Hourigan, R.M. (2009). The Invisible Student: Understanding Social Identity Construction within Performing Ensembles. MENC: The National Association for Music Education, 95, (4), 34-38.
Summary: This article, published in MENC is a case study of a seventh grader named Jason, a band student who has an extremely difficult time associating with and fitting into peer groups at school. The article, written by Ryan M. Hourigan, assistant professor of music education at Ball State University in Michigan was written for the purpose of providing the reader with insight into social identity construction in musical ensemble contexts, as well as the various issues that surround the needs of students in these settings. Although Jason is a talented trumpet player, his inability to connect with other members of his ensemble has contributed to his lack of self-confidence. Jason suffers from a traumatic brain injury, and as a result is commonly ostracized from his peers. Hourigan labels Jason as an “invisible” student, based on social identity theory which claims that how a person feels about his or her value to a group can directly affect his or her self-worth.
“Invisible students” are generally students who are challenged socially and as a result are overlooked in social settings, as well as by peers and teachers. The problem for Hourigan is the disconnect between the nature of music as an interactive and social experience that often leads to the formation of relationships, and the lack of ability of many music teachers to be inclusive of so-called “invisible students”. According to social identity theory, the longer a teacher waits to provide information and model appropriate social behavior, the more vulnerable the group is to form a social hierarchy. Hourigan claims that “it is our job (as music teachers) to assist our students in creating an inclusive social atmosphere”, and it is his suggestion that modeling appropriate behavior is one of the best ways to help students understand expectations. There are a number of ways for a teacher to model appropriate behavior, both through teaching and outside of the classroom including positive and engaging interactions with students. His specific suggestions for promoting and facilitating positive interactions between students include giving ensemble members an opportunity to reveal as much about themselves to as many people as they feel comfortable doing right at the beginning of the year. He suggests activities that can facilitate that kind of communication, and encourages teachers to recognize and identify who the invisible students are, so that action can be taken as soon as possible to help them feel more included, at least in music class. Hourigan encourages peer teaching, as well as being aware of the “invisible students’” school experiences outside of the music classroom. There are critical social issues that affect such students, and need to be understood and recognized. For example, “invisible students” may be bullied in other contexts. The synergy of a group of students may heighten the bullying, especially if teachers are not aware or not engaged in the students’ experiences. To close the article, Hourigan encourages music teachers to ask themselves whether invisible students exist in their classrooms, and if so, to critically examine what they (the teachers) are doing to promote social identity construction and acceptance.
A common and difficult challenge of educators who have to manage and care for large groups at one time is the potential for some students to go unnoticed. It is difficult for teachers, because even when they attempt to consider everyone’s needs, many other facets come into play which distract and hinder the teacher’s ability to recognize all the social and psychological dynamics at play within their classroom(s). Teachers are dealing with their own personal challenges, as well as maintaining standards and adhering to curriculum requirements. Teachers are under pressure to answer to principals and supervisors, as well as parents are their students. Having said all of this, I realize none of these reasons are excuses to not recognize the social dynamics within their classrooms. They just need to be recognized and dealt with. Teachers need to be acutely aware of students’ mannerisms, conversations, gestures, comments, and attitudes. There are many indicators of social exclusion, and there are many subtle hints that students can give if they feel they are being ostracized. Lack of eye contact, unwillingness to communicate or participate, as well as minimal conversation with other peers are often indicators that students are struggling socially. It is the role and responsibility of the teacher to step in (appropriately and sensitively) and intervene if they notice patterns of social exclusion. I would go so far as to say it is the ethical responsibility of the teacher to watch out for and subsequently take appropriate action if they notice problems in social interaction. Music classrooms need to be structured as safe, positive, and inclusive spaces, and it is the job of the teachers and students alike, however the teacher needs to help the students create this space if they lack the direction to do it entirely autonomously. Musical ensembles can be the perfect venue for promoting mutual understanding and social inclusiveness because of the nature of the ensemble itself; instruments playing in harmony can be the first step towards engaging students to live as socially aware individuals in harmony with each other.