I always find this term hard going. Coursework deadlines for GCSE and A Level are imminent and I am wondering how on earth we are going to get everything in. But we will, despite the crazily busy lunchtimes in the computer room and last minute copying of scores and accompaniment parts, we will get there.
But I keep getting the same types of questions from my students and they puzzle me:
‘How can I get 30/30?’
‘If I modulate will I get a higher mark?’
(5 minutes after feedback) ‘Can you listen again, is it a higher mark now?’
I know I am lucky in many ways. My students care about their outcomes and in a target driven education system they want full marks. Not 28/30 but 30/30. But I am still not sure I know what a 30/30 sounds like in composition. Not until I come across it, then I usually just know. I wish I could articulate how in a neat sentence. The worst situation is when a student completes a fantastic piece of composition and it doesn’t come up as full marks so they have to shoehorn in something to tick all the boxes. Then if we do this, is the process still composition?
Is there a formula for full marks in music? Please do let me know if you have one.
Following on discussions and thoughts after the Assessment Conference I have been thinking a lot about the way I use assessment for learning. I can be incredibly guilty of assessing student work studiously and in great detail at the end of a project. I do not use recordings and videos enough mid project, usually as I am so conscious of time. The inevitable issue of projects culminating at the end of term when there are usually reports and concerts coming out of our ears! Students ask me ‘can we listen to our work’ and I have been known to answer….’next time’
This thought is giving me a renewed focus on key stage 3. Using Edmodo I have been recording student work regularly over the last six weeks and uploading it to class pages. This has enabled me to both have a bank of evidence of student work over a project and allow the students much better reflection on what they are doing and what they need to do next. Homework tasks now involve reviewing their work and setting targets for the next practical lesson. Students are also able to feedback to each other. Admittedly this is rather clumsy in places, but focussing on the process feels so natural and has given more space to ongoing musicianship. Will post again soon.
In the last half term we were lucky to have Dr Fautley come to speak to music teachers in the local area about assessment. While there are further notes on the session, here I am going to put into words the headlines I took away. I am happy to email more precise notes to anyone who would like to contact me. I took lots!
There was a fantastic turn out and we were all excited, notepads and tablets in hand, to see what he would say. Dr Fautley started by admitting he did not have any answers to the issues in the current debate of key stage 3 assessment, but aimed to provide some clarity in thinking and provoke discussion. For me he certainly did.
On asking who uses NC levels, nearly every hand in the room went up. We all know that levels are not required, yet we still report in them and use them to track progress. Levels were originally designed for the end of the key stage only and Dr Fautley shared some true horror stories about how sublevels are being managed and insisted upon in some schools. In his words ‘sub levels have no status, but are universal’. There is too much evidence of using arbitrary grades based on manufactured sublevels. Is progression linear anyway? Should we be able to track the progress of a music student evenly through key stage 3 through units on minimalism, song writing, Blue and gamelan? Surely if student progress is in a beautiful straight line then something has gone very wrong! It is far more appropriate to map progression of skills that run throughout projects with revisitable criteria. More on this another time.
It is well known that OFSTED want appropriate assessment not the same. The best practice will be when assessment is FOR musical learning and owned by music department who know their cohort of students the best. We need to be brave to do this and stop waiting for someone else to go first! This is backed up entirely by Robin Hammerton HMI where words to this effect can be found on his blog.
What struck me most from Dr Fautley’s presentation was a reminder of the purpose and value of assessment. Who is the assessment actually for? Learning or systems? My favourite comment (I underlined it twice!) We must disentangle assessment of attainment from assessment of progress. It is our responsibility as music teachers to map out a broad, inspiring curriculum for our key stage 3 students with musicianship at the centre. We know our students and their needs better than anyone and should plan for them in mind.
I truly believe that assessment of progress is be ingrained in any good music lesson, all too often we are not even aware we are doing it. I took a mental note to be reminded of how important it is. Assess to inform and to improve musicianship. How do we measure this? I believe it can be in any number of ways, be it using a radar diagram, a progression statement or a number. We need to remember what is important and hold on to that.
For years I have given my students levels in my music classroom and for each musical project an assessment criteria which forms the basis of AFL in my lessons. I then use this for final assessments and to moderate work. I have always strived to keep music at the centre of this process and I am confident that in my department largely the following is happening, regardless of whether or not a number is attached to it:
- Students know how they are doing and are making progress
- Students know how to improve their musical outcome
When I add to this that my school is sticking to levels I feel the need to embrace the opportunities ahead of me, yet not throw the baby out with the bathwater now I know that levels are no more.
