Research by Two Music Education Doctoral Students Wins First Place at Statewide Research Symposium

Monday, June 25, 2018

portraits of Patrick Cooper and Christopher Burns

(Left to right) Patrick Cooper and Christopher Burns

Patrick Cooper, USF music education doctoral student, is the 1st place winner of the Arts and Humanities poster award at the State Graduate Research Symposium in Tallahassee in April for a music education research project he completed with fellow USF doctoral student Christopher Burns.

Cooper is the only one to receive the 1st place poster award in Arts and Humanities for exemplary poster quality and his presentation at the symposium.

Cooper and Burns' project examines the gendered nature of instruments and its effect on instrument selection for fifth-grade students. Their findings offer ways for teachers to create diverse ensembles and music classrooms.

For their project, Playing Gender: Essentialist Stereotypes for Instruments Prescribe Instrument Selection for 5th Grade, the researchers found that by presenting students with visual representations of gender neutral projected roles pertaining to music, or images of both a boy and a girl playing each musical instrument, students were more likely to make decisions that rely less upon past stereotypes of the instrument and the gender of its typical player.

In 2017, Cooper and Burns took their completed research to the Colorado Music Educator's Association Conference, where they presented the project for the first time and received feedback.

They were then invited to speak at the National Association for Music Education (NAFME) biannual conference in Atlanta, an honor typically given university professors with already well-established careers. The way Cooper and Burns employed new methods and addressed a gap in research literature was well-received.

On March 21, 2018, Cooper presented the research project at the 10th Annual Graduate Student Research Symposium at USF. The project and Cooper's presentation was selected for the first place prize in Arts and Humanities.

Cooper went on to represent USF at the 5th Annual Statewide Graduate Research Symposium in Tallahassee. There, he won the 1st place poster award in Arts and Humanities for the state of Florida. He was the only one to receive this honor in the entire state in 2018.

During the trials of the research project, Cooper and Burns surveyed six sections of a fifth-grade music classroom in the Southeast United States. Fifth grade was chosen since this is the time when students will soon begin to choose musical instruments to play in middle school music ensembles.

Students were given a hypothetical enrollment form in which they were asked to identify an instrument they would like to play and rank 10 instruments as if the instruments themselves had a gender, meaning rank each instrument as "more like a boy," "more like a girl," or "neither like a boy or a girl." Students also supplied their demographic information.

In the section of the form devoted to the ranking of musical instruments based on gender, the experimental group was shown gender-neutral projected roles in the form of photos of both boys and girls playing each instrument.

The control group was not presented with photos of gender-neutral projected roles. The results of the study show these students were more reliant on past gender stereotypes when ranking the instruments.

The control group of fifth graders reported violin and flute to be "more like a girl," whereas string bass and tuba were reported to be "more like a boy."

Students in the experimental group gave different responses. Boys were more likely to pick cello or violin, two instruments that were characterized as being "more like a girl" in the control group. Girls were more likely to choose clarinet and saxophone instead of solely the flute.

In short, presenting projected future roles affected student's instrument choice for the most gendered instruments.

Cooper hopes the findings of this research can be applied in the classroom to encourage students to choose instruments with less reliance on past gender stereotypes of the instruments.

Cooper was inspired to do this research by connecting his experiences as a K-8 music educator in Arizona with what he learned as a student.

"I was in a sociology class called Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination," said Cooper. "And that's where I got this idea for social role theory. I came to USF thinking 'why do I always have so many boy orchestra students?' and then I was introduced to something that might be a solution."

Cooper presented the idea to Burns, and the duo decided to pursue gathering the data to use for their doctoral statistics class in the spring of 2017. They wrote, shared ideas, and looked at previous research until they had a finished paper.

"This was truly one of the more collaborative projects that I've ever worked on," said Cooper.

Along the way, Cooper received help from his major professor, Professor Victor Fung.

"I chose the right mentor," said Cooper. "I can't thank him enough for the type of insight that he provides. ... He asks you questions that challenge your preconceptions of things. He asks you questions that steer you not necessarily in what he thinks is the right direction, but another direction that you should think of."

By integrating the study's findings into music education classrooms, Cooper hopes the research will benefit students beyond their instrument selection. Cooper and Burns are already working on a similar study looking at popular music, more specifically students' attitudes about the gendering of popular music roles such as DJ, singer, and electric guitarist.

This new study could uncover ways of using popular music in music classrooms to both encourage diversity in the popular music industry and in middle and high school music classrooms, where ensembles are mostly female.

Cooper and Burns' study on instrument selection is a significant contribution toward creating a more inclusive music education classroom where everyone has a chance to learn and enjoy music

"I don't think any of this is done intentionally," said Cooper. "... It's just we're used to witnessing certain people doing certain things, and we can change that. We probably should."