Using comparative judgement for GCSE composing


Picture taken from David Didau’s blog

A few weeks ago I went on a session run by Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education and Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning. Daisy now works for No More Marking, a company offering an online engine for comparative judgement.

I will not describe CJ in detail here, other than reproducing the image above, and direct you to the excellent demo on the No More Marking website. The arguments for it are very compelling.

So far, No More Marking has been used for CJ of English and History texts. I don’t know of the system being tried for music compositions as yet, but I think it would be really interesting to try it out. The process would be a little bit more complex and time-consuming than for text, purely because you would need to listen to audio rather than skim texts on-screen, but I still think it would be a worthwhile thing to try.

I would like to invite you to join in with this process. Here is how it would work:

  1. You need to contact me to tell me you’d like to join in. Probably the easiest way to do this is to email me on You might be a GCSE music teacher with coursework of your own that you’d like to get moderated, or a music educator who would just like to join in with doing the comparative judgements (the more judges, the better…). If this proves massively popular, I might need to put a cap on the amount of coursework we can handle, as it will be quite a lot of admin for me to do!
  2. You will need to send me some GCSE compositions in mp3 format. Just audio, no supporting documentation. This might be your whole cohort, or just a selection. It could be ‘live’ (i.e. this year’s coursework), or a previous year’s. It doesn’t matter what board you do, or whether it’s to a brief or free composition – for the purposes of CJ I don’t think this is important. We will need to set a deadline for this – I suggest Sunday 8th April. 
  3. I will then anonymise your coursework and create a Google folder with it all in, referred to only by a number (only I will know how the numbers link up with the schools/candidates they came from). You will receive an allocation of comparative judgements to make. These will be entirely randomised. The numbers for these will pop up on your screen via the No More Marking website. You listen to each pair of compositions and decide which one is better – just using your guild knowledge as a musician and educator (no mark schemes involved). Click on your decision and move on to the next until your allocation is finished (nobody will need to make more than 20 comparisons). The ‘window’ for doing this will be the fortnight between Monday 9th April and Sunday 22nd April (to give you a week of holiday and a week of term time to choose from).
  4. The No More Marking algorithm will crunch all the results and award a numerical mark to each composition. If you have contributed coursework, I will feed back to you the marks for your students’ work.
  5. I will ask you to complete a short online questionnaire about the process, to find out what issues arose, and what you thought about the results.
  6. I will then write up a summary on here about how it all went.

Don’t be shit: towards an ever-better KS3 programme


As Hanh Doan pointed out in her recent article for Music Teacher mag here, the best thing we can do to safeguard the position of music in schools is to stop moaning and not to be shit.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that my quest to not be shit is a never-ending one: one of the consequences of this is that I re-jig my KS3 programme every single year. While being a firm believer in ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, I do always want to tweak and improve. It is one of my little pleasures. I LOVE a little curriculum tweak.

‘Isn’t that an awful lot of work?’ I hear you ask. Well, no, not really, because I don’t write much down at all. Lesson plans, shmlesson shplans. It is an exercise in seeing the wood despite the trees: a map rather than a sat nav.

I’ve written before about our KS3 jigsaw, although it didn’t look as pretty as this last time I posted it: Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.12.18

This is a carefully-thought-out list of priorities, really… what we’ve decided is important enough to include in our precious KS3 curriculum time. As the years go by, I am ever-more aware that we cannot afford to waste any lesson time on things that are not musical. If the students are coming into my music room, I want them to be actively engaged in music while they’re there. Not colouring in an orchestra diagram, writing out a table of note-values, literacy or numeracy tasks, discovering things for themselves (yes, they might discover an E flat minor chord by accident, or I could just teach it to them in a hundredth of the time), answering ‘guess-what’s-in-my head’ questions, or doing endless self-assessment, peer-assessment or evaluation (yes those last three things are quite nice, but really not of enough value to spend precious time on them in music lessons – besides, they get an absolute bellyful of them elsewhere).

