The National Plan for Music – is there a Plan B? Notes from Expo lunchtime debate, 13th March 2015

random crap

As David revealed to the world, I was speaking from notes scribbled in a notebook entitled ‘Random Crap’ – here I hope to unravel my ramblings into a set of terse points…

There are a number of problems, as I see it, with some of the content of the National Plan for Music. These are:

  1. A lot of the Plan is about how schools and hubs can work together. Which, of course, is a really nice idea, and there are lots of great examples of where this is happening, with excellent consequences. However, the elephant in the room is that there is absolutely no compulsion for schools and hubs to have anything at all to do with one another. The thing that the Plan misses is that all of this is extra – no teacher I know of has anything on their job spec other than teaching their classes and getting the best possible results for their students. That’s what we’re paid for. Anything else, we do out of devotion to our vocation. Which is ironic in an educational world where everything is about accountability and evidence – a belief, seemingly, that the only things that matter are the ones that can be measured. The plan talks about ‘hubs and schools holding one another to account’ – we can work together, sure, but this will only happen out of the goodness of our hearts, and neither party has any moral right to hold the other to account.
  2. Schools – and most particularly their senior leadership teams – are running scared from Ofsted. SLTs have a fire lit under their backsides that seems to have its origins in fear, the flames being fanned by being hell-bent on second-guessing what Ofsted ‘want’. The current fetishisation of ‘evidence’ is a symptom of this. Ofsted are aware of this, and have repeatedly tried to put schools right, most recently in this advice, published last week, together with helpful blogs and repeated assurances from sensible HMIs like Robin Hammerton. But the consequence of this Ofsted-mania is that there are many SLTs up and down the land who just don’t ‘get’ music. This has a massive knock-on effect to music teachers, who are busy wasting valuable time stating their learning objectives and getting written evidence of feedback and progress, when really they ought to be making music with their classes.
  3. The Plan talks about secondaries working with primaries, and about SLEs (specialist leaders in education – the new version of ASTs, sort-0f) spreading good practice. However, the problem with both of these great ideas is time – I would absolutely love to be going into my local primaries, but until my school decide that it is a good use of my time, and build it into my timetable, it’s not going to happen. I also need to be given time on my timetable for my SLE work, as currently this comes out of my frees (or I have to leave my classes with cover). I also perceive a problem with the increasing tendency for schools to club together in academy chains and other alliances – there may be a school round the corner who very much would benefit from my advice, but if they are members of a rival chain, it’s unlikely they’ll be on the phone any time soon as they won’t want to lose face.
  4. The Plan talks about the professional isolation of some music teachers. This is a very real thing, and those in solo departments are in particular danger of this. I have met solo music teachers just desperate to have a chat about this arcane art of music teaching, as they hardly ever get to meet anyone else of our species. However, there are music teachers out there who are in voluntary isolation – those who don’t read blogs like this one, or follow what’s happening on Twitter, Facebook, or the Musical Futures website. Teachers who don’t do the extra stuff. If you’re reading this, you’re not one of them. But what can we do to develop these teachers’ practice?

My plan B would require a huge commitment from a number of different groups. Getting primary music  right is crucial here. Headteachers need to commit to music projects in the curriculum – singing projects and Band on the Run-type schemes that are sustained (i.e. not just a 10-week flash in the pan) and involve kids taking instruments home. There needs to be a critical mass of enlightened headteachers at primary level to make this the norm, not a special thing.

There needs to be some proper qualification specifically for teachers to be primary music specialists – at the very least a module of a PGCE, but even a whole special PGCE.

SLTs (primary and secondary) need to be educated about the fact that music is different from other subjects. This could be done at hub level by the new Music Champions – headteachers may well listen to their peers. Time and money needs to be allocated for primary partnerships and other good stuff – curriculum time.

Each hub needs to have an adviser/curriculum specialist to work with all schools in the area – perhaps as an accepted part of every music teacher’s annual CPD. However, this brings me to the major financial problem. Let’s say this adviser would be paid £50K. With on-costs, this will cost the hub £65K. I would love that job – until my hub tells me it’s on a one-year contract. No thanks – I’ll stay in my school. But hubs simply cannot plan more than a year ahead at the moment, owing to the uncertainty about their funding.

