When I was in graduate school, Whole Language was all the rage. The idea was that children needed to learn skills within a context. Teachers let go of basal readers and flash cards and dove into meaningful, thoughtful literature. It sounded perfect! Who wouldn’t rather read “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats rather than “Dick and Jane”? Skills would come up as needed. One would teach the word “fun” only when it showed up in the literature or a child wanted to write it in a story. It makes sense, right? Only learn things when you need them and you will remember them within a context. The problem with that, however, is the context is the story, not the grammar rule or spelling rule; thus, when the rule comes up again, the students must remember the story, rather than the rule.
This is true in music, as well. Some believe that if we teach only notation without drawing upon a piece of music, then children will not understand the true meaning of music. Although it is true that music should not be boiled down to notation where the only thing a child remembers is that two eighth notes equal a quarter note, isn’t it also true that by only teaching quarters and eighths in the early years, children fail to see the bigger picture – the relationships between the notes and how we apply those relationships to meter. When we look at notation by itself in relation to itself, we focus on that one thing. We begin to see patterns within that context. It is these patterns we remember easily. When we teach only quarters and eighths in the early grades, we are robbing children of the opportunity to see how logical music is. When they see all of the notes at once, they will notice patterns. They will be able to construct the knowledge that two eighths equal a quarter without you having to say a word. They will also notice that the quarter note rest is related to the quarter note sound. They make the connection, so they remember it better.
When you look up the definition of Whole Language, it is often associated with a constructivist view. The view that we start with the whole and then figure out the parts, rather than the Transmission Models of instruction of starting with the parts and then creating the whole. I don’t see these views as mutually exclusive. Can’t children construct their knowledge if they are given the necessary information and tools? When students have many experiences with a concept, both whole to parts and parts to whole, then they will have looked at a language from all sides. Only then can they truly understand it.
I don’t think “Dick and Jane” will ever be an exciting read, but it had its place in teaching reading, and so do its modern progeny. Kids still need to learn the mechanics of how to read both English and music; our job now is to make it more authentic. The idea is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to take what we have learned from the past and apply it to the future. Children will always benefit from constructing their knowledge. The fun for their teachers is in creating new ways for them to do that!