The great thing about this jigsaw is that it focusses the mind not on what students will be doing in lessons, but what they will be learning. One big consequence of this is that I have moved almost entirely away from a chunkular, topic-based, cook’s tour kind of KS3 scheme of work. You know, the sort of thing that goes 1. blues 2. junk percussion 3. musicals. I thought for a while that it was a growing aversion to genre-based SoL (remember that initiative in about 2008 that said that EVERYTHING had to be rooted in a genre, with loads of context, and you weren’t allowed to do a topic on a musical feature, say, ostinato? That. OK I do have an aversion to that, or maybe an aversion to being told I’m not allowed to do something…) However, I have come to the conclusion that it’s an aversion to music teachers saying that they’re doing keyboards, or doing musicals. What are you doing with the keyboards? And why are you doing musicals – what will the students actually learn? 

So, what does our KS3 curriculum look like now? Here it is:

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.13.08Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 16.13.22

I have written before about Musical Futures Just Play resources and how brilliant I think they are. Other essential things mentioned in the overview are resources for playing by ear from Lucy Green’s brilliant book Hear, Listen, Play! which comes with audio for various pieces, some of which are specially-composed, riff-based ones like Link Up, which I do with Year 7s in the first term, and some classical ones like Für Elise, which I include because kids just love being able to play it, and I just love telling them that it is not, in fact, pronounced Furry Lies.

Classroom workshopping is taken in its entirety from Musical Futures resources, and the reason it’s there is because it does a lot of great stuff in a very short amount of time (much like Just Play). It gets students feeling the music, watching for cues, developing ensemble skills, learning how to compose and improvise, and understanding structure, all at once. It takes a bit of practice to facilitate it well, but it’s well worth the effort in terms of the leaps in musicality and confidence that students demonstrate. Body percussion stuff is derived from the inspiration of the wonderful Ollie Tunmer at Beat Goes On – check out the website for great resources and ideas, or, better still, get your local hub to get him in to do a workshop. The resources we use in Year 9 for band skills stuff are from Trinity Rock and Pop. Songwriting follows the MF SoL, which never fails…

Homework… the latest

I have written before about the changing face of homework in my department. Teacher input in homework is now entirely front-end: that is to say, I put quite a lot of work into sorting out homework resources in advance, and then that’s it. No marking, no feedback. We used to spend HOURS marking and giving the most amazing feedback ever on extended homework research projects (the best of which were amazing, but the general standard of which was pretty crap). Not any more – partly because one of my departmental colleagues now has a small baby, and the other is a head of year and spends most of his time chasing up behaviour incidents. None of us has time to produce detailed homework feedback that then doesn’t have any kind of follow-up.

So technology and a bit of forward planning has come to our aid. I use Office Mix (an PowerPoint extension that is quite addictive – the only downside is that it won’t run on a Mac) to create bespoke videos. Here’s one I made on how music is put together:

As a school we have recently got ourselves Show My Homework. It is brilliant. It was devised by a teacher (I hope they have made an absolute mint from it) and systematically eliminates every single crap homework excuse in existence. Homework is there on a to-do list when they log in (there is a phone/tablet app too) and parents have a log-in too. All the resources they need are there. Awesome. Through SMHW I can set a homework task to watch the video, and then answer a set of multiple choice questions on the content. This is marked automatically, and students can see straight away how well they have done (as can I, and their parents). So, a lot of front-end organisation, but after that, no hassle whatsoever. Time spent doing the prep is paid back in spades later on.

So, the knowledgey, theoryish, part of what we do at KS3 is covered by the homework, then followed up in lessons with related practical work. A little bit of flipped learning, really.