So what am I doing? Firstly, while I currently still report in levels I am no longer reporting in sublevels. Our assessment criteria have also been reformatted to show the expected standard and those ‘working beyond and towards it’. This has been inspired by some of the work done by the ISM and on their website. In addition I am trying to conciously use less level language and more musical modelling, in addition trying to thread the outcomes at keystage 3 towards keystage 4. I am trialling radar grids as a way of showing progress away from levels. There are definitely exciting opportunities here for us musical education practitioners to unite.
We have a generation of children on our hands who understand levels, have grown up in an eductaion system where everything has been about these numbers. We must take this chance to reinvent how we assess creativity and do it more creatively. This is not so easy when playing a past composition to a year 7 class and the first hand that goes up asks ‘what level did that get?’ To be honest if that is the first thing they respond with then this change is certainly for the better.
As I blogged in my first post I have been on a mission this term to give singing more prominence in my lessons. I am in the fortunate position of having two 50 minute curriculum lessons with my key stage 3 classes so have enjoyed doing at least 30 minutes singing a week with each. I worried that I would run out of steam, but I’m still going. And loving it!
Year 7 have been doing a lot of singing games including simple call and response and rounds. We have also been doing a medley of ‘When The Saints’ ‘Swing Low’ ‘I’m Gonna Sing’ and ‘This Train’ which has gone down well. I worried a few of my warm ups may be too young for them, but they loved them. I can particularly recommend ‘The Telephone Song’ (they love singing solos – every single one of them is desperate to do a solo in this!) and ‘Plasticine Man’ ( Musical Futures). We have also enjoyed trialling some of the new Sing Up secondary resources.
Year 8 chose their own song for the term as ‘Paradise’ by Coldplay so we have been working on a performance of this in two parts, which they have taken ownership over. For year 9 we have done a lot of the ‘Find Your Voice’ again from Musical Futures. They have been harder to get going, but we are slowly getting there and singing lessons are met with much less of a groan than they were. I have to admit I have one group who have lessons on Cubase this term on clubdance music and we have done a good amount of rhythm work and vocal and body percussion, but not as much singing.
My next thought is how do I show progress in singing? I would like to be able to have a curriculum where progress in singing is built upon in each project, but what does this look like? Is better singing about tuning and technique? About singing in more parts with more independence? By the end of the year I want to have this thread established more clearly in my schemes. Regardless for now we are singing!
So following my last post I have been trying to develop more awareness and confidence in my students that they are composing effectively in my classroom and that there is no ‘right answer’ that I am looking for.
I usually start year 10 with a single composition as a kind of baseline assessment, but after reading their anxieties I am trying a new approach. Over the opening weeks I am working through a series of ‘unfinished’ compositions and generating ideas in different formats. Almost like creating a musical mood board. All the time I am aiming to reinforce to them that no single approach is better than the other and that I do not have a right answer in mind as their teacher.
So composition 1 has been a technical exercise. Composing 8 bars with a functional harmonisation (embedding learning about melodies, chords and cadences). Composition 2 is an improvisation based task inspired by a picture exploring the potential of their chosen instrument. Composition 3 is a minimalism style task using Cubase and looking at how to develop ideas from a single stimulus.
So far I am liking the pace of the tasks, it means the students cannot afford to get caught up too much in details and getting a perfect finished piece. I am moving them on saying they can come back to it later if they wish and keep reminding them that they are composing and to compare the methods. I plan to review the tasks with them later on, but already they are telling me that the composing lessons are their favourite.
I understand that GCSE and A Level work needs marking and standardising, however I only wish there was a way to truly allow them to compose and generate real creativity without the necessity of composing exam criteria. But that is another blog, another time!
The last few weeks I have had the pleasure of starting to get to know my new year 10 GCSE group. They are an incredibly mixed bunch of young musicians and enter the course with from a range of backgrounds.
To start the course I asked the students to complete a short questionnaire about their hopes and anxieties about the course as well as about their prior musical experience. When reading it I found a lot of the expected responses. Many took the course because they enjoyed it at key stage 3. All of them were looking forward to the practical elements of the course and building on their knowledge of a range of musical styles. But one answer stood out. In answer to the question ‘is there anything you are worried about on starting the course?’ at least 8 of the 15 students answered with the same single word. Composition. In another instance last week I was chatting to a year 10 girl who was telling me she was already regretting not taking music GCSE. I asked her why she didn’t and her answer was ‘I can’t compose’. The same girl performed a song she had written in a concert in the summer, which would easily have got an A or higher at GCSE.
I was thrown by this. At key stage 3 our young musicians are composing at every corner of the curriculum, years 7 and 8s queue up to show us the music staff their new ideas for a yearly composition competition. We have concerts showcasing student compositions and pupils are keen to take part. So how come they don’t see themselves as composers at the end of year 9?
I tried to unpack it with year 10 the following lesson. In discussion they said they were nervous mostly about two things: composing alone and having to produce notation. In many of their heads GCSE composing means working entirely on Sibelius and creating scores of music. Composing a song using a guitar and voice or composing using Cubase was, in their heads, of lesser value at key stage 4. Is there something I have done to instil this view or is it a wider issue?