Hub funding has got to be nailed on for a 5 or 10-year period, so plans can be made and development can happen. This needs an interparliamentary group, to stop it from becoming an election pawn or sacrificial cow. We have a huge music industry in the UK – could they help? A big corporation like Sony could be involved, perhaps. But this needs someone at a very high level to sort out – I don’t think they’ll take much notice if I phone them  myself…

Simplifying musical thinking, and where key words come into it

I am going to try and make some rambling, bothersome thoughts come together in a vaguely cogent fashion in this post. Two things have been bugging me in the last few months:

  • I have noticed that I make assumptions about musical concepts that I mistakenly perceive to be crashingly obvious – so obvious, in fact, that I then fail to explain things that need explaining
  • Music is so nebulous (invisible, non-verbal) that we need to attach words to it in order to explain things. Yes, we most certainly can, and should, use music as a ‘target language’ to demonstrate – but as any MFL teacher will tell you, you need to make sure the kids understand what the foreign words actually mean. The equivalent in music is attaching a word to a musical concept so that we can talk about it and refer to it without getting confused. But we’ve got to strike a balance – we can’t go into a key word frenzy without losing some of the musical value of what we do. We have limited time available to us at KS3, after all

I have been trying to get to the bottom of what I actually want my KS3 classes to understand. Over the years, this has become more clearly focussed, but is based on a pervading style-agnosticism: I want my students to know that music, whatever its style, is made from the same stuff. However, I have come to conclusion that banging on about elements too much (the ‘building blocks’ of music… 1990s Music Matters anyone?) doesn’t really help here. Visions of children sitting in rows reciting ‘Pitch is high and low. Tempo is fast and slow’ come alarmingly to mind.

EDUCATION/BRITAIN/CLASS

Even years of doing exploratory ‘elements pieces’ didn’t hit the nail on the head. I have decided that understanding something about melody, chords and bass lines is where the emphasis should truly be. Knowing that dynamics is loud and soft is good, and enables you to describe one aspect of a piece of music, but melody, chords and bass enables you to see what’s really going on. I am no expert on musical cognition, but the interconnectedness of these things is important, and to my mind leads to greater musical understanding.  If any of those things do not happen to be there, then that is an important observation about whatever music you are listening to/performing/composing.

So, out with elements pieces and writing down tables that look like this:elements ppt

Call me reckless, but I’m relying on natural language acquisition for students to pick up these terms along the way, coupled with a little bit of Doug Lemov-style choral-speaking (1) call and response when required.

So, we are hammering home melody, chords and bass (MCB) through practicals performances, improvisations, and compositions. It’s doing the trick, and I really feel that my students’ understanding is improving.

Until, that is, I realise that I have glossed over the fact that a chord necessarily has more than one note, and a bass line is one note at a time (the clue is in the title: ‘line’, or so I thought) – at the bottom. Yikes. It seems like these kinds of assumptions just can’t be made, and I am so glad that some of my pupils have made their misconceptions clear in a way that has helped me improve my teaching.

To use another Doug Lemov technique, I am now having a quick round of CFU (checking for understanding) before every practical task. Quick-fire, scatter-gun questions for ‘randomly’ (! oh yes, you know what teachers’ ‘random’ really means) selected students, or whole-class response:

  • Is the bass line highest or lowest? (lowest!)
  • Is that at the left hand end of the keyboard, or the right? (the left!)
  • How many notes do you play at a time? (one!)

…and so on. I think it’s working.


(1) Both this and CFU come from Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (pub Jossey-Bass, 2015), which I can thoroughly recommend to teachers of all sorts. The whole of Part 1 is dedicated to checking for understanding. The things I refer to here are targeted questioning (p34) and call and response (p262). Call and response is quick, old-fashioned (but remarkably effective) for when you want to reinforce a term:

You: So, a chord is two or more notes played together. What is a chord?