Formative assessment – freeing ourselves from the stress to assess

A really quick post (I’ve got moderation to do…) just to offload some of the thoughts in my head about assessment…

  1. Sometimes – or even a lot of the time – we need to assess things that don’t look like the final outcome.

formative assessment may 2017

If you are a rugby coach, you use drills to teach the skills you need for a match. If you are musician, you practise scales and studies to build up the skills you need for a performance.

We can’t just assess performances all the time.

Today with my Year 7s I was assessing how well they could play major and minor chords on the keyboard. There are different parts to this: knowing where the notes are, knowing what a semitone is, which way is ‘up’, remembering ‘4 then 3’ and ‘3 then 4’ rule for major and minor, and getting your fingers organised on the keys. That’s quite enough for one assessment!

Getting round them all, though, is a lengthy job. Life’s too short!

So I said that if they showed skills that were good enough to be an assessor, I would give them a hat. (Hats as motivators – never fails for some reason) Then they could help me work round and assess the rest of the class.

It worked brilliantly. Here they are in their hats (left over from a production of Cabaret):

Year 7 hats

2. Taking away ANY kind of numbers reduces the stress to assess.

We have moved from this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 19.37.54

To this:


It used to result in a mark out of 60 (12 x marks out of 5). Now it doesn’t – it just goes on a spreadsheet to show who has demonstrated what skills, and whether they’ve done it really well or not.

So if you don’t assess all 12 things on the radar, no sweat. They just do the ones they can.

And relax!


What’s going on in my classroom: spring 2017… quite a lot on assessment but other stuff too

In case you’re at all interested, I thought it might be good to return to the ‘what I’m up to at the moment’ theme – because so many music teachers are so isolated in their work, it’s always nice to have a chance to be nosey about what other people are doing. So here’s what I’m doing right now.

I know I promised more on the dark art of shitistics – scroll down for the meaty assessment stuff!

Numbers for EVERYTHING

Well, pitch and rhythm. This has developed out of a SingUp warmup called ‘1-121’ – essentially it involves playing around with pitches within a scale, using numbers. Sounds boring, right? WRONG! It is brilliant. There are so many permutations! You can:

  • do rounds
  • build up chords
  • talk endlessly about major/minor, adding 7ths, dissonance, consonance
  • do inversions (one group sings from 1, the other from 8)
  • move about in parallel triads (three groups, one starts on 1, one on 3, one on 5, sing up to 8 and back down to 1, and then back to where you started – leave out all the 7s for a really great effect that is complex enough to keep everyone concentrating)
  • practise holding a harmony line
  • learn about creating your own harmonies for whatever melody you like, because you know about 3rds and 6ths…
  • learn about key changes (the ‘1’ moves to a different pitch – bang)
  • use it when you’re teaching a song – this is so useful! You can learn the whole thing with numbers first, including harmony parts. You can even then translate this to instruments – particularly handy if you have transposing instruments… as long as you know where ‘your’ 1 is, away you go!

Also, you can combine numbers 1-4 (pitch) with beats of the bar – hold up 4 fingers and students need to sing note 4 on the 4th beat, etc. (use a backing track – that’s another thing – there are now so many useful backing tracks, in every key, tempo, and conceivable style, on YouTube – you are very likely to find something that is perfect for what you want to do)

Rhythm: my new favourite way to start a lesson is to put on a piece of music (anything, but perhaps related to what we’re doing) and get them to ‘find the 1’ and clap on it. This develops into finding other beats, doing different sounds on different beats, incorporating the ‘ands’ (the second half of each beat). I have some classes that clap on 2 and 4 no matter what number you ask for! So focussing on this at the start of the lesson is a great way to get them tuned in and thinking actively about the music, before we move on to other things.

Musical Futures: Just Play, and how you might build in assessment

Yes, I mentioned this in my last post, but feel I must come back to it here. I cannot tell you just how much I love this! Just Play is a set of whole-class performing resources from Musical Futures that involves students playing any combination of keyboards, guitars, ukuleles, bass, chair drums, and vocals, all with playalong videos. We are currently using it with year 7, 8 AND 9, because it is so good we didn’t want anyone to miss out!  If you haven’t seen it, you can download some sample materials from the MF website here.

