So many ways of thinking about music

I can’t think of any other subject where there is so much variation in the way that people think about it.

This video from Adam Neely, my current favourite musical YouTuber, has formalised something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

A little while ago I said, during the course of a lesson with my Year 12s, ‘think of a G major chord’. Many of them had a physical reaction to this instruction. Some played piano on the table, one made a guitar chord shape on his ruler, and one shut his eyes and played an imaginary saxophone.

A couple of years ago I began playing in a covers band. There are eight of us in the band: two with music degrees, one ex-Junior Academy student, and the other five the products of informal learning. Sometimes we tie ourselves in knots over what we’re playing. I say ‘it’s on the fourth beat of the bar!’ or ‘no, that’s not a pause – it’s just a longer note’ and get blank responses. The way that I’m thinking about the music just doesn’t always tie in with the way my bandmates are thinking.

The knowledge and experience that we have gives us ways of creating mental constructs that allow us to make sense of the world around us. This is – of course – as true in music as in any other area. But there are just so many different ways of thinking about music. Some musicians think harmonically, others melodically, others predominantly rhythmically. Some (or maybe a lot) of your musical thinking won’t involve words.

Is this why it’s so bloody hard to teach? But so brilliant?




What is KS3 music homework for, exactly?

I have never quite made up my mind about homework.

Sometimes I think it is entirely pointless, and having seen the unnecessary strain it can put on family life, think that children would be best left alone in their non-school hours to fill their time as they wish. What is a certain truth is that homework for the sake of homework is a criminal waste of time.

So, what is homework for? Especially in music, when the majority of what we’re doing in class is (hopefully) practical. We can’t expect students to practise what they’ve done in class at home, as we can’t assume that they have the necessary instruments, or the opportunity to work together as they might need to.

Homework policies generally state something about homework having to consolidate and extend work in lessons. In music, we do this in a somewhat oblique way: we invent a whole range of tasks that have a range of possible purposes:

  • to fulfil the school’s homework policy (this, in itself, is not a good enough reason to set homework, in my opinion)
  • to keep up with other subjects, especially at a time when music’s place in the curriculum feels threatened
  • to cover some background information that there isn’t time for in lessons
  • to give an opportunity for some written work/give music an ‘academic’ side
  • to keep students in touch with their music work between lessons
  • to make links between what students do in class and their personal musical lives
  • to provide opportunities for students to do prep for lessons, or listen back to and reflect on work in progress

What follows are some rambling thoughts about how my approach to homework has evolved over the last few years, and an explanation of where I am at now.

A journey through formats

What has become very apparent over the last few years is that a good platform for sharing words, music, pictures, and documents online is immensely helpful for everyone concerned in the business of homework.

Our dallyings with Moodle – our school’s choice of VLE platform – were short and unsatisfactory. It was ugly, clunky, and just didn’t do what we wanted it to do. Uploading anything bigger than the smallest mp3 file took about a week, and students couldn’t navigate around it easily. As our SLT promoted it, we spurned it heartlessly and looked elsewhere.

As many forward-looking music departments did at the time, we hit upon NUMU as a safe and free online platform that looked like it would do what we wanted it to do. But, still clunky, and uploading stuff could be fiddly. I never did get the hang of uploading video. Spurned again after a year of enthusiasm.

So, we decided to set up our own WordPress blogs, having seen the great examples of people like Anna Gower and Jackie Schneider, who have got the art of music class blogging down to a very fine art. Being tarts, we all forked out for a dotcom domain name, and misswerrysclasses was born. I could make it look pretty, and organise it exactly how I wanted to. We ran into problems with uploading audio files as space soon ran out. Soundcloud was nice for a bit, and then they took the record button off their app (plus free accounts were limited) so Audioboom was our saviour for uploading audio. It took a bit of effort to get students to leave all but the most basic feedback on their work, but everything like that needs a bit of training…

Now our school has forsaken Moodle (finally) for the green pastures of Office 365. A one-stop shop of multi-media sharing. Woop woop!

There are teething problems, of course. We are still getting Sharepoint to do exactly what we want it to do, and struggle to make it as visually appealing and simple to navigate as we want it to be. But with unlimited storage, we can upload audio to our hearts’ content. Video is more tricky and needs to go via a link to an unlisted YouTube clip – but this is easy enough (I have never really understood the fuss some schools make about YouTube – if kids are not identified by name, surely it’s not a problem? And unlisting videos makes them impossible to find without a link…).