Class (together): Two or more notes played together.

You: What is two or more notes played together?

Class: A chord!

… if it’s come out of their own mouths, they’re more likely to remember it and use the term themselves.

In the whole process of thinking about this, I’ve also been doing a fair bit of ‘excavating error’ (p72).

Why are we here?

I am having a bit of an existential crisis.

Things are conspiring against me in a way that makes me wonder if schools and other educational organisations have lost sight of why we’re all here – i.e. for the education of children.

Here are the things that have led me to this:

  1. This Wednesday we are having a tea party at my school for local residents to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WW1. I hear you asking what the problem with that is (with associated snide comments about my lack of respect for remembrance etc. etc.)… well, I’ll tell you. Firstly, I can’t teach my classes that afternoon, so they will be covered. (‘Set quality cover!’ I hear you cry. I will, but… I’d rather they were taught by me. Is that presumptuous?) Secondly, I can’t for the life of me see how this will further the education of students at my school. Yes, the history department have done a lovely display, which I’m sure some of them will see… but the tea party itself is for local residents. Various primary school groups are coming to perform. I have been roped in to accompany them, which is causing me some anxiety as they simply can’t tell me what key they want to do their songs in, and we’ll have approximately 30 seconds to rehearse (also I’m not exactly in my element on a piano, and those WW1 songs have some quite complex chords in them). I have also to lead a singalong of WW1 songs – again, OK, but really? When I could be teaching Year 8? And because the Mayor is coming, it is now a ‘showcase for the music department’ (we have plenty of those, and need more like a hole in the head) so I have been arranging WW1 songs for our jazz band, who will be rehearsing at the last minute so we can keep our end up, so to speak, in the public eye. So, mayor = mare. If it had been preparing for a whole-school act of remembrance, I wouldn’t mind a jot – I can see how that adds to the education of our students. But under these circumstances, I feel, frankly, pimped.
  2. At my school we have a lovely 5-piece a cappella group. They had been invited to perform at the conference of a big educational group. However, last week we discovered that the next day a visiting examiner is coming for a GCSE drama exam that two of the kids are involved in. It’s a group piece, so they really need to be in school the day before, rehearsing. Putting the students’ exams first, as I thought was my duty, (and the philosophy of the organisation we were due to perform for) I emailed and apologised that we would no longer be able to take part. There are a few weeks to go, so this is no last-minute cancellation. I have no illusions that we are the only school who could contribute a quality performance for this event. By return I had a reply from the very-well-known chair of the aforementioned educational organisation, expressing disappointment but wishing us well. But I also received another email from him, which he had clearly accidentally copied me in on, which was intended for his assistant, and said (I quote) “said little because I think this conveys all the wrong messages to kids about responsibility but if they can’t see that then no point in me telling them”. What the …?! I thought the kids’ responsibility – and mine – and the school’s – and this organisation’s – was to the students’ achievements? What is going on here? What exactly is it that I am ‘not seeing’? Not pimped here, but slapped for doing what I believe is in my students’ best interests.

Now like all music teachers, I am a great devotee of extra-curricular activities, and the ones that I organise for my students have great benefit to them and to the life of the school. But these two examples have made me think that schools and other organisations are being swept up in things that are causing them to forget why we’re really here.

I don’t want to use the term ‘back to basics’ as this has become a Tory catchphrase. But I went into education for the kids – can’t we keep it like that?

How to build a musician

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. In these times of overbearing economic strictures being placed on education, the financial viability of music courses at KS4 and KS5 is a hot potato in schools. I’ve always been very lucky that, so far, my school has accepted that A-level music will always be a loss-leader, but every year reality threatens the future of this way of thinking.

Like many other schools, our uptake at GCSE is affected by an options system that works against us. Not intentionally, and I remain ever grateful that we never went down the ‘EBac or bust’ route. But we are the sort of school where lots of students want to do triple science, and this seriously cuts down what else they can choose. Many students say they’d love to do music, but can’t fit it in.