Why do I love this so much? It is really musical. It engages students in improving their instrumental skills, their ability to play in time and respond to visual cues, and moves them on quickly in a way that they find satisfying. It is super-differentiatable (I’ll come back to this in a moment). The resources are great, and although you have to pay for them, they are very much worth it for the return that you get. Plus, the kids LOVE it! So, let’s say we’re working on Uptown Funk. This only has two chords, but there are many changes in texture that you need to watch for. Students are arranged around the room on all the instruments, following the video and playing along. I can differentiate for individuals by:

  • getting them just to play on beat 1 of each bar if they need time for chord changes
  • getting them to strip back to just root notes
  • use a sponge under the 4th, 5th, and 6th strings of the guitar to simplify chords: you only have to worry about strings 1, 2 and 3 because the others are muted by the sponge
  • get them to play a more ‘authentic’ strumming pattern if they can
  • taking out the sponge and asking them to try ‘full’ guitar chords
  • on keys, ask them to try putting in a root note in the left hand while playing chords in the right hand
  • ask them them to try singing and playing at the same time
  • getting them to try different instruments

I have been doing some great video assessment of Just Play lessons. I don’t want stress to assess, but it’s nice to chart progress sometimes, plus students do find it motivating. So I video a Just Play performance, making sure I get everyone in. I don’t have to try to make notes while they’re playing, I can watch it back later (it doesn’t take long). Then I can create a chart that looks like this:


The numbers here are only a shortcut to the colours – it’s these that are the important bits. Red means ‘not yet’. Amber is ‘can do this’ and green is ‘can do this really well’ (there’s more on this below). Generally there are fewer reds by the third week, so if I wanted to ‘prove’ progress (which I really hate doing, but I know a lot of teachers have to) you could put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I can track what they’re up to and give them personalised objectives, like this:


Moving upwards and onwards with assessment

If you want to know all the ins and outs of where I’m at with KS3 ‘life after levels’, then it is outlined in the webinar above, that I did in conjunction with Music Excellence London  and the ISM Trust in January. If you’ve read about radar diagrams and the way that I’ve been using them in previous posts, it’s all about how that is evolving. If you are a fan of the idea of shitistics then watch the last 10 mins or so. I couldn’t say ‘shitistics’ itself in the webinar but you’ll get the idea!

In case you don’t have time to watch the vid, here are the highlights:

  1. Moving to a 3-point system. Before, everything was marked on a 1-5 scale (where 5 is great and 1 is terrible). I’ve changed this now, to a 3-point scale: 3-point-radar-2017

There are still 12 things round the edge – we need 12, our projects are a whole term long. I don’t ever attempt to assess all 12 at once! The main difference is the 3-point scale: ‘not yet’, ‘can do’ and ‘can do really well’. I really like using this. Taking numbers out of the whole thing is good. I like that ‘not yet’ is the lowest one. It all makes sense to everyone and is really simple.

2. All the things round the outside are selected from a list that I’ve now compiled – one of the things I’ve had to do to fit in with the way that we’re moving towards doing KS3 assessment at my school is to create a PLC (personalised learning checklist – although they’re not really personalised – this whole idea is a PiXL thing, for better or worse): this is essentially a list of the skills, knowledge, and concepts that we want KS3 to be all about. Each department had to fill in a jigsaw – here is ours:

music-ks3-jigsaw-revisedI also used the ISM framework for curriculum design and assessment at KS3 (it’s here) which is brilliant – as a process to work through, with its ‘big questions’, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

So, after all that, I came up with a list of all the things that are important enough that we want to assess them. The things round the outside of the radars are selected from these, appropriate to the content of the topic. Over time, we’ll cover all of them, and a picture builds up of where each student is with their skills – can they do each thing at all, do it really well, or not yet? So much more musical, human and real than saying ‘you’re a 3b’.