Year 7, in particular, have taken to Yammer – 365’s own, institution-based (and wonderfully square) version of Facebook. In Yammer, you can set up groups for your classes, publish homework, establish dialogue about recordings of work in progress, all that. Kids need to be taught how to use it – just saying ‘it’s just like Facebook’ doesn’t really do the trick, especially when it comes to them uploading their own work. But the best times are when they are genuinely chatting about their work, asking for and receiving help from each other. Or, alternatively, casting judgement – this is my favourite example:

did you copy and paste that?

Homework content

I went through a phase of setting really meaty, research-based projects for homework. So, for example, a term-long project on 12-bar blues would have a research project all about the civil rights movement, segregation, and the evolution of musical styles in C20th America.

The most academic students lapped this up, and the work they produced was amazing. For everyone else, though, it was a complete ball-ache, and they hated it. Marking it was laborious, and ultimately I had to make a decision as to whether all that effort was actually worth it. Despite the plus points, the eventual answer was no.

The illusion of choice

One of the most successful aspects of the way I ‘do’ homework now – apart from the reduced time it takes me to mark it – is students’ positive response to the illusion of choice. They pick their tasks from a ‘menu’ of possibilities – all of which are completely acceptable, obviously – which cover a range of things from research-based writing tasks to performing and composing. Here is an example from Year 7:

Year 7 autumn term takeaway homework

The work I have got back has been nearly all excellent, and students love it. (By the way, if you haven’t discovered as an easy way for students to engage with music between lessons, especially texture and structure, try it now!). I have been surprised and thrilled by the performances that they produce when they are recording in privacy. They have been inspired by the possibilities of using the ever-burgeoning number of musical apps to create their own music (MadPad and A Capella are the current favourites). Coming up with the ‘menu’ is infinitely less hassle than constructing a weighty directed research project.

Until I change my mind again, there is nothing not to like about all of this.

You can’t play cajon in a pencil skirt

I was reading John Kelleher’s blog about his relationship with PowerPoint and it made me think about furniture and clothes. Much has been said about tables in music classrooms, and converts (including me) have made claims about the inverse proportion of furniture to the amount of music in a lesson. Just like John draws a parallel between the demise of his PowerPoint fixation and the practical musicking in his lessons. 

A shift to fashion blogging is not about to occur here, but I have noticed a correlation between changes in the way I teach and my school wardrobe. 

I used to be a heels-and-pencil-skirt kind of teacher (the general sartorial tone at my school is very suited-and-booted). However, in the last couple of years, the tables have gone, the drum kit is in permanent residence, I have learned the bass guitar and things are just very different in my classroom. The simple fact is that I spend a lot of time sitting on the carpet, or playing the cajon. Neither of which can be done easily in a pencil skirt. 

So, my school wardrobe has changed. Black trousers every day, with my penchant for colour having to pop out in jackets and shoes. The silver brogues and pink DMs above are part of the whole thing. My music teacher friends over at Harris Academy Greenwich have a uniform of performing arts hoody and trousers. What a great idea (although I might still want to wear pink shoes). 

I guess the bottom line is that I would rather be the music teacher with the pink lace-ups and the cajon than the one with the pencil skirt and the PowerPoint. Funny how all these things fit together. 

The sticky problem of threshold concepts in music


I came across the idea of threshold concepts in David Didau’s book What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? In the book he refers to the work of Jan Meyer and Ray Land, who describe threshold concepts as portals that ‘open up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something’. Basically, these are the points at which students tend to become stuck, and if they remain stuck, they will not be able to progress further in their understanding. Identifying what they are is of enormous help in planning a good curriculum and sound teaching.

Of course, this got me thinking about what threshold concepts there might be in music. Where to start? With what music actually is? So, we could say

Music is the organisation of sound. People then invest this with meaning in lots of different ways.

But really, that’s not really a threshold concept, as music is so part of human existence that we all know that, even if we haven’t thought about it explicitly or put it into words. If we haven’t thought about it explicitly it’s still not going to stop us developing further musical thinking.

So, onwards. I came up with three that I reckon are pretty sound:

The unit of time in music is a beat, which might be short or long, depending on the tempo.

Beats are grouped together in bars (mostly).

One C is pretty much equivalent to any other C, although they are in different octaves or played on different instruments.

This one, I think is OK:

You can think about pitches as being organised in sequence (horizontally, i.e. a melody) or in parallel (vertically, i.e. a chord). Often these things happen simultaneously.

