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

Cutting some slack

My name is Jane and I’m an assessment geek. This year we have been reaping the rewards of having put together a ‘life after levels’ system last year, that we are really happy with. One thing I have been really chuffed with is the way that I have seen the assessment itself having a positive effect on student outcomes (ie their music). I mean I’ve talked about the assessment tail wagging the dog before, but not normally in a good way!

I may well write more about how the assessment has gone this year another time. What I wanted to add today was something about not assessing. Having spent the whole year assessing absolutely everything – albeit with a user-friendly system that has a positive impact on the students and the way they work – now it’s time to stop. 

Our exams are finished and the reports are (or just about to be) written. So, what the hell, we’re going to just do some music without giving a monkey’s chuck for the consequences. Some of what we are doing is new stuff that I’m trying out for next year’s schemes of work. Some of it is just fun. But what the hell. We are being musical and learning is happening – there are just no explicit learning objectives, or success criteria other than the fact that we all know a half-decent performance when we hear one. And we are all enjoying it and getting something from it. 

So, we’re having a holiday from assessing the backside off everything that moves. Teaching – without the teaching  stuff – all that ephemera (not just the assessment) that lessons are “supposed” to have. I’m really enjoying it – it feels like a holiday. 

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.


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).