Bob Marlead


Kids cannot coil jack leads properly, and my attempts to teach them to do so were causing me great frustration. The solution – Bob Marlead. Like all the best ideas, I stole this one, but it has revolutionised lead storage in my classroom. Just stick it on Bob! Made for us out by our fab caretaker Kevin out of a laminated Google Images pic of Bob stuck to a board with two bits of dowel sticking out to hang the leads on. A sequel featuring Alice Cooper will be coming to the classroom next door very soon!

What’s going on in my classroom right now

One of the problems with music teaching is that we so often work in very small departments that we rarely see other music teachers teach. So we plough on, reinventing our wheels on a weekly basis.

In the spirit of glasnost I just thought I’d share what I’m doing in my classroom right now, in case you’re interested, or just plain nosey. Nothing here is remotely my own idea, but I’ve magpied stuff from all over (there’s nothing I like more than stealing a good idea).

Musical Futures Just Play

Yes, yes, yes! Get some of this. Head on over to the MF website and have a look at the sample resources if you haven’t come across it before (you can create a free account so you can access everything on the website). Basically what it’s about is getting students playing chords on keyboards, ukuleles and guitars, and beginning to play bass guitar too, by just doing it. Along the way students learn about chords, bass notes, major and minor, rhythm notation and reading chord boxes, all by showing/doing rather than talking about it. It’s the ultimate musical music lesson. There are special cards you can print and laminate to help students play major and minor chords with any root note. To access all of the resources you’ll need to go on a MF training course, but if you can squeeze some training money out of your school it’ll be the best thing you go to this year.

Chair drumming

This is an offshoot of Just Play. Each student has a pair of drumsticks. They stand in front of a standard plastic classroom chair and practise all the rhythm skills and coordination they need for playing a real kit. Along the way it’s all about beats of the bar, layers of sound and drumming along to some classic rock tracks (which need to be turned up really loud to be heard over the chair drumming). Some of the best times you can have in a classroom. If you buy drumsticks in bulk they work out really reasonable. There is nothing not to like about this. Unless you have a headache.

Iconic rhythm notation

I had not come across this term before (perhaps it’s an American thing), but it’s part of a goldmine of resources I discovered on the Little Kids Rock website. All it is is rhythms represented using numbers, like this:


So with this one, you would clap/drum/click/jump/whatever on the first beat of the bar. You quickly get to syncopated rhythms:


It’s also easy to set up multi-part polyrhythms, just by having several on the board at once. There is enough stuff on the LKR website to keep you going for years.

Learning riff-based pieces by ear

Hear, Listen, Play! by Lucy Green is one of the books I wish I’d written. Why didn’t I think of creating riff-based pieces, with individual audio tracks (all easily differentiatable, if that’s a real word – it is now), to get students working simple stuff out by ear! Once I’d got over an overwhelming feeling of DOH! That’s so obvious! it is blindingly brilliant. The book includes all the audio. You have to order it from OUP in America, slightly weirdly, but it’s well worth the expense (and the wait for it to arrive). There are some classical pieces in there as well, which I’m going to use with GCSE classes.

Video help desks

There are so many great tutorial videos on YouTube, so I thought I’d make my own for the pieces we’re doing in class. I use Explain Everything on my iPad to combine video footage (made on my phone or iPad) with notation. Here’s an example:

I use this for the initial modelling of whatever we’re playing, but then make it available via two iPads for students to have in front of them while they practise, should they need this (they often do).

I’ve also found the Acapella iPad app is great for creating visual playalong vids: here’s the one for all parts of Toca Bonito:

Body Percussion

Since going to a fantastic CPD session led by Ollie from Beat Goes On,  we have been body-percussion-tastic in many of our lessons. Co-ordination, imagination, ensemble awareness, improvisation, it’s all there. No resources required, no expenditure – again, there is absolutely nothing not to like!

