The Curricular Agency of Experienced Music Teachers


Janet R. Barrett, University of Illinois

Tim Caskin, University of Illinois


Music teachers exercise professional judgment in many realms of their professional lives. Most centrally, teachers make decisions about the content, scope, and aims of the music curriculum and the way that curriculum reflects local contexts and concern for students’ musical experience. Jorgensen’s concise definition of curriculum upholds teachers’ agency as “your best judgment about what these particular students should know and do” (2003, p. 208). In the current climate of school reform, however, agency may be constrained or compromised by high- stakes systems of teacher evaluation, policies that privilege standardization over flexibility, and curricular conservatism. For example, Zeichner contrasts tensions between organizational professionalism, operating on bureaucratic control and surveillance of teachers’ work, with occupational professionalism, a view more supportive of teachers’ authority, autonomy, and local knowledge. He attributes these challenges to neoliberal ideologies prevalent in educational discourse (Zeichner, 2010), a concern echoed in music education by Woodford (2014) and Benedict (in press).


In light of these tensions, various scholars have called for greater emphasis on teachers’ vision (Hammerness, 2010), curricular imagination (Bourassa, 2011), and pedagogical creativity (Abramo & Reynolds, 2014). Researchers in Scotland studied how teachers exercise agency and find spaces to maneuver on behalf of a responsive and relevant curriculum (Priestley, Edwards, Priestley, & Miller, 2015). Music teachers, standing to the side of reforms focused on literacy and numeracy (while still implicated in their outcomes), may be able to maneuver with greater freedom toward more just, comprehensive, responsive, and relevant aims.


The purpose of this study is to examine experienced music teachers’ curricular agency, particularly as situated within the current context of schooling. Of particular interest is the definition of the curricular spaces in which teachers exercise professional judgment as they select music for performance and study; plan lessons, rehearsals, and courses; design instructional activities; and invent strategies to evaluate students’ learning. The study will also examine teachers’ beliefs and practices in fostering connections between music and closely related subject areas as illustrative instances of moving across curricular spaces and openings. The results of this inquiry will establish a foundation for a subsequent examination of teachers’ enactment of innovative curricular ideas constructed during graduate courses at the master’s level.


Twelve experienced music educators participating in summer graduate study will participate in semi-structured interviews for the purpose of describing curricular landscapes, affordances, and constraints for creative curricular work. Transcripts from the individual interviews will guide a series of focus group discussions to fill in knowledge gaps and to draw out “complexity, nuance, and contradiction” in the teachers’ curricular accounts (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis, 2013, p. 59). Data generation and analysis will be completed by the SMTE Symposium in September.


The study lends itself to a more robust picture of teachers’ curricular agency, informed by the expertise and creativity of experienced teachers as they navigate through openings and closures, compromises and opportunities. The results have the potential to inform graduate study in curriculum, and professional development opportunities that speak to the contingent spaces between educational policies and teachers’ lives and aspirations.




Abramo, J. M., & Reynolds, A. (2014). "Pedagogical creativity" as a framework for music teacher education. Journal of Music Teacher Education, Online First, 1-15.

Benedict, C. (in press). "What do we think we know?". In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce & P. Woodford (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of social justice and music education. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bourassa, G. N. (2011). Rethinking the curricular imagination: Curriculum and biopolitics in the age of neoliberalism. Curriculum Inquiry, 41(1), 5-16.

Hammerness, K. (2010). To seek, to strive, to find, and not to yield: A look at current conceptions of vision in education. In A. Hargreaves, M. Fullan, D. Hopkins & A. Lieberman (Eds.), Second international handbook of educational change (pp. 1033-1048). New York, NY: Springer.

Jorgensen, E. R. (2003). Transforming music education. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kamberelis, G., & Dimitriadis, G. (2013). Focus groups: From structured interviews to collective conversations. New York, NY: Routledge.

Priestley, M., Edwards, M., Priestley, A., & Miller, K. (2015). Teacher agency in curriculum making: Agents of change and spaces for manoeuvre. Curriculum Inquiry, 42(2), 191-214.

Woodford, P. (2014). Escaping versus confronting reality: Politics and music education in the age of entertainment. In J. R. Barrett & P. R. Webster (Eds.), The musical experience: Rethinking music teaching and learning (pp. 25-42). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Zeichner, K. (2010). Competition, economic rationalization, increase surveillance, and attacks on diversity: Neo-liberalism and the transformation of teacher education in the U.S. Teaching and teacher education, 26, 1544-1552.