After that I came up against some that caused me problems:

Most pieces of music only use a limited number of different pitches at any one time (a key). The relationships between these notes, and how they fit together, are very important.

In staff notation, one blob = one sound (except for ties).

In music, a balance of variety and repetition is a very good thing.

The problem that I have with these is that you might very well get quite a long way without them, depending on what type of musician you are. If you are a performer who plays from staff notation, you need the second concept, but could be an excellent player without giving the first and third any thought whatsoever. If you are not a notation-based musician, you could create all kinds of great music through performing and/or composing without the second.

It’s pretty obvious that there are different kinds of musicians, and that there are different threshold concepts that apply to these. As teachers, though, we need to think very carefully about what kind of musicians it is that we are developing. This is necessarily going to involve making some value judgements about what a ‘good musician’ actually is.

So I’ve been thinking about all the musicians I have known whose musicianship I have admired. Nearly all of them have been more than just good performers. Not all of them have been composers, but they have understood how music is put together, have incredible aural skills and a deep understanding of harmony. I think I’m with John Finney when he says ‘to know music though the mind of a composer adds greatly to understanding what music is.’

Those are my priorities, perhaps because of my upbringing as an old-school, traditional musician. Another teacher’s could be different. Another sticky problem with these threshold concepts in music is that true musical understanding is non-verbal, and someone might have a phenomenal understanding of any of these concepts, but not be able to articulate it. The music itself has to do the talking, which often doesn’t sit too well with the way schools expect things to be (i.e. the idea of ‘evidencing’ progress: I am coming to loathe the concept of this even more than I loathe making a verb out of a noun!).

I reckon I’ve missed some really important threshold concepts here. Would yours be different? I would be very interested to hear people’s views.

Wider assessment: why current performance grades are a load of rubbish


This is not a post that specifically relates to music education: it is about the way that we report to parents at KS3 and KS4 across all subjects. However, if like me you have been grappling with trying to get your school to adopt a system for post-levels assessment which makes sense, then it may well be of interest to you.

I have been using, for the last year and a half, a system for assessing in KS3 music that really works (it is described here and here). It is not based on any woolly descriptors, and it is streamlined enough that it is of use to me and my students without getting in our way.

But, how to extend this to a whole-school system? Many schools have just replaced levels with further descriptor-based grades, which might as well be levels. This just seems like a craven resistance to change: hanging onto the comfort blanket of the old system without acknowledging the elephant in the room – that anything descriptor-based is a load of twaddle. How can death by adjectives/adverbs be anything remotely productive?

Let us leave this aside – there are more pressing things to think about. What do we want out of our whole-school assessment methods? The answers seems to be as follows:

  • to be able to identify which students are doing well or badly
  • to be able to tell parents how well their children are doing
  • to prove to anyone who is interested (i.e. Ofsted) that progress is being made

The unfortunate thing here is that the third of these seems to have risen to the top of schools’ list of priorities. What I would like to urge schools to do is reclaim their position as the people who really know about education, and stop running scared of the inspectors. There are two perceptions, in particular, that I would like schools to cast aside:

  1. That student progress is linear. It isn’t. Learning is both invisible and extremely messy. Attempting to crowbar progress into a linear model is so futile that we might as well abandon it. If you think I’m off my trolley, there is plenty of evidence to back this up, ably described by David Didau in his book What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? You can read extracts of the book on his blog here, but better still, read the book.
  2. That giving students a ‘current performance grade’ relating to GCSE criteria is possible at any time other than the last year of a course, and maybe not even until very near the end. Many schools are moving to a 9-1 grading system to fit with the new GCSEs. Fair enough. But using this to describe a Year 7’s achievement or attainment is simply crazy, unless they’re going to be taking their GCSE exam that year.

So, I am teaching Year 7 whatever I am teaching them, assessing it in whatever way I am assessing, and I have to give them a GCSE grade. There are some huge problems with this:

  • They are not covering the same things as in the GCSE syllabus
  • They are not sitting GCSE assessments
  • They are in Year 7, dammit!

So, the numbers will be plucked out of the air, as they have been for the last two decades with levels. The mockery of completely invalid assessment methods will be allowed to continue, as I will look at the student’s benchmark, work back from there, think about whether they’ve worked well or not, and pick a number accordingly. Just like I have done for the last 20 years. Or, I will fabricate some completely spurious correlation between the assessment I have done this term and a GCSE grade, in order to lend this farce some verisimilitude. I’ll say, oh 82% in Year 7, that’s a Grade 2. Which clearly is a steaming pile of BS.

