When first proposed, the Five Fundamentals were an attempt to differentiate el Sistema from the conservatory-style approach of music education on a purely structural or organizational level. They did so relatively successfully, given the current level of international adoption, but the social element therein was communicated largely by intention, via the first Fundamental, rather than specific action. Remove both intention and music and the Five Fundamentals may well describe the average public school system.
But that’s why music and intention were incorporated into the first Fundamental. Intention is critically important: in law it is the dividing line between a first-degree murder charge and manslaughter, but on its own it is insufficient in distinguishing el Sistema and current in-school music education. My colleague Stanford Thompson remarked on several occasions how the goals of el Sistema in their typical superficial articulation of “promoting cooperation” etc. were no different than those expressed by his school instructors in their teaching activities, long before the idea of social change through music came into vogue. Why then has conventional schooling, with its many structural similarities to Sistema, failed to produce positive social results on the scale seen in Venezuela?
The answer goes far beyond the structural trappings, into the realm of how rather than what. The predominant modus operandi of much music and school teaching is “do what I tell you to do,” the Master/Apprentice model rooted in 500-plus years of tradition. When imported to the classroom or lecture hall this method has the benefit of tremendous efficiency with a sufficiently advanced and self-motivated student body, but the goal of social action through music has never been to impart instruction in the most efficient manner, but in the most organic.
As a framework for teaching the Master/Apprentice model is in fact an entirely artificial construct, bearing no resemblance to how children naturally learn things like how to walk, talk, play games, or interact with their environment. This is why the school system for all its frequency, group classes, accessibility and connectivity (Four out of Five Fundamentals) generally produces negligible, or negative social impact: the socialization process focuses on conformity and obedience, not dialogue and collaboration. The relationship that is habitually modeled by teachers is authoritarian, rather than cooperative. No criticism of school teachers should be inferred: their options for innovation in the current fiscal and high-stakes testing contexts are nearly non-existent.
The alternative is the Social Learning Environment. Highly dependent on high frequency of activity, SLEs are a natural extension of how children instinctively learn: by first watching others model a behaviour or action, then remembering it, and finally trying it repeatedly on their own – a process to which music is eminently suited. Small groups engaged in exactly the same activity (like sectionals) offer perfect conditions for social learning to take place, encouraging focused observation and also facilitating informal, non-authoritarian exchange and adoption of ideas. Full rehearsals extend the process but give it both purpose and enjoyment, providing the essential motivation required to drive those aforementioned characteristics of attention, retention and repetition (as identified by Albert Bandura) that are the hallmarks of effective social learning.
The bottom line is that social impact cannot be achieved without a social learning environment. There’s a time and place for the Master/Apprentice method, but SLEs should be the dominant instructional mode of any truly socially-oriented music program, for reasons that are patently self-evident. How and when they are integrated is naturally a complex question heavily dependent on context, but if the program consists primarily of a teacher issuing instructions to children, no matter how passionately or eloquently, that’s not Sistema, that’s just school. Hence this critical addition to the Logic Model.
Social learning environments can be effected in many disciplines, but ensemble music is the only one that is tremendously scalable, internally segmented and scaffolded, and inherently physical – nothing brings together the essential elements of social learning the way music does. Maestro Abreu’s revolutionary contribution is the pairing of true social learning with music, but not necessarily the concept of social learning itself: the latter is an aggregate of the leading educational and psychological thought of the last century, from Dewey and Vygotsky to Bandura and Mitra. This is an area of profound and extensive existing study: the combination with music education produces many additional factors or far-reaching implications to consider. The deepening of the proverbial pot is good news: Sistema’s detractors have often pointed to what they perceive as the lack of scientific basis for the work in Venezuela. That argument has now been rendered null and void. More – much more – on this to come.