The goal of this piece is not to tout the correctness or incorrectness of either objective or subjective music education teaching styles. Rather, its attempt is to clearly depict their differences and the situations in which each, individually or in conjunction, may be beneficial for the education of students with autism. Music is, of course ultimately, an art form which is driven by a performer’s ability to emote and interpret a piece of music. Assessing an artist’s performance is, perhaps, the definition of a subjective judgment, but we are not dealing with artists…yet. We are dealing with students of an art form. A student’s performance needs to be shaped and more clearly defined, eventually allowing them to relate to the instrument as a conduit for his expression and exploration. To a certain extent this is an ever continuing process since we are all growing and changing as human beings. In respect to the early education of students, though, each response can be objectively measured and analyzed. “But, why do you need to objectively measure their performance?” you may ask. First, let’s define what objective and subjective measurements are and how they are used.
An objective measurement is one which is independent of the teacher’s individual perception of what the answer is. For instance, two separate piano instructors may listen critically to a student’s performance and ultimately come to two, very different conclusions in respect to the student’s interpretation and adherence to the fundamentals of piano performance. This is not so much a misunderstanding or radical divergence in the teachers’ knowledge of core piano education principles; rather a personal and subjective assessment of the student and what constitutes a correct response. To be clear, all teaching is based on shaping and having teachers accept approximations made by a student. Teaching is very subjective in nature, while assessing the results of these teaching efforts should be objective in nature. The question then arises, “How can teachers objectively assess a student’s performance if art is fundamentally a subjective form of expression?” The answer, of course, is that the focus of early music education is much more associated with execution as opposed to interpretation. Therefore, it can be clearly and objectively measured whether or not a student independently depressed a particular key of the piano or identified a musical note correctly.
The reason that objectively measuring and analyzing a student’s early performance is so vital is twofold. By not initially being objective, teachers may be inclined to 1) assign unrealistic goals and objectives for a student or 2) create an unchallenging and stagnating teaching environment by withholding more difficult material. In this discussion, concerning students with autism, both situations are possible but the latter is much more of a likely phenomenon. For many teachers, without prior special education experiences to draw on, it is quite understandably common to base a student’s future curriculum on certain challenges that the student has currently. For instance, if a student has not yet learned how to read, exploring the skill of reading musical notation may seem out of reach for them and is then withdrawn. Alternatively, another student may display fine-motor challenges which could inhibit his dexterity at the piano. In both of these scenarios the student very well might not be able to execute the skill in question at first, but this should not effect the teacher’s decision to begin instruction on that skill and measure the response.
As previously mentioned, when teaching (as opposed to assessing progress), instructors correctly use a subjective analysis of factors to help the student succeed. This practice is often based on a teacher’s intimate knowledge of the student, his environment, his behavioral and comprehension challenges and previously successful teaching methodologies. For instance, after objectively determining that a student has met the criteria for the current phase of instruction, a teacher decides that the next and more difficult phase of instruction should commence. Ten minutes into the lesson, the student presents behavioral challenges and the teacher subjectively determines that this more difficult phase would increase the student’s frustration level at this point and delays the introduction until tomorrow. In respect to another student, this inappropriate behavior may be related to task avoidance and the determination to continue with the more difficult phase of instruction would be made. Both decisions may be appropriate, it simply depends on the student and the situation.