Stress to Assess

I wrote last week about a lesson I watched which I felt was better for having been free from the ‘stress to assess’.

So what exactly might a lesson that isn’t free from this look or sound like? And how might ‘stress to assess’ in a lesson manifest itself?

I want to try to reduce Stress to Assess to 3 simple points although I absolutely realise that this is no way going to cover all of it!

  • The need/desire to evidence progress through stopping the flow of learning to capture something (written or recorded)
  • The idea that every lesson must be pinned to measurable objectives which means that once stated, they must be seen to be met in the lesson and therefore the teacher needs to be seen to deliver some form of relevant information as and when needed
  • They must be able to use key words in context and so every now and again they should be tested through teacher-led Q and A or written tasks to make sure this is happening.


The lesson I want to write about today was an example of one that I felt included ‘stress to assess’.

Students were composing a piece of music using djembe inspired by African drumming. The lesson objective: to add dynamics and tempo to the piece.

The class was a top set year 7 group and at the start of the year, the teacher had surveyed them to ask how they most liked to be fed back to. The results showed that top sets felt they liked to know the level at which they are working (in this school it’s A*-G) and that they liked to hear and feedback on the work of others in the class and to set and be set targets. In the powerpoint, the objectives were linked to how to achieve A/A* in this project.

The lesson started with a warm up. The teacher modelled call and response and students clapped improvised rhythms and got a good groove going. I loved how the teacher moved with the beat-I could see the students copying this and I was nodding my head along as well.

The next task was for students to watch back their work on video from the last lesson and they were asked to to suggest what each group might do next. some student comments included needing to improve timing and sort out how to start and finish the piece.

This is where stress to assess seemed to kick in. The teacher wanted certain answers from the students to reinforce the lesson objectives and so he led the questioning and often ended up giving the answers himself (these included ‘key words’ accompanied by an explanation of these or he asked for one). Then just like in the last lesson I observed, as soon as those students were given the go ahead to get into groups I could see they knew exactly what they wanted to do and what a buzz there was in the room when they started!

This was a one room department with no breakout spaces so from my seat at the front I sat and watched how the groups interacted.

Exactly like the other lesson, there was very little progress towards the objectives that had been set. I decided to focus on one group. Their video at the start had shown a group of children seemed to feel the groove and there had been an energy about their performance. Their rhythms were more complex, syncopated and all different and there was a sense of ensemble that made this group stand out from the others.

As I watched I saw:

  1. Leadership. In every group was one student who took control musically (as the master drummer) and one who was organising the discussion and the playing. I think this had been suggested by the teacher at the start of the project. In this group though, they all fell into their roles very naturally. Those who weren’t leading were able to contribute their ideas or just play when appropriate.
  2. Far more musical communication than verbal. They played the same thing over and over, stopped, talked briefly and started again.
  3. Subtle musical progress-it was almost as if each was in their own world and as they played I could hear some rhythms slightly adapt and change, others went wrong but they stopped and listened and got back into the groove again. But wait. I’m a muso though. I knew to listen for this. Had I been a non subject observer perhaps the lack of work on dynamics and tempo may have been an issue? Or the perception that they were just playing the piece over and over may have been identified as a cause for concern.
  4. A group that acted and behaved as musicians. They communicated through playing, talking, collaborating, sharing. They communicated verbally and non verbally, had a number of ways to lead from nodding their heads to using hand signals for stop. I’ve been in enough rehearsals with ensembles, as a player myself to recognise some of this and I absolutely loved seeing it happen in a classroom with younger students. I don’t imagine many of these had ever played in an ensemble where these behaviours could have been learned. Perhaps then, there really is a natural way that musicians learn, maybe it comes from the  playing of the music, having common musical aims  and goes from there?
  5. The teacher working round the groups offering support, having conversations and listening, guiding and standing back. He often reminded them to add dynamics and tempo and suggested how this could be done

The group work was stopped then and each played back to the class. As they did so everyone had to fill in a sheet asking whether they could hear dynamics and tempo and suggest targets.

At this point I wasn’t sure they had had long enough in that deep musical learning stage to think about the objectives. They got distracted by playing and through playing reminding themselves of prior musical learning. As they didn’t have notation or any form of notes to remind themselves of their piece, just the video played at the start, I think perhaps they needed that time for musical recap and to get themselves tuned into each other.

So the groups performed and were videoed, the other students wrote things and were rushed through a very quick Q and A session per group about whether they could hear dynamics and tempo and then the lesson was over.

At the end I thanked the teacher who was holding a sheaf of papers on which students had written their feedback. I asked what he was going to do with them and he pointed to a pile on the corner waiting to be sorted, marked, corrected and/or filed.

So looking back at my 3 ‘stress to assess’ flashpoints, I left with some questions.

  • Did the stopping and starting, first to capture video then to get the feedback from others interrupt musical learning just as it got going?
  • Did the students make any progress towards the objectives? If not could this be because they had been identified for them rather than arisen from the work they had done previously? Did they understand why they might need or want to add dynamics and tempo? CAnd similarly tempo. Why speed up or slow down? Where in the piece? What challenges to the ensemble might this bring?
  • Was the use of keywords in this lesson through leading questions looking to tease these out of the students or to actually function as a learning objective in themselves. How did use of keywords contribute to the work getting better?
  • Did those pieces of paper do anything to move musical learning forward? Is there a plan to use them in future lessons to do so? My fear is that they will sit on the desk and torture that teacher, catching their eye every day as they try to find time to do something with them.

I think most music teachers thinking back over the last school year would be able to remember a lesson where ‘Stress to assess’ might have had an impact. Sometimes it needs to happen-recordings/video need to be captured, things need to be completed. But perhaps rather than trying to do these things in every lesson could we become more realistic about where in the process they might happen and how they are moving the core learning forward. Because ultimately if they don’t result in the work improving then that hour a week in music (if you’re lucky) is too precious to be wasted.

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