So here comes some thinking about composition at key stage 3. I have already have plans to map out progression in composition this year as part of a new assessment framework, but getting our young people to view themselves as musicians and young composers early on is vital. The use of student and teacher language is going to be a vital starting point. Comments and suggestions are very welcome.
On Wednesday night, like many others, I sat down to watch the new C4 offering ‘Don’t Stop The Music’. I have already read some very good responses online so thought I would offer mine.
Throughout the programme I went through many emotions: horror upon watching the primary lesson taught by the non specialist in the least musical way possible. Then joy on watching the students faces light up on receiving an instrument. Confusion was next as to why on earth the children stood in a shopping mall miming playing paper instruments. Finally I was moved by one of the children proudly showing their parents their new instrument who in turn have possibly have never had an instrument themselves. The whole episode felt very noble and Rhodes is obviously very passionate about what he is doing. However I cannot get away from the fact that the premise is more than a little unnatural.
I am finding out increasingly how variable music education is at primary level, but is the solution really to give our children an orchestral instrument? How is this sustainable in this context? If given an instrument then surely these students also need skilled expert teachers who can teach them good technique and ensure this is a skill they learn for life? Where are these teachers going to come from?
The programme also implies that playing an orchestral instrument is key in music education. Yes it is an area of musicianship we must invest in properly with skilled teachers and good instruments, we have a scheme at our school where we do just that. But surely if Rhodes had consulted with any specialist primary music teachers on planning this programme he would have seen the benefit of singing and composition among many other things, including playing instruments such as guitars. For me it feels like the gimmickry is just too strong and that does not sit easily with me. The success I suppose will be judged in the longevity.
As a secondary teacher I have been reflecting on my role in supporting our primary schools. It does seem that many primary teachers are nervous about teaching the subject and if we can empower them to teach music musically and work alongside more confident practictioners then surely this is the strongest start? Or is it a teacher training issue? I have done a fair amount of work in primary schools during my career and my mission is always to support the visited school in building up resources to be used again. I have been into a school in the past where the teacher was timetabled elsewhere to cover when I visited so I was left to do the music provision for them. This was a minority case, but was not a rewarding exercise for either side. Our hubs must realise their role in linking schools together and offering support both in terms of time and in training.
At the risk of sitting on the fence a little too much I will tune in next week to see where it goes. In the meantime I am grateful to James Rhodes for putting the topic of music education out there into the wider arena. The viewing public are talking about how important the subject is for our children so that is a success. We need to value, promote and invest in this vital art for all children of all ages and keep this debate out there.
So after much deliberating over the summer I have finally decided to ditch the formal centre tables in our large music classroom. Admittedly I had reservations, most of which revolved around managing note taking in listening lessons at key stage 4 and 5. But in the end the benefits of the new layout far outweighed them.
The final moment of clarity for me came when I thought about the new year 7 intake and the first impression I wanted to give them of our department. I did not want our classroom to say ‘find a seat, put your bag on the floor and write the date in your book’,. Instead I wanted it to say ‘in this room, we make music.’ And so our tables have been put to the sides, the keyboards were laid out and I am armed with clapping games and songs as starter activities. Tomorrow the room gets a solid test of constant key stage 3 classes with a mission to make music from the outset.
On Wednesday night I took part in the weekly #mufuchat and got to thinking about the fresh start I have before me in September. Despite the disappointment of the ending holiday break there is something quite exciting about the new academic year: new planner, new classes, fresh concert repertoire and meeting new colleagues and students. It presents itself as the perfect time to set some new year’s resolutions.
So here are mine, a positive way to start my new blog!
1. To keep singing at the heart of my classroom
I always start with good intentions, but I want to make sure my classes are singing weekly, from year 7 to 13. Whether singing a song together, singing a perfect cadence to understand it or modelling ideas in composition I don’t want to forget to use this vital aural skill throughout my lessons.
2. Not not let exam board requirements dictate non-musical teaching
Too often I teach a year 12 set work with a lot of front heavy content without listening to it enough or appraise a student’s composition based on a strict criteria. If results are to be sustained and improved then I appreciate I cannot ignore the requirements, but I hope to manage them musically.
3. To use assessment to critique meaningful musical learning and not for assessments sake
Speaks for itself!
4. To encourage and inspire high quality listening in students of all ages
Sometimes I need to remember my responsibility to introduce children to the world of music. We are in a unique position as music teachers to show our students the masterpieces within our art. So just like an English teacher inspires keen readers, I want to inspire keen listeners. I hope to blog on this a little more soon.
I am hoping I can stick to these and use them as something to reflect on later in the coming term.
Happy New Year!