Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"I teach children, not music."

Today is Tuesday, May 2nd, and this marks the start of our 10-day countdown to leaving our sweet town, Jyvaskyla. Bittersweet is the only word I can use to describe how I'm feeling right now.  We are genuinely excited to return to Minneapolis.  Each of us misses different things:
  • Rachel: our house, my garden, my parents and all of our friends 
  • Jerod: work
  • Ruthie: all of her neighborhood buddies and  horse riding lessons
  • Lydia: Cash and Karis
But at the same time, this has been such an amazing four months, and I am quite sad to see it coming to an end.  It's just so difficult to put into words what this trip has meant to us individually and as a family.  We've made such dear friends here, both with our fellow Fulbrighters, and also with people from Finland.  Our time here has been relaxing, simple, exciting, challenging, reflective, and transformative.  I'm honestly kind of nervous about coming home and trying to discuss this trip with people.  These four months have really challenged my understanding of education and culture, in deep, deep ways, and it sounds daunting to try to convey this in any sort of cohesive or meaningful way.  One thing that I've thought so much about how to explain to people, is all of the ways in which Finland is a "people-centered" society.  Their education system is no exception to this truth.

I have been sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops all morning pouring over the Finnish National Core Curriculum for Basic Education.  My plan was to write up a comparison chart between these music standards and those from the National Association for Music Education (the US common core standards for music education), both of which were written in 2014.  Once again, this task is proving to be difficult because it just doesn't work to compare cultures in neat little boxes like that.  I tried, I really did.  I've drawn up no less than six charts attempting to compare these music standards, and they just don't line up neatly.  It doesn't work, because they have different primary focuses. 

As I read through each country's standards, certain statements stood out to me that highlight these different focuses.  I've compiled a sampling of these statements from each set of standards that illustrate my point. I understand that this is not a complete comparison of the standards from each country, but I hope it helps to explain one of the fundamental differences I'm seeing.

First, here are a few non-music specific examples.

Image result for american flag
-The Common Core State Standards provide clear and consistent learning goals to help prepare students for college, career, and life.

-The standards clearly demonstrate what students are expected to learn at each grade level, so that every parent and teacher can understand and support their learning.

-The mastery of each standard is essential for success in college, career, and life in today's global economy.

-The standards focus on core concepts and procedures starting in the early grades, which gives teachers the time needed to teach them and gives students the time needed to master them.

-Basic education helps pupils to identify their personal strengths and to build their future by learning.

-Basic education offers the pupils possibilities for versatile development of their competence, and reinforces their positive identity as human beings, learners and community members.

-The mission of basic education is to support growth as a human being and to impart competence required for membership in a democratic society and a sustainable way of living.

-Basic education encourages pupils to recognize their uniqueness and their personal strengths and development potential, and to appreciate themselves.

*Finnish National Board of Education National Core Curriculum for Basic Education 2014

Does this not make you want to cry?  I know it does for me.  America's standards are all about THE STANDARDS!    And it sure feels to me like there is a very narrow path being set before American students: college and career.  This can be seen in how we define a school's success - test scores! Finland, by comparison, appears to care about raising students who feel good about themselves, and who have a strong sense of identity, recognizing their own strengths.  It is written into their national standards that basic education should help pupils recognize and appreciate their uniqueness!  

This dichotomy is carried through to the music standards as well.  Here's a peek into them:

Image result for american flag

The National Association for Music Education standards are divided into four primary categories: Creating, Performing, Responding, and Connecting.  Each of those categories are then broken down into subcategories.  

Because my purpose it to make a point, and not educate you all on the intricacies of music standards, I will use "Creating" as an example. 

Generate musical ideas for various purposes and contexts
-Plan and make
Select and develop musical ideas for defined purposes and contexts
-Evaluate and Refine
Evaluate and refine selected musical ideas to create musical work(s) that meet appropriate criteria
Share creative musical work that conveys intent, demonstrates craftsmanship, and exhibits originality.

Then, under each subcategory (imagine, plan and make, evaluate and refine, and present), there is an explanation of the intended "Enduring Knowledge" as well as an "Essential Question." And below the Enduring Knowledge and Essential Question are the specific standards for each grade. This is what the subcategories "Imagine" and "Present" look like:

Generate musical ideas for various purposes and contexts.
Enduring Understanding: The creative ideas, concepts, and feelings that influence musicians’ work emerge from a variety of sources.
Essential Question: How do musicians generate creative ideas?
With guidance, generate musical ideas (such as movements or motives).
With limited guidance, generate musical ideas in multiple tonalities (such as major and minor) and meters (such as duple and triple).
Generate musical patterns and ideas within the context of a given tonality (such as major and minor) and meter (such as duple and triple).
Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms and melodies) within a given tonality and/or meter.
Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms, melodies, and simple accompaniment patterns) within related tonalities (such as major and minor) and meters.
Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms, melodies, and accompaniment patterns) within specific related tonalities, meters, and simple chord changes

Share creative musical work that conveys intent, demonstrates craftsmanship, and exhibits originality.
Enduring Understanding: Musicians’ presentation of creative work is the culmination of a process of creation and communication.
Essential Question: When is creative work ready to share?
With substantial guidance, share revised personal musical ideas with peers
With guidance, demonstrate a final version of personal musical ideas to peers.
With limited guidance, convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.
Convey expressive intent for a specific purpose by presenting a final version of personal musical ideas to peers or informal audience.
Present the final version of personal created music to others, and describe connection to expressive intent
Present the final version of personal created music to others, and explain connection to expressive intent.

