. One of the hottest topics that arose during the pandemic was the need for social emotional learning (SEL). There is no question that every educator desires to meet each of their student’s social and emotional needs, but as we think about SEL and it’s relationship to music education, we are looking at a pedagogical approach that has yet to be fully explored to its maximum potential.

People can look at SEL and music education as two separate concepts, and can also make an argument that they are the same. It is important to recognize how SEL is naturally embedded in music education, but it is even more important to recognize how it is not always intentional. We have yet to fully look at all of the benefits intentional SEL may provide in the music classroom in regards to creating both great musicians and even greater people and what that truly means. We all know the benefits of music education, and what it can do for our students. The question I ask is, “After centuries of musical instruction happening all over the world, is there any way we can do it better?” This doesn't mean everything has to change, but can our philosophical outlook change as we recognize that maybe we can do things better? Nothing ever gets better by staying exactly the same. We can always re-evaluate our methods and approaches, but on a greater scale, it is time to take a hard look at SEL and all of the benefits it has, as well as the layers of depth we have not yet explored as it relates to our pedagogical approaches.

SEL has yet to be completely infused with student leadership methodology, beginning band and orchestra methodology, modern band pedagogy, marching band pedagogy, choir methods, general music, and ultimately every facet of music education. The SEL competencies have only recently been fused with the music education standards, and this is only the beginning. From fostering a positive classroom culture, to flipping the classroom, to playing with a characteristic sound on each instrument, or even marching with an 8 to 5 step, improvisation, SEL can be imagined in ways where students take complete ownership of their learning, by addressing each part of the educational scaffold pre k-12, collegiate, and beyond with a critical lens of, “How many possible ways does this activity relate to self-awareness, social-awareness, and responsible decision making?”

Through this SEL lens we may embark upon a paradigm shift in the way we think about the role of music education. Exercises as simple as keeping a steady beat can be infused with reflection strategies that lead young musicians to developing a steady beat faster by fostering critical thinking as it relates to self-awareness. Within the same exercise of keeping a steady beat as a group, we can begin to look at the beginnings of ensemble responsibility and how keeping a steady beat as a group is a prime example of social awareness. To completely keep a steady beat as an ensemble requires the group to work together as a team, and each individual is responsible for having an opinion on whether or not the group is in time, rushing, or dragging, not just the teacher.

Beyond keeping time, students should be encouraged to have an opinion about every rep in every practice, it just doesn’t always have to be voiced out loud. That is the difference between mindful and mindless repetition/exercise. A simple, yet important adjustment will lead to improvement.

The teacher does not have to be the only person responsible for fostering individual growth in the music classroom. In fact, constant criticism and feedback from the teacher is not intentional SEL at all. All students have a voice, and we can teach music in a way that allows them to develop their voice starting from a young age. Our job as educators is to develop independent thinkers and musicians. We can use the music classroom to empower all students to be independent in their thoughts and decisions in all aspects of life with intentional SEL. SEL is a key component to flipping the classroom allowing students to take ownership of their own creative development as both musicians and people.

Utilizing SEL to its maximum potential for music education will require action and reflection from students AND teachers. We will see significant advancements for our students through this approach when SEL is infused with music pedagogy and we will soon come to appreciate the significant impact of an SEL-infused music education.

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