Some schools, most notably in my local area one of the big academy chains, have come up with a really rather sensible system. This uses current test data (it does involve a lot of testing of students, which might cause some people to balk slightly, but I don’t think you have to do it every half term, necessarily…) to calculate a ‘most likely grade’ at GCSE, which can then be compared with benchmarks. This is based on some assumptions, some of which take a leap of faith:

  • That we are teaching students the right things
  • That we are assessing robustly
  • That we have a rough idea of the grade boundaries for the new GCSEs – we can assume for now that a Grade 9 is 90%, but we can always tweak this later

So, if Student A gets 82% in her most recent assessment, we can project that she is likely to achieve a Grade 8 in her GCSE, if she carries on working in the same way.  Nice.

Well, nicer and a lot more honest than plucking a number out of thin air. But, if Student A has got 82% in her last assessment, that’s clearly pretty good. So, why can’t I just report to parents that she’s got 82%? This makes perfect sense to everyone, and makes it clear which subjects she’s doing well or less well in. If she got 75% last time, then maybe she’s upped her level of effort. If she got 99% last time, then maybe she’s being lazy – or maybe there are a whole host of other reasons why she’s not doing as well this time. It’s then down to parents and teachers to work out why there’s been a dip. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the messy progress beast – one step forward, two steps back. Never mind.

What you cannot do is expect Student A’s scores to go up incrementally over time. I’ll be teaching her harder/more complex things in Year 8 than I was in Year 7. So, if her assessment scores remain constant, she’s making progress. But you have to trust me that I’m teaching her the right things.

Parents (and students) have never really understood levels – what is a 5c, anyway? – so let’s not feed them more crap.

The thing about this idea is that it requires us to let go of some of our props: namely, that we can track progress on a graph, and that teachers don’t really know what they’re doing. It will require senior leaders to have faith that their staff are a) teaching the right things and b) assessing robustly, making sure that the assessments really do measure what needs to be measured, and not what is easiest to measure (McNamara’s fallacy).

But if teachers aren’t doing these two things, what the hell are they doing? Shouldn’t this be where we are putting ALL of our pedagogical efforts? Drawing on all the decent research we can? Supporting teachers/departments in need of support? Creating great curricula that are based on developing threshold concepts? Yeah!

Go on, senior leaders – grow some balls and have faith. Let’s make this better!

An update on using radar diagrams for KS3 assessment – and some thoughts on testing

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 19.37.54

I have blogged about these before, here. Many teachers have shown real interest in this way of assessing at KS3, and I know there are a good many people who have adapted the idea for their own schools.

In the year 2014-15 we enjoyed using our radars very much. Here are some specific thoughts:

  • If you have radars for each student, and all the radars for one group on one sheet, and use a different coloured pen each time, it is easy to see what’s happened when. Sheets get given out to each group in the lesson (I look after them between lessons), so they can see what they need to do to improve. Personalised objectives, if you like. I can pootle round the room, and dish out marks/feedback as I wish. If I don’t get round everyone in a lesson, I can easily see who I need to prioritise the next week. Thus, the assessment serves me: it is not my master. I think this is crucial – we’ve got too much else to do
  • One really good thing that has happened as a consequence is that the sheets have really opened up dialogue. Students might say ‘You’ve only given me 2 for such-and-such – what do I need to do to get more?’ or ‘Miss, I’ve practised that now, and I think I’m a 5! Come and listen!’
  • It has forced me to give lesson/homework space to critique. This has been good. We have scaffolded this at first, and it has been very effective
  • The effect of using the sheets on the quality of work produced by the students is very positive. The assessment tail wagging the dog, as usual, but in a good way! Hallelujah.
  • Sometimes it gets to the point when you feel you’re assessing the backside off everything that moves. It is necessary to take a break from assessing sometimes, and just do some music, avoiding what Anna Gower calls the ‘stress to assess’. We all (teachers and students) need a break every now and then

quick key logo

I have also been using QuickKey to do some rapid assessment of key concepts. This is entirely for formative purposes – i.e. to inform my teaching, most specifically how I will tackle things in the next lesson, including where specific differentiation is needed.