Top purchase – a plectrum cutter

One of the best fifteen quids I’ve ever spent has been a plectrum cutter. Credit/gift cards and sturdy bottles recycled into guitar picks, plastic milk bottles into softer picks for ukuleles. Doesn’t matter if they get lost. Also quite therapeutic!

Knowledge organisers

This is a KS4/5 thing. There are some things they just have to learn – factual stuff, terminology – and rather than waste time on any ‘discovery learning’ type activities (sorry, there just isn’t time) – I present this to my students in the form of a knowledge organiser. There is a great blog describing exactly how they work here. Here is a knowledge organiser I’ve just made for OCR GCSE (‘old’ spec) for the tango topic:


This forms the basis for explanations, listening questions, read/cover/write learning activities, frequent low-stakes testing (just give them the organiser with half the boxes blank as a quick test). Memory is the residue of thought, as someone once said, so thinking about this stuff, often, is what is going to make it stick. Once it’s there, you can hone exam technique and aural recognition of musical features.

Shitistics and progress in music

I have been very heartened by the enthusiasm for the concept of shitistics. Shitistics fans, you will not be disappointed for long – I will return to this in my next post.

Assessment, reporting and shitistics

Hmmm. This topic slooshes in and out of my consciousness on a regular basis, and I have been prompted to write a post on it today by some questions from my venerable friend John Kelleher and re-reading of this blog post by the colossus that is Dr Fautley. Plus a few people asking me how I get from what gets put on my radar diagrams (described here and here) to the what gets put into SIMS for reports/reviews.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 21.33.24

Martin very usefully separates out for us various ways that are/can be used to mark students’ work. When I fill in my radar diagrams (see above – the different coloured blobs are done on different days) I have come to the conclusion that my decisions are mostly comparative, based on what I have seen and heard from the students in all my classes. It’s sort of holistic, based on my guild knowledge of music and experience as a musician – ‘trust me, I’m a musician – I know quality when I see it’ – that might sound like bull but there’s something in it, I think. But then again it’s not at all holistic because I’m doing this in twelve different categories.

Aside from all of that, though, and this is where Martin identifies a problem, is how we get from this rather (in my opinion) beautifully-crafted mark out of 60 to something that my school – the ‘system’ – requires me to enter onto a spreadsheet. This is where shitistics come in.

My school – sadly, but hopefully not for much longer – has gone down the ‘let’s give everything a 9-1 grade’ route. So every student has a 9-1 grade as a benchmark for GCSE, and also for the end of each year. So mark out of 60 has to become a 9-1 fine grade. In this process of translation pretty much all idea of validity is lost, Chinese whispers style. Ask me for a number and I’ll give you one (a number that is). And I’ll make damned sure, by the power of shitistics, that it is the kind of number that you want. That is, one that shows progress from the last time you asked.

So, I’ll look at the kids’ results and set some grade boundaries so at least, for what it’s worth, there is consistency between teachers and from student to student. I’m not actually pulling a number completely out of thin air. But I’ll make sure that, for the majority of students, the number is what the ‘system’ wants. I’ll see what the average mark out of 60 is, have a look to see what the average current grade is ‘supposed’ to be, and work from there. At its best, it is a very blunt tool that might tell you who has done well and not-so-well this term. But not about why. If someone has done badly, it might be because they’re lazy, because I’m a crap teacher, or because they’ve missed 10 lessons this term for whatever reason. If only I had the opportunity just to say, they got 18/60 this term, but they were only in 2 of the lessons so that’s actually pretty good…

The other problem with translating marks into grades for reporting is that the grades themselves need explaining. ‘Dad, I got a 3a in music!’ ‘Oh, is that good?’ Surely ‘Dad, I got 56/60 this term in music’ is much easier all round?

Cut the shitistics, give ’em raw data.