The Critical Art of Choice

As instrumental teachers, we are overwhelmed by choice when it comes to teaching resources and materials. New books, websites and subscription sites appear on an almost daily basis. There is more available to us now, than at any time in the past.

Having access to such a wide range of resources is, essentially, a good thing.  Rather than being stuck with one book, which doesn’t suit every pupil, we can now tailor what we use to the needs of individual pupils.

There is though, a danger, that when choosing and using resources, we become uncritical. Often, we let someone else do the work for us. Once an eminent music educator or organisation recommends a resource, it is taken up by teachers with great enthusiasm and is quickly implemented in their teaching practice. In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing. There are plus-points to books and resources recommended by someone else, often someone knowledgeable in their field, who has previously researched and critiqued them. But, does this mean teachers should rely on others to do the work for them? I would argue that the more resources there are available, the more critical we need to be as teachers.

As many of you know, I mentor teachers for teaching diplomas. The DipABRSM requires a Written Submission of 1,800 words on a topic of the candidate’s choosing from the syllabus. One of the most popular topics is:

‘Discuss your choice of material for use with young beginners and/or adult beginners in the first year of learning.’

For most teachers, this means a discussion of tutor books (though of course, you are encouraged to discuss the whole range of materials you use). If we take piano for example, the market is overwhelmed by tutor books: Piano AdventuresPiano SafariGet Set! PianoPiano TimePiano WorksMe and My Piano, Piano Junior to name but a few. New piano tutor books appear on the market at an almost alarming rate. As teachers, how critical are we in our choice of tutor books we use?

When I read essays which seek to answer the question above, they invariably follow the same format. The teacher has a preferred tutor book which they use, and they unknowingly use the essay to ‘sell’ the book to their reader (the examiner). There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred tutor books, and indeed, most of us have them. But how did we arrive at our decision to use them? Unfortunately, writing in your essay that you use those books because they were recommended to you doesn’t really cut it with the examiners. Candidates, and indeed, all of us, should demonstrate a more critical approach.

As a starter, consider the following questions:

  • How does the book fit in with our wider teaching philosophy?
  • How does the book align with our curriculum and pedagogy?
  • How does the book enhance the musical learning of our pupils?
  • Why do you use this book in preference to others?
  • How does the book fit into a wider progression of musical learning?

No one book is perfect, but these are all important questions, and they require teachers to think critically about the materials they are using. The answer to all these questions cannot wholly be that we use a book because it was recommended to us.

To even pass the DipABRSM Written Submission, teachers need to submit an assignment which is:

‘Adequately argued with some evidence of structural control and flow of argument [and an] acceptable level of literacy and grammatical accuracy, and some evidence of relevant research.’

So, by all means, seek the advice, views and recommendations of others, but  above all, be critical yourself. With the ever-increasing number of resources available to us, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon. Some of those bandwagons turn out to be good, but some turn out to be only a passing fad. Think about the books, materials and resources you use in your teaching. Can you critique what you use, and answer the questions above?


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