If you take the tables above and multiply them by all of the categories, subcategories, standards, and grade levels, you can see that these standards are quite extensive.  

These standards are all about skills related to the content.  At each grade level, the skill level and content amount increase slightly, while guidance from the teacher decreases slightly. All of the writing above (and throughout the entire NAfME music standards document) is about what the children are doing with the content they are learning, or demonstrating their knowledge of a concept learned.  There is nothing listed about the students themselves.  Nothing about how the students feel about themselves, or what they are discovering about their identity, or how to work with their peers, or what we want the students to learn about themselves, or what we hope for their emotional or social health and well-being etc...

Image result for finnish flag

Now let's look at the Finnish music standards.  The music standards begin by explaining the "task of the subject," which is the same for grades 1-9.  Here is a sampling of this writing:

"The task of...music is to create opportunities for versatile musical activities and active cultural participation...The pupils' musical skills broaden, which also enhances their positive attitude towards music...[teaching them to] be curious about music and cultural diversity....A functional approach to the teaching and learning of music promotes the development of pupils' musical skills and understanding as well as holistic growth and cooperation skills."

Did you read that last sentence?  Holistic growth and cooperation skills!  In their national music standards!

After the task of the subject, a more specific description is given of what this looks like at each grade level.  Here is the first sentence from Grades 1-2:  "The teaching and learning of music allow the pupils to realize and experience together how every pupil is unique as a learner of music and how musical activities at their best can bring joy and create a sense of togetherness."

Again, did you read that?! Experiencing together how every pupil is a unique learner?!  Musical activities at their best can bring joy and create a sense of togetherness?!"  Sigh...

It continues.  After the task of the subject are the Objectives of Instruction for grades 1-2.  I'll include the full writing, but I'll highlight the parts that really stand out to me (like the first objective!)


  1. To guide the pupil to act as a member of a music-making group while building a positive self-image
  2. To guide the pupil to develop his or her natural voice and to sing and play instruments as a member of a music-making group.
  3. To encourage the pupil to experience and perceive the sound environment, sound, music, and musical concepts through movement and listening to music.
  4. To provide the pupils with opportunities to express their own musical ideas and to improvise as well as to guide them to compose and perform their own, small-scale pieces of music using aural, physical, visual, technological, or other means of expression.

Cultural understanding and multiliteracy

  1. To encourage the pupil to explore his or her musical heritage through play, song, and movement as well as to enjoy the aesthetic, cultural, and historical diversity of music.
  2. To help the pupil understand the basic principles of music notation while making music.

Safety and well-being in music

  1. To guide the pupil to act responsibly in music making.

Learning-to-learn skills in music

  1. To offer the pupil experiences that help him or her understand why setting goals and practicing together are important in learning music.

These standards are about the students.  Finland's education system (and society as a whole) is based on the idea that each person has value, just as they are, and it is a teacher's job to help students figure out what that means for them.  Success is not so narrowly defined.  In fact, the entire system is set up to give people many options to find a path that fits them and helps them find their own way to success.  And it is no different in the music classroom.

I don't know that I have a neat and tidy way to wrap up this blogpost.  I just know that on the eve of returning to my American life this difference is sort of haunting me as a teacher and as a parent.  As a teacher, I wonder how I can possibly give this to each of my students when I teach nearly 700 students in two different schools.  When I only see each student one week out of the month, I can't possibly know them all like I should.  If I don't know my students, how can I help them discover their strengths?  How can I make their education individualized to them?  And I've seen how this shift in focus has positively affected my daughters, even at their young ages.  I feel like they have been celebrated for who they are, and I trust that if we stayed here that would continue. Their strengths have been encouraged by their teachers, and as a result, I do believe they have grown in their sense of self.  I see them talking about how they are smart, strong, curious little people, and they are proud of these things.  And in areas where they struggle, they have been encouraged to keep trying, with the belief that they have the ability to overcome hard situations.  They've got SISU, baby!   

Sigh...I feel heavy over this subject.  I don't have good answers.  But I know this is a difference I see that I think is worth American educators and administrators giving some though to.  

"I teach children, not music."

I honestly don't even know where I have seen that...probably on pintrest, or on a t-shirt at a music teacher convention.  Who knows?  And while I have previously been turned off by the saccharine nature of this sentiment, it has been floating around in my head as I've been reflecting on the difference between education that is child centered vs. subject/content/process/methods/anything besides child centered.  I still think it's a pretty cheesy thing to say, but I do think it gets at the heart of the difference between American and Finnish education.  


  1. Such a lovely and interesting blog! It is true that the American culture appears rather exotic to many Nordics: it often seems to be all about competition and achieving material things (while, it has to be said, social mobility is actually way higher in the Nordic countries). I don't mean to say that our societies would be perfect, they are very far from it, but I like the way we still greatly value the humanistic, holistic idea of personality and don't just measure people according to their production value...

  2. This is a powerful reflection! Thank you so much for taking the time to look at the standards and distill what seems to be the essential nugget.

  3. Thank you Rachel, for delineating your comparisons and showing us what is possible - guiding kids to value themselves, others and the world around them, to see themselves as learners and to pursue their curiosity. May we hold on to this vision!

  4. Thank you, Rachel, for sharing your thought process with us. It is possible and responsible to guide our students to value themselves, others and world. We can pique their curiosity and encourage them to see themselves as capable learners chasing the next best question. May we hold on to this vision and share it as we are able!