From the Archives – July 2014

Background and Context

The inspiration for this post came from my first trip to Australia. Musical Futures Australia had been up and running there for 4 years and finally I had the opportunity to see first-hand how something I had been so immersed in in my own classroom, my teaching and as part of the Musical Futures UK project team had transferred to a different context. 

(My blogs from the trip are archived here  and here and will be the focus of future reflective archive posts on this blog.)

The 2014 trip had 3 key objectives.

Firstly, we were taken to several schools to watch some Musical Futures lessons. As a classroom teacher, this opportunity to visit schools was the best professional development I had ever had. I brought back ideas for better organisation of the space in my classroom and across the department. I watched completely practical lessons, free from some of the pressures that I felt I was under from various OFSTED and whole-school directives of the time. I came home with so many new resources and lesson ideas to try. What stood out was that it was OK to be a practitioner in the classroom and play and learn alongside the students. I also saw Musical Futures informal learning work with primary children for the first time as part of the fabulous Trafalgar Primary School Music Program led by Ben Smith.

One other thing I learned from the school visits was that at their workshops, the MF Australia team had initially put an emphasis on whole class music making and non-formal approaches rather than start with informal learning as we had done in the UK. This had been something of a hurdle for me as a teacher, with whole class composing and improvising being so far from my own experiences as a learner and a teacher that I was finally inspired to go back and give it a go. It eventually became my preferred approach for all my teaching, moving away from my comfort zone of using small groups in practice rooms that I had always gravitated back to previously regardless of my good intentions.

It is interesting that the development of supporting resources for whole class music making originated with the MF Australia development team. They acted on feedback from teachers who said that they needed some support to get started with using more practical approaches in their classrooms and these are given free of charge to all teachers who attend a Musical Futures Australia or Musical Futures International workshop. For teachers like me who have attended a workshop and bought into the approach, but aren’t sure where to start, these have been a great support.

Next we were introduced to the organisational structure of Musical Futures Australia. Their strategy was underpinned by a need to commercialise – something which as a fully funded project in the UK, we hadn’t previously needed to consider, but which was to become important in the next couple of years as Musical Futures UK sought to retrospectively commercialise what had previously been offered for free. There had been plenty of discussion about whether the ‘context’ in Australia was different and what we could learn from our differences and similarities.

There was a declining focus on subject-specific CPD for music in the UK at the time and increasing demands on music to align with a ‘one-size-fits-all-subjects’ approach to teaching, learning, monitoring and assessment. So it was refreshing to be able to reflect on what really had an impact on student engagement and achievement in music and how as an organisation, Musical Futures UK could continue to keep this at the centre of our work in the next stage of the organisation’s development.

Finally I led several workshop sessions at the first MF Australia teacher conference, #MF2 and live blogged the whole event to share with our growing teacher networks back in the UK. 

One of my sessions was about assessing Musical Futures and the following is lifted from the blog that I wrote at the time. 

I am left with just one question. Are we any closer to finding solutions for meaningful and  musical assessment for music, particularly at KS3? I worry that much of the Music Education narrative in the UK consists of the same people having the same conversations, whilst in schools, music teachers become even more isolated than ever in shrinking departments and coping with declining numbers. Just as I advocated then, the call to action from these reflections is for teachers to look at what is working in the classroom and do more of it. If an assessment activity isn’t helping students to get better at something, then question why you are doing it and try something else.

Originally posted on MrsGowersClasses, July 2014

Assessment: The solutions are there we just need to find them.

In Australia, assessment seems far simpler. Teachers devise rubrics and assess students against these. I felt quite envious that they don’t have to deal with some of the issues we do as teachers of music in England. I won’t list them here as they make me depressed and I’m coming back from this trip with so many ideas and positive thoughts about music in schools that I want to hang onto those rather than dwell on the frustrations I’m coming back to.

However, as I led the session, I realised that whatever we have thrown at us to cram into our teeny hour per week (literacy, numeracy, key words, levels, speaking and listening, DIRT, marking policies and on and on it goes…) we MUST look first at what already exists in our lessons before bringing some new piece of paper or work book so that we can say we’ve complied.

One of the examples that came up in the session was of teachers asking students to fill in a log sheet. This could have their lesson objective at the top and at the end of the lesson they could make a note of what they have done. This is a great idea and I’ve seen it done a lot in the UK.

However, I’ve also seen how this can make more of a burden for us as teachers if it’s scrutinised too closely by an observer.

What happens if the students veer away from their original objective as so often happens in Musical Futures lessons? It’s usually quite a good thing, they start with one intention then realise they need to address something else first, so we help them to do this. The conclusion that ‘they didn’t meet their learning objective’ could be damning if that’s a non-negotiable for the observer. If they hadn’t written it down, the observer may have talked to the group about what they want to achieve in the lesson and what they hear could be far more complex and sophisticated than they are able to write down underneath the date.

Similarly, I find the ends of the lessons to be the most productive time in my lessons. The faffing with instruments and equipment is done, minor squabbles settled and they are often producing some quality work. So if this is the case, why stop them, give them a piece of paper and tell them to fill it in unless you are sure that it’s going to help them in the next lesson?

There are still rooms to be tidied, decisions to make amongst the group about who is doing what before next lesson, so often they will scribble a rushed few words dump their sheet and disappear. Again, the observer could argue that the quality of their written work, spelling, literacy isn’t acceptable in that lesson, that’s not what we want either!

There may be better ways to do it. Get it recorded or videoed, they may record it on their phones so they have a marker of where they have got to and what they have achieved.

Or why not play dangerously and every now and again just let them work right through. They can share what they have done verbally with anyone that wants to know! I’m a fan of regular performances as well, but not at the end of every lesson. I’ve heard too many forced Q and A sessions where a teacher is desperately trying to to coax a keyword out of the class in response to a group performance and ends up giving them the answers as they dash out of the door because they are out of time.

These are examples of music teachers trying to prove what they already do well. I’m wildly generalising, I’m sure there are some real quality examples of these log sheets being completed to a high standard and impressive quality discussions and performances at the end of every lesson. But in my classroom I find the hour goes too fast and I can’t get my students to recognise the value of this when they could still be working on their piece.

We do it in other ways, at various times in a project they complete an online questionnaire or do a piece of written feedback, but it’s given time and importance and I explain how it will be used to help me plan or support them better or to assess how they have understood the musical processes they are going through.

So the next time you are told to include something in your lessons that could be in danger of getting in the way of musical learning that’s going well, stop and step back. There’s a chance it’s already happening and you might be able to tease it out, rather than invent something that creates more work for you and doesn’t do much to move their musical learning forward.

If it’s not there then there may be a way to do it, but let’s look inwards at our musical practice first before we look outside the music classroom for solutions.

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