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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Curriculum Writing: Means vs Ends

One of the most common confusions in general music curriculum writing, I find, is the difference between end goals and means to those goals. Having worked on many curriculum writing teams in my own districts, and guided music teachers and districts creating their own curricula and long-range plans through my Lesson Planning Made Awesome course and professional development sessions, I see people confuse the two quite regularly, and it's not hard to see why. Today I want to focus in on distinguishing the two, as I see it, and talking about why it's important to understand the difference.


One of the first steps in any curriculum writing/ long-range planning is to figure out what students need to know by the end of a course/ grade level. When you're mapping out multiple grades, as is usually the case with general music, you have to decide when you're going to introduce each concept and in what order. This is your scope and sequence. In order to decide what to teach, you have to know what you want students to get out of your teaching!

Usually when you're outlining your scope and sequence, you'll be basing it off of a set of standards. Some will give you a scope and sequence (lucky you!), but others are more broad and general, and you'll need to make your scope and sequence yourself based on the standards. When I'm helping people through this process, the first thing I advise teachers to do is to make a list of the concepts they teach (or think they should teach) in each grade. Most lists will include rhythms, like when students should know half notes or barred sixteenth notes, solfege and letter names, like when students should be able to identify mi, sol, and la or read notes in treble clef, and other musical elements like form, dynamics, and more. Some will also include specific units they teach in specific grades, like recorders, ukuleles, folk dance, or world music. 

Here's the thing: the items in my first list are concepts. The units in the second list are not. The concepts are what I want to call "ends", and the units (and other similar ideas) are "means". Is it important to map out when you will teach recorders or ukuleles? Yes. Is it important to include folk dancing and music from various cultures into your general music curriculum? Absolutely! But those should not, in my opinion, be the starting point. They are the means to your ends.

Defining "means" and "ends"

When you're deciding what to teach when, you're determining how to best scaffold new knowledge and skills so that students can grow musically in the most effective way possible. You're creating a plan for long-term brain development! That means you have to think in concepts. Concepts in general music are ideas and skills that can be applied to a variety of different modes of "musicking"- they are not tied to specific literature or particular forms of music-making. These are your end goals.

Means are the ways in which students practice and apply those concepts in order to attain those end goals- that new knowledge and skill they need to continue to grow as musicians. Means are a specific form of "musicking", like playing a particular instrument, or listening to a particular type of music. 

Let's take rhythm as an example. I expect my 4th graders to understand dotted half notes. That is a concept. In order for them to understand (and demonstrate their understanding of) dotted half notes, they need to sing them, hear them, play them on instruments, show them through movement, and create their own music with them. There are lots of great ways to do that- the next step once I know the end goal is to determine the best way to get them to understand the concept. That's where the means come in!

Why it matters

But why does it matter? Isn't it just semantics, really, to distinguish between ends and means? If I know I'm going to teach ukulele in 5th grade, why does it matter if I include ukulele in my scope and sequence or not? Because at some level, you're institutionalizing your values and backgrounds and making it easier for you to lose sight of the purpose behind what you're doing in the classroom. 

It is much easier for us as teachers to hold onto specific forms of music-making that aren't suited to our student demographics or the contemporary times we live in if they are immortalized in a curriculum document- that's just the reality of how we function. If we can clarify what are actual end goals are for that recorder unit we're doing, it will be much easier for us to reflect on our teaching practice, recognize when a particular means is no longer effective or appropriate, and find an alternative means to the same end. This helps us avoid institutionalizing our values through means that are specific to our preferences.

This is especially valuable in unifying disparate teaching between school buildings and/or specific teachers. If you are clear on the musical ends for each grade, there's no reason why one teacher can't teach those ends through Mariachi music while another uses ukuleles and have all students be equally prepared for the middle school, for example.

Clarifying the end goal of anything you're teaching will also help you differentiate more effectively for your students. Some students may not have the fine motor skills to play the recorder well at that time, or they may have never seen a wind instrument played before and are slow to understand the process of playing, or they may not have grown up hearing "Hot Cross Buns" or "Mary Had a Little Lamb" before so they take longer to learn what other students find easy. There are many successful musicians in the world who can understand and perform sixteenth notes without being able to play a soprano recorder. Maybe the student can sing sixteenth notes, or perform them as part of a step routine. If you have a student who is struggling with a particular "means", you'll be able to reflect on what the end goals are and find other ways to help them meet those goals.

Keeping the end goals in mind will also help you not get bogged down with the process of specific means. If you love recorder like I do, and especially if you have a group of students who are motivated and successful with the recorder, it's easy to get excited about continuing to push ahead with more and more challenging literature. In some cases learning to play an instrument at a high level is a great benefit to their overall musical growth. But in most cases extending their time on one aspect of "musicking" takes time away from other important areas of holistic musicianship. Keeping the ends in mind will help you determine when to push ahead and when to move on.

Everything in its place

So how do you plan for specific means in curriculum writing? You can plan for the specific ways you want to accomplish your end goals through your long-range plans! Once you've set them aside for a time and focused on the ends (ideas and skills) you want students to learn, you can come back to the means with a fresh perspective. For means that are non-negotiable, like a recorder program that an administrator has already said must be taught in 3rd grade, you can determine the best way to utilize those means to meet the end goals for that grade. For other means that are not so set in stone, ask yourself whether a) this would be better suited for a different grade where it would more effectively meet the end goals, and b) this is really the best means to the ends at all. In most cases, since you can really approach most musical ends through a variety of means, this will simply be a way to help you determine the best way to approach the unit itself, how long to spend on it, and when to teach it to fit most effectively into the scaffolded sequence of musical development you've established.

If you've made it this far through my ramblings, thank you! As we approach the season of curriculum writing and reviewing for many schools and teachers, this topic has been on my mind. If you have any questions or thoughts on this I would love to chat! Please leave a comment below or send me a message. And if you'd like to learn more about my process for general music curriculum writing and lesson planning and see my concrete steps and templates for doing so, you can sign up for my free Lesson Planning Made Awesome email course right here!

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