Music in Schools: Promoting Good Practice

I was pleased to see guidance from HMI on observing musical teaching and learning. Perhaps this was something unwelcome by some, but as the document states it is ‘intended to promote dialogue and understanding about the features of good teaching that results in good musical learning’ (1). I like the format of guidance followed by observation guidance. Of course this is not intended as a performance management tool but there are provocative questions, particularly on the observation pages, that would spark fruitful debates among teachers.

Planning, preparing and starting guidance is well considered and some of the points may seem obvious yet there remains the need to clarify the first point where the word ‘musical’ is used five times: musical learning, musical activities, musical responses and musical understanding. As teachers we need to be clear in our minds what ‘musical’ is, and question the validity and appropriateness of activities that do not lead to a musical result. To ensure the learning outcomes and activities are appropriately musical may mean the learning intentions may be only one or two, and these need not be shared at length with the pupils as such lengthy verbal engagement can ‘delay pupils’ musical engagement’ (2). I think this is sound advice indeed, and I subsequently changed my lesson plan template to ask myself the questions for every lesson: what is the musical learning intention of the lesson? What musical activities will help achieve this? What improvements in the pupils’ musical responses do I want to see? How will their musical understanding be changed, developed, improved?

The OFSTED guidance does not specify any structure to the lesson, any particular genres or styles to cover; This is a good thing, as musicians and music teachers thrive on sharing their own enthusiasms to develop the musical learning intentions. It does specify what progression in music is, being ‘about improving the quality, depth and breadth of pupils’ musical responses over time’ (2). I think there needs to be a definition of musical progression we all agree upon as music educators, and this hopefully will be a starting point. I particularly love the use of the word ambition when the document discusses progression, ‘good planning shows ambition to improve the quality of pupils’ responses, to improve their musicality’ (2). Another question to add to my lesson planning template and medium term planning would be ‘how ambitious is this activity?’.

All resources should support musical learning, and most importantly ‘pupils should be increasing their knowledge of music through engagement with musical sound, supported by acquiring further verbal knowledge about music’ (2). I like the emphasis in the document, placing knowledge of before knowledge about. This point should spark the most dialogue I would hope, as we need to be clear on the distinction between the two, and ensure planning develops the former and not exclusively the latter. It would be useful to clarify on planning what musical concept or piece pupils will gain knowledge of, and what verbal knowledge they will gain knowledge about.

The observation advice is very useful indeed, and could fuel even more discussions with colleagues and perhaps offer a starting point for internal observations. What sticks out for me is the question ‘how well are the tasks designed to enable pupils of all abilities and backgrounds to make a meaningful musical response?’ (3). Another question to add to my lesson planning template.

‘If the planned learning intentions are genuinely musical, then musical teaching should flow naturally’ (4). Sounds easy doesn’t it? I do agree musical ‘sound’ should be the target language, developing pupils’ aural understanding over time and ensuring correct technique and posture when using instruments and voice. There should be no doubt that you are in a musical lesson’ (4). Another very good question to ask ourselves – sounds obvious, but if an observer unexpectedly enter the classroom would they know it is a music lesson they are witnessing, or are the activities suggesting something non-musical?

The OFSTED guidance quite clearly places sound at the centre of all musical engagement. I see this as no bad thing, but I do think there needs to be some careful planning to ensure knowledge is not abandoned in favour of ‘musical activities’. We can communicate a great deal of musical concepts through sound alone but we will need verbal engagement too, and perhaps the guidance does relegate such engagement far too much. I will be asking myself when planning ‘do words and notations support musical learning, rather than drive it?’ (5). I should also be asking how musical is my use of ICT, and how ‘robust’ is my approach to teaching singing in the classroom (avoiding the over-praise of weaker singing as the guidance points out).

Recordings and scores of pupils’ work should always be the primary evidence that musical learning and engagement is and has taken place. Written records of work come second, and ultimately should be verified by practical evidence. Plans should demonstrate breadth and diversity in the musical styles and genres covered and there should be more than ‘the listing of factual information about the music or musician, and look to see how pupil’s personal musical responses are informed by recognition of the music’s working and provenance’ (6). Teachers demonstrating an awareness of the extra-curricular involvement of those in their classes (through activities that acknowledge their experiences) and those with additional needs should drive planning decisions and activities within the lessons. All very good advice from OFSTED and nothing new. I am interested to discuss with colleagues how we ensure pupils are given opportunities to improve work over time. How many opportunities should we give pupils, following feedback and musical guidance, to improve their responses on a particular task? Certainly more than one!

Music in Schools: Promoting Good Practice is a useful document indeed. Succinct, clear and full of questions. Questions we all would enjoy debating as music educators. If we are expecting our pupils to be ready to learn, engage with the unfamiliar, we too need to be willing to discuss, debate and experiment. It is not about promoting the idea that there is wrong music teaching in the OFSTED guidance, and any deviation from the suggestions must be ineffective. It offers starting points that do what we all aim to do – to place musical engagement at the core of all our work.

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