This aside, I still want to try to break down that feeling of ‘I’m not a musician’ that many students seem to have ingrained. Deliberately avoiding doing anything that gives anybody that impression, or reinforces that impression, is not enough. Many students have it by the time they arrive in Year 7.

At the start of the year, I asked all my students (by way of a questionnaire on Google Forms) how musical they think they are. This was very illuminating, and I very much hope that when I ask again at the end of the year, I will have been able to persuade them that they are more musical than they thought they were. I know it seems (and is) very un-scientific, but it’s self-identification as musicians that is the hub of what I’m getting at here.

So how am I planning on achieving this? For a start, we are doing much more workshopping in lessons this year – really trying to teach practical musical skills using a wider range of instruments, and giving them ‘more real’ musical experiences than we did before. Making music lessons more like our extra-curricular sessions, if you like.

I am also spending time talking to classes and individuals about the whole ‘you can’t do this YET, but if you practise you will’ idea. We are devoting our corridor display to resilience this year, with students and teachers alike giving details of how they’ve worked at their musical doings and thinkings. ‘It’s not magic – it’s practice!’ is something I’m saying a lot.

Alongside all of this is a feeling that harping on about key words is a waste of time and breath. Yes, I say ‘talk like a musician’ to my students, but I am adopting a more natural approach to language acquisition: if students have played a bass line, then they are likely to know what one is. OK, there is a problem with students forgetting things between lessons, so they do need reminding, but we can do this with more ‘doing music’ (or musicking) rather than talking/writing about it.

This is very much an ongoing process: I most certainly do not pretend to have all the answers here, and any further suggestions are most welcome. I will report back about how it all goes.

Further thoughts on radar diagrams for assessing without levels

My resource for Music Teacher magazine on assessing without levels has recently been published (July 2014), and it describes in detail an assessment system my colleagues at Hayes School and I have been developing over the last seven or eight months. This system is based very much on Martin Fautley’s writing, in his book Assessment in Music Education and his blog drfautley.wordpress.com. I have also had extensive and fruitful conversations with John Kelleher from Wimbledon College, and been very interested in the blogs of John Finney and Anna Gower.

The resource for MT outlines the way in which we have been using radar diagrams to assess KS3 students. Here is an example:

assessing without levels

The different colours used here show what was done on different dates, and so over time a really detailed picture builds up that enables me to plan future lessons and give great feedback to the student. The crucial thing with these diagrams is to get right what is being assessed. So, to mix my metaphors in a completely gung-ho fashion, the content of the spokes of the radar is really important.

Using these radar diagrams over the last few months has provoked further thoughts about spoke content. Last Friday we had a department-based PD day at school, so my colleagues and I were able to discuss our thoughts at length. We also looked at John Kelleher’s approach to using radar diagrams, as he had condensed his spokes down to five, and I had worried that our approach was over-atomising. Is 12 spokes too many?

We had other questions and observations that had come out of our use of the radars. ‘Performance matches intentions’ was something that we had had different interpretations of: my colleagues had linked this to what students had written down, whereas I had taken it to be about whether they had rehearsed effectively enough for their performance to be what they wanted it to be. We also found that we mostly gave the same marks for ‘use of time’ and ‘group work’, and wondered whether we should amalgamate these spokes.

Revised spoke content

Having had a look at John’s slimmed-down, 5-point radars, we decided to stick with our 12-spoke model. These are the reasons:

  • Our projects are quite long (a whole term) and over the course of the project we expect students to work on every aspect (i.e. someone will not just be playing the bass line – they may end up doing that, but before that they will have played chords and melody, done some singing or whatever)
  • We enjoyed the lifelong learning skills aspect of our spokes: it fits with our school’s ethos and priorities, and the important thing here is to find a system that suits your school and your students. For us, we really wanted these things to be part of what was assessed. We wanted to tweak the content, but keep this aspect of our system.
  • Although we fear over-atomisation, we felt that having the 12 points gives us a really valuable framework for giving feedback to our students, and tons of great information about their progress over time in all the different areas.