QuickKey is an app that enables you to use your iPhone or iPad to mark multiple choice tests really quickly, and break down the data to show the responses to each question. The nuts and bolts are this: you devise questions (more on this later: it’s important!) and students respond by filling in a sheet that you print out from the QuickKey website:


You put in your student’s names to your QuickKey account (it’s free if you only do 3 new tests each month, and saves your classes for future use) and it assigns each one a reference number, which they (or you) put in on the left hand side.

It’s absolutely brilliant – and the information it gives you on who ‘gets’ what is invaluable. But it’s only as good as the questions that you ask. Compiling really good questions takes serious thought – they really need to be ‘hinge questions’ that have possible answers that flag up misconceptions. Here is a video of Dylan Wiliam explaining hinge questions. So, for example, I might ask:

What makes a texture thick or thin?

A: how many instruments are playing

B: how loud the music is

C: how many different notes/melodies are being played

D: whether there are chords or not

E: what instruments are playing

If a student answers C, I know that they have got it (unless, of course, they guessed, which is always a danger). However, if they answer A then I know that there is a misconception to be addressed. An answer of D shows partial understanding, but there is the possibility of alerting them to counterpoint. If they answer B they’ve misunderstood completely, and E is a tiny bit correct.

With the info that a quick test can give me, I know who is an expert on a topic, who perhaps needs to be given a specific task, or specific help to really understand something. It does not inform what I put on radars, directly, (although I guess it could if that seemed appropriate) but it does inform my planning. Scanning the answers is really fast once you’ve got the hang of it. You can also use QuickKey to make revision tests for your KS4 and KS5 classes.

KS3 – another revamp!

Every year we tweak our KS3 curriculum. Every year I think it gets better, and we move closer to something that is really musical and really works, for everyone. Various things have been influencing my thinking in the last few weeks:

  • Some of my students still don’t know where to find the notes on the keyboard. Clearly I need to have more efficient ways of reinforcing this: this made me think that actually, we’re trying to cover too much, and not reinforcing these basic (and rather useful) things
  • One of my colleagues did a great lesson where she made a video explaining major and minor chords that students watched for homework. In the lesson, they had a choice of songs to play, some with easy chords, some with harder ones such as F# major. All were songs they knew, and the application of the knowledge was direct, time-efficient and differentiated. It made me think we needed to do more of this: firstly making videos to explain key concepts (that students can watch again as reference, either in lessons or in their own time), and then using this knowledge directly to do something practical
  • Some of my students have shown that they still are confused by beamed notes: a question such as ‘how many notes are there?’, although it might seem ridiculously obvious, does not always elicit a correct answer. I must need to do something differently if my students think this is one note, despite my best efforts (see my last blog post on the Peer to Peer network here)pairquavers

I have been doing some (unassessed) playing of a range of songs with my classes, and some students have asked to take pictures of the materials so they can practise in their own time. We need to find better ways for all materials to be available to students out of lessons. Plus, I want students to be much more aware of all the brilliant music video tutorials, websites and apps there are out there, to motivate them to pursue their own musical interests. As a knock-on from this, I want them all to have a better understanding of how to play chord boxes and tab
We have a PD day every June devoted to departmental planning (always one of our favourite days). We decided to start from scratch and think about exactly what we wanted our students to be able to do. Here is our collection of post-its:

post its2

We then talked further, and organised our thoughts via a Padlet, coming up with a rough overview of KS3, including what to keep from our current SoW:

I could go on indefinitely about all of this, but I want to keep it brief. So, in summary:

  • We want to reinforce basic skills more frequently, including doing more singing (we find that if there’s an entirely instrumental project, it’s hard to get the singing back). So, more quick starters and chants etc. for things like the notes of the keyboard. More frequent playing of just about every type of chord
  • More performing and less composing, actually… we need that time to reinforce the skills. There will be frequent creative bits, though, deciding how to arrange songs, improvising and so on – as well as some more meaty composition topics. We just decided we didn’t want to flog retrogrades/phase shifting to death any more!
  • We are moving our antiquated VLE onto Sharepoint from September. We hope this will be more conducive for sharing lesson resources, instructional videos, recordings of work in progress, and so on.
  • We are going to be using Soundation with our Year 9s
  • We want to cover at least one of the BBC Ten Pieces with each year group, but we’ll wait to see what the BBC resources on these are like before deciding exactly what, how and when. We want this to be as fully integrated into everything else as possible, however
  • The emphasis will be on getting students to a point where they are able to pursue their own musical preferences independently. They will know enough about playing chords, reading notation, tab and chord boxes, to be able to find stuff on the internet and do good, musical, things with it