What happens when the teacher isn’t in the room?

A while ago, I promised John Finney that I would write a description of a music lesson. Finally I have found some time to reflect on a lesson I saw as part of visits I undertook on behalf of Music Mark’s Peer to Peer programme. This post is a mixture of reflection on that lesson and the tweets that I sent as it was happening.

The objective of this Year 9 lesson is for students to do some work on songs they are preparing for a performance at the end of term. They are already in options groups so it’s a small class of 15.  The teacher has been really honest with me before the lesson. They are taught on a carousel at KS3, they take options at the end of year 8. 

Realistically just how much can she expect them to achieve in music in the time available and how much of this precious and sparse lesson time should she spend on written work/assessment etc? 

She has a supportive SLT, she’s decided to focus on music-making and being realistic and although with other classes she uses booklets that they fill in at various times, she warns me that I won’t see any of that today. I am interested in what a lesson free from the ‘stress to assess’ might look/sound/feel like and it’s during this lesson that I coin that phrase that has stayed with me since.

As they arrive, I hear one voice outside the room louder than the rest. He seems to have plenty to say and I wonder how this might translate in the lesson. As the class come in there’s friendly chat between the teacher and students and I can see how relationships have formed with this group over the year and I think I have spotted the loud one but I’m not sure! They all seem happy to be in their music lesson and the teacher has found a nice balance between banter and the line that is not to be crossed!

They start with a song. The teacher thinks that they are at the stage in the songwriting process to be adding lyrics to what they have already created and so the plan is to use the song to model as a class how they might start to go about creating and adding lyrics. 

They sing willingly, the teacher sings confidently, she models and leads and so there’s no reason for the students not to do the same. Everyone sings because, well, everyone sings! Yes I see some self-consciousness, but it doesn’t prevent them from putting together a nice 3 part performance of the song.

At the end there’s some sharing of ideas about how they might apply what they have just done. It’s led through Q and A, I can see the teacher is trying to encourage reflection on the task but actually what I see is a class raring to get going, they want to get into their groups, grab their instruments and play. The teacher spots this and she tells them to go.

I decide to sit in the main room and be a fly-on-the-wall with just one group. As teachers, we NEVER get to do this. We can’t possibly know what they do when we aren’t in the room.

I’m going to tell the next bit of this story in tweets and reflect on it a bit as I tweeted from this lesson as I watched.

You see on the surface, the group didn’t really make any progress. When they played back to the group at the end, they played what they could already play at the start and they didn’t add lyrics because I’m not sure they wanted to! 

But what happened between the group during the time they were left alone was fascinating and for me represented quite deep musical communication and learning even though it wasn’t evident in the final outcome. In fact, had I not sat there and listened in I would never have known it took place at all!

So what did I actually see?

1) A group confident with the skills and abilities of those they were working with. It felt like they felt they were all at the same level and were comfortable working together. They knew exactly what they wanted to do and they got on with it straight away. I could see how used they were to working this way and prior learning was evident from how focused they were despite on the surface it looking like they weren’t getting much done.

2) Within the group of 4, I saw them work in pairs, without discussion, they just moved together, to work on specific bits of the piece. They modelled to each other, they talked a bit to each other and sometimes they used music to converse instead of words.

3) My favourite moment was when the keyboard player, who had sat quietly listening and watching the others suddenly started to play the 7 Nation Army riff. They all laughed and one by one joined in until the guitar player played a different riff that didn’t fit and they all burst out laughing and went back to the task. It was a shared moment of humour that took place completely in the language of music.

4) Although it felt like progress was slow, they were completely on task the whole time. At no time did conversation stray, nobody left the room or put down their instruments. This made me question what progress in music really looks like and whether we actually see most of it! I know for sure though that it’s not always in the outcomes. Maybe it’s more about allowing time and space for what we may perceive to be slow progress because perhaps it’s in that space where the deeper learning takes place.

5) They seamlessly switched from talking to modelling on instruments. It reminded me so much of hearing people who are bilingual and change language half way through a sentence.

The lesson concluded with playing back to the class and some discussion. I think my tweets have this covered

So as usual I left with more questions than I had answers to:

-What is musical progress and how can we ever expect to capture and evidence it when much of it is done in the second language of music and it happens seamlessly and organically as students work together independently of the teacher

-If music really is a second language, how do we support student confidence with becoming bilingual?

-Can we remove ‘stress to assess’ to allow students the time and space to explore music at their own pace, using their own means of communication?

6 thoughts on “What happens when the teacher isn’t in the room?

  1. Thank you Anna. This is so rich and generous and just the way lessons should be observed – without any fixed agenda, but reponding to and being sensitive to the uniqueness of this event. As the description shows there is so much to see and to cherrish. What a silly idea progression is compared to slow learning full of meaning and significance for the pupils.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do like the notion of removing the ‘stress to assess’. I also like the question about what musical progress is. Are we still looking for that in 20 minute chunks, or have we grown up a bit? Fascinating stuff, thanks Anna.


  3. Thanks for this Anna!
    I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of students being ‘on task’. It says in our learning code, ‘pupils must be on task in all lessons’: students in detention have to copy this out endlessley until their time is up. It’s drilled into the students – and teachers – that this is a non-negotiable rule in the classroom.
    I would argue that technically the students weren’t always ‘on task’: the 7 Nation Army moment could be seen as being ‘off task’ since it didn’t directly relate from the learning objective and the task set; they weren’t explicitly developing their song.

    In fact I’ve spotted this quite a lot recently. A few weeks later when watching a Year 9 song-writing lesson as part of a school learning-walk, the same group described here were playing the same 7 Nation Army number – in fact, they were properly practising it and had progressed since the previous week. My teacher-instinct told me to go into the practice-room as quickly as possible and get them back on task, especially as I was observing with teachers from other departments. And yet, they were displaying a musicality that we try so hard to draw out of the students in Year 7 and 8. They were just playing, experiencing being a musician, learning informally. And they were learning, just not what I had set out for them to learn. I’d like to say that they were meeting the objectives anyway, by learning the skills of song-writing through their discovery of the 7 Nation Army track, but really I don’t think they were. They were simply being musical, and loving it.

    This raises a few questions and thoughts:

    Should we have the courage to let students go off task? If so how often, for how long? How far do we take this? If we were always to let the lesson go where the students want it to, do they need us at all? Should I look for a new job?

    I still believe in setting lesson objectives, in facilitating learning by setting out where I want it to go and guiding students to this destination. I also believe in teaching this group of students to work to a deadline. They do need to finish their songs – jamming is great but it can’t last forever, or can it? I want them to enter the school song-writing competition with a finished song that they have really worked on and developed. They learn a lot informally, but there’s a place for structured formal learning too. How do I manage the balance?

    Does this off-task behaviour look like learning to non-music educators? And how Shpuld we care?


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