The result of all of this is that we have come up with revised ‘spoke headings’ which are now as follows:

  1. Following instructions
  2. Critique
  3. Responding to feedback
  4. Group/teamwork
  5. Musicality/style
  6. Ensemble

After that, there will be spokes specific to the project, but after extensive discussion we have gone down the lines of elements, such as melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, and structure, choosing whichever ones are relevant to the project and adding specifics such as singing, instrumentation, improvisation and so on as appropriate.

Tweaking the way we use the radars

The effectiveness of working procedures for any system of assessment is of paramount importance – it just has to work, in practice, in a busy and/or chaotic classroom. We had also been puzzling over the ways in which we could put the radars into the students’ domain: i.e. make them work for students as much as they were working for us.

We are making five changes here:

  1. Students working in a group will have their radars on the same sheet. This has meant we have had to formulate sheets for pairs/trios/fours/fives but having them all in the same view, with a space in the middle or at the side for comments that apply to everyone in the group, has proved a real boon to using them in lessonsBhangra assessment sheet
  2. Following on from (1), group sheets will be given to groups while they are working. Instead of us providing written feedback on a slip that gets glued into student workbooks, the onus will be on the students to look at the sheet, make decisions as to how our feedback affects their planning (and objectives for that lesson, if you want to look at it in that way), and make notes on a designated page in their workbooks. Our school is the sort of school that expects to see stuff written down. I have no wish to pursue the idiocy of a ‘verbal feedback given’ stamp, but wanted to put the onus on students and away from us, and give students ownership (even though that term makes me feel a bit queasy) of their feedback
  3. Next year’s workbooks will have a blank radar for each project. Students will duplicate teachers’ radar marks in their workbooks, preferably using a new colour each time as we do, so that progress over time is super-visible to them, us, and anybody else who cares to look. Giving them the sheets while they are working makes this easy
  4. There will be a space on the ‘radar page’ of the workbook for students to keep a running total of their points so far in the project. This makes progress over time really visible, and gives students something to aspire to.radar workbook page
  5. Having such a thorough record of formative assessment during a project makes a big old summative assessment at the end redundant. Hooray! We have spent hours creating summative sheets that look like this:

radar summative feedback

However, the value of these has been mostly in keeping SLT happy, and their impact on students does not match the time taken by the teacher in producing them. So, by making the formative system so thorough, and in the students’ domain, we no longer need to do this, as all this information will be known to students already. All they have to do at the end of the project is record their final mark, and complete a reflective questionnaire online for homework. This will be done as a Google form and will end up being printed out and stuck into the workbook – this replaces a system where we took up valuable lesson time doing evaluations which were not of much use to them or to us (many thanks to Anna Gower for the Google forms idea!).

The upshot of all of this is that we very much hope that less teacher time out of lessons will be spent producing written feedback, and that students will be 1oo% more aware of the content of their radar on a lesson-to-lesson basis. More responsibility will be passed to the student, which can only be a good thing.

Undoubtedly we will make more changes along the way… future blogs will outline exactly the shape these will take.

 

 

 

 

 

The future of GCSE music

There is much debate currently about what the new GCSE syllabus for music should include. Something is wrong with the current setup – everyone seems to agree on that – but exactly what we should do about it seems to be a question with no clear answers.

Some commentators have made parallels between art and music. John Finney has memorably commented that in art there is no ‘looking exam’, so why in music should we have a listening exam? While there is much to criticise about the listening exam in its current format, I wouldn’t want to go too far down the road where parallels are made between art and music. Art is something that exists in the first three dimensions: music exists solely in the fourth, and anything musical left behind in the first three (a score, a CD…) is merely evidence, like fingerprints or mug stains on a table.

There is no equivalent in art of our distinction between performing and composing: drawing/painting/sculpting all seem to be equivalent to our composing, with exactly the same possibilities for pastiche and learning from examples. What would be the artistic equivalent of performing – forgery? There is no art exam which involves copying a great master (‘Make a copy of the Mona Lisa. You have six hours. Go!’).

Perhaps we should look to another subject which inhabits the fourth dimension – drama. Drama GCSE involves actually doing drama (what is the drama equivalent of ‘musicing’? ‘Dramaing’?), and there is also an interesting option to specialise in support aspects of drama (lighting etc). Yes, there are some bits of written evidence that students have to compile, but these are all in support of the drama itself (much like the commentaries that GCSE music candidates write about their compositions).

The problem with the listening exam in music is that it focuses too much on knowledge that is removed from the essence of what music actually is. I would suggest that the aural analysis aspect of the paper has some use, and thinking about that brings right into play the whole notion of the place of language in music education: if we value the application of words to musical concepts in order to think about them, then this should be part of what is tested.

Here are my suggestions for what the new GCSE syllabus should include:

  • Performing and composing left as they are, including writeups of the listening which has influenced the compositions
  • A creative exam very much like the OCR Creative Task: a fixed time to create a composition from a choice of stimuli
  • A practical listening task where candidates work out how to recreate (i.e. perform) a previously unheard piece of music aurally
  • Some element of aural analysis, describing using correct terminology what is happening in extracts of music, and identifying their provenance (historical period/part of the world)

Whose objectives are they anyway?

I have been thinking for a while that the recent obsession with learning objectives is a load of old baloney (please feel free to insert your own word here – if you know me well you’ll know the word I would like to use). At one point at my school we were even given separate little whiteboards upon which we were to make sure we had our ‘LOs’ clearly displayed at all times (I have since taken mine down and put it in a cupboard, and nobody has said anything. What rebellion!). We had learning walks where having objectives on display was monitored. I have observed lessons where (gaah!) the starter involves students copying down the learning objective: imagine having to do that five times a day – it would have driven me from top-set swot to isolation room in no time!

Working with trainee teachers, I have come to the conclusion that it is the teachers that really need the learning objectives. All too often, trainee teachers (and it can’t only be trainees either) get caught up with what they/the students are doing in a lesson that they lose sight of why they are doing it (i.e. what the students are to learn/gain from doing that activity). So thinking about learning objectives helps them to link activities with learning outcomes, and what impact (if any) a proposed activity has on the students’ learning.

As a lesson goes along, things can change. I don’t want to ignore an interesting and potentially fulfilling tangent just because it doesn’t fit with my LO. We may need to change what our LO is, depending on how things go. We might get to a particular LO next week, or maybe decide we’re not going there at all, and we’re going somewhere different instead. I might want to take my students on a magical mystery tour, and not reveal the LOs in advance.

As with most things, it is necessary to strike a balance. Working with students there needs to be a balance between providing variety and having routines which function well and give students the security they need to thrive and take risks. At my school we have been working with students to try to identify the skills that they will need at school and beyond to be good learners. We call these our lifelong learning skills and they come under the following headings: communication, leadership, independence, creativity, teamwork, and learning from mistakes. Merits are now awarded for demonstrating these qualities (we concluded that there was nothing merit-worthy that a student could do that would not fit into one of those categories), and staff are encouraged to identify opportunities in lessons for students to develop these skills.  One of the DT teachers designed logos to go with each one that we use on our slides and so on (they are designed to be simple enough that teachers can draw them as part of their feedback).

life long learning map

I have been working on drawing this emphasis on the qualities that students need to develop/demonstrate into the way that I communicate what students need to do. While I don’t feel a compulsion to share LOs as such, I do, of course, want everyone to know what they should be doing. So, I’ve been making slides which, I hope, make this very clear.

objectives

The logos at the bottom show that the students need to be learning from mistakes, be creative, work effectively in groups, and communicate well, and echo the text in the green box above. The red box makes clear what needs to be done, including along the way some of the success criteria (we have talked in depth about what ‘style’ means and what accuracy, confidence and ensemble add to the whole thing).

If I had just put up LOs for this lesson, what would they have been? They would need to be pretty wordy if they were to incorporate all the stuff about the qualities that students need to demonstrate along the way. So this is the way I’m doing things for now. So far, I like